Is There A Place For Entrepreneurship In Product Management?

We invited Co-founder of Product Anonymous and enthusiastic Product Manager, Liz Blink to be our roving reporter at our end of year event, Product Bash. Here’s her take on the discussion where a panel chatted about Entrepreneurship and Product Management.

Chair:

Nick Coster, Brainmates

Panel:

Mike Cannon-Brookes, Co-Founder and ‘Chief Atlas’ at Atlassian

Simon Cariss, Co-Founder and Senior Vice President – Innovation at PageUp People

Nick Gonios, Founder, SMOOTH & Co

The final Product Talk of the year organised by the Brainmates crew was on the topic of “Is there a place for entrepreneurship in product management?” I attended as one of the Product Anonymous co-founders, to tweet and to follow up with this article on the session. In summing up what happened in a very dynamic session, I have included my personal point of view as well as considerations from a product manager’s perspective. It was a great opportunity to attend such an event and hear from such a group of talented and successful people.

The session opened with asking the panel what their definition of an entrepreneur was. This self-definition was important, and in some ways would not be dissimilar to how a product manager describes themselves. An entrepreneur is into value creation, they find a gap in the market, scratches an itch, or solve a problem. Nick Gonios was a passionate entrepreneur and sees himself as wanting to change the world. He said a lot of it is in the attitude. Things don’t start at 9 and stop at 5. From Mike Cannon-Brookes point of view an entrepreneur is a product manager at the beginning, but then moves to growing the business.

A key focus of an entrepreneur is sales and growing the business. And of course, having the vision! The product manager can focus on the user stories and the user path. The product manager looks after the detail versus the big picture, they finish what the entrepreneur started and they help keep the entrepreneur in check! Product Manager should fight to avoid scope creep whilst ensuring the product grows.

One important aspect of growing the business is hiring the right people, so from Mike’s point of view don’t hire grumpy people or those wearing suits! Hire scrappy people so they build on your (the entrepreneurs) foundation of success. Consensus from the panel was that the differences between the two are in having the passion vs. being focused on the process.

One of the key insights for me throughout this discussion was about how much personal risk the entrepreneur is willing to make. The more you risk, and the more you put into the business mostly financially but also personally, takes you further down the path towards being an entrepreneur than a product manager. The description from Simon Cariss at the start-up of Page Up People really highlighted that dedication, to be willing to live in debt, and start to sell stuff to have enough money to keep things going. For me that highlighted a stark difference between the roles. The repeated theme from the panel was then back to the need for product management to contain the chaos, to help manage the risk after that first leap off the edge.

From a product management point of view it can be lonely at the top, making a lot of the decisions, having convinced the business to invest in the new venture, product line etc. and any failure will come back to you. However, that is nothing compared to what the entrepreneur has put at risk, as they have done all of that and then some. So surely sharing the burden is an important part of this partnership and the reason to bring someone else in to run that discipline. That leaves the entrepreneur with more head space and time to think of the next big idea, to manage and run the business, to recruit more brilliant people to build on the vision. Because without building a business and including people in that business you are a sole-trader and by definition not an entrepreneur.

The product manager then has an amazing task ahead of them to finish what the entrepreneur has started and manage all the internal stakeholders. Product managers can keep the team focused on delivering the vision and being a second set of eyes and ears for the visionary. They bring an additional point of view from other markets that can augment the original idea, in fact by not having that one-eyed vision of the one product they ensure the product grows to be a fully mature, capable independent adult (if we use the child-rearing metaphor that was raised during the session!).

The flip side of the question for the entrepreneur’s was whether product managers could get more entrepreneurial. Some of the tone of the comments from the panel seemed quite negative towards the role of product management. But in conversation with all after the session the qualification to add, that we didn’t get to during the panel time, was that it is a necessary and powerful partnership to continue to grow the business and the product suite. That partnership could be very different depending on the entrepreneur (and the product manager) – but the main metaphor that seemed to work best was that of yin and yang. If you check that definition that means polar opposites or seemingly contrary forces that are interconnected and interdependent. Based on that it is hard to tear them apart and answers the question for us that there is a place for entrepreneurship in product management and it is impossible for there not to be, but vice versa every (successful) entrepreneur has to have product management in them as well.

To sum up the session I guess I would call out that both need to learn from each other so the three key messages from the entrepreneur to the product manager:

  1. Take (more) risks
  2. Don’t spend too much time in spreadsheets to find the next great idea
  3. Keep us in check

And three key messages from the product manager to the entrepreneur:

  1. Discipline and process are important to success
  2. Let us focus on the user/customer while you focus on the business
  3. We are also looking to create value

 

About the Author:

Dr. Liz Blink is a passionate product manager who was here to learn about what entrepreneurship is and how it fits with the product management discipline. A co-founder of Product Anonymous – a Melbourne based group for product management folk to get together and discuss product management topics and meet others in the area.