Start Up Tips For Product Managers (& Vice Versa)

Paul Gray is a former brainmate who has worked in big corporations including Disney and Foxtel as well as having co-founded Bubble Gum Interactive, an Australian mobile and social games developer. He’s also mentored and consulted to start-ups in industries ranging from events management to financial services, social networking and video games. In this guest post, he shares some insights gained from both sides and provides some candid advice and tips on how scrappy start-ups and ‘big-end-of-town’ businesses can learn from each other.

“Delivering value in a sustainable fashion”

There are so many wonderfully worded definitions of what product managers do and how they do it. I don’t think I could come up with a better statement, and I’m generally one who favours brevity. When I think of product managers, or when I think of start-ups I see that the two are fairly similar – in fact a recent article in The Next Web illustrated how product managers can be seen as mini-CEOs.

Both a product manager and a start-up founding team must provide some product or service of value to their users, and do so in a way that is sustainable. In a for-profit environment, this means generating revenue and profits to reinvest or return back to shareholders.

With similar goals, product managers and start-ups face significant challenges in their journey. There are often multiple stakeholders, conflicting views of what and when to do things and challenges in resource, time and financial constraints. Doing more with less is a common thread.

The ways in which product managers and start-up founders varies a lot based on company culture and individual traits, but generally, in my experience product managers at medium to large organisations are typically much more formulaic in their approach, using procedures, systems and frameworks that have been set out. Start-ups tend to operate more ‘guerrilla’ style – there simply hasn’t been the time (or the perceived need) to formulate anything. Start-ups are generally much more ‘agile’ – working quickly, making fast decisions, cutting and changing on the fly. Product managers in more established workplaces can often draw on more resources and input from wider teams, but things generally take longer, have more ‘political’ challenges and can bloat out

This post is based on the Keynote presentation I gave at ProductCamp Sydney 2013.

Start-up Lessons for Product Managers

1. Manage it like your own

A new start-up is a crazy old business – lots of expenditure but likely little (or no) revenue. There’s an incredible sense of urgency in start-ups, where teams are willing to work together and go the extra mile. Founders have a lot of ‘skin in the game’ and are responsible to others – shareholders, employees, customers, partners and more. It’s high stakes, and successful startup founders take this responsibility with steely jawed determination. Product managers in larger organisations might be one part of a big machine, but there can be huge gains earned through taking ownership, indeed, acting as if the company’s resources, money and time were YOUR resources, money and time. Product managers are often the ‘business’ hats in the room and it’s important to ensure that engineers, designers, UX and QA teams are aware of the underlying economics of the business and the reason for urgency.

2. Get your hands dirty

Start-ups are always fabulously under-resourced. And job descriptions – ha! The focus is always on achieving the goals and objective so start-up team members will often work outside their areas of expertise.

3. Get involved outside your space

A fantastic aspect of being in a start-up is that the culture is often very collaborative. Part of this is related to the size of a team, anything up to 30 people can be much more integrated than a team of 300, 3,000 or more. But it’s efforts of individuals that are key to collaboration. In any organisation, one can help to amplify their productivity by getting involved and invested outsider their own space. Product managers should develop strong relationships with other business units. This might mean shoring up your financial skills and getting deep into forecasting, modelling and even P&L’s. I’m also hugely focused on keeping close to the customer – there wasn’t a single day (7 days per week, 365 days per year) that I did not scan through customer emails or call enquiries to be across what they were saying. You have no better source of insight so engage with your customers

4. Less scoping, more making

Start-ups have to move at light speed, and deliver new products and services in next to no time with hardly any resources. This isn’t an environment where we’ll write 50 page product plans or requirements documents will fly. No one has time to read that and it’s probably based on a massive amount of prejudices and assumptions. In start-up land, the best approach is to create a minimum viable product and get it out there. Some start-ups worry their idea will be stolen, but it’s the execution that matters much more than an idea. For product managers, consider ways in which you could expedite product development and delivery. Can prototypes be created earlier and tested internally or via limited external release? Can you engage beta users or loyal customers for testing? Once a prototype is out there and feedback is being gathered, how do you accelerate the process of review and further development?

  1. 5. Go rogue

Rules? RULES? Start-ups don’t need no stinkin’ rules. One frustration I always had with working in big organisations was how glacially long it took to get things done. In some cases I remember having sign-off sheets where 7 different people had to sign off on the smallest feature. That can… take…. a looooooooooooong time just to get the signatures. It’s quite ridiculous because there are plenty of competitors who are willing to work faster, make mistakes, recover and beat you to the post with a better product all before you got the final go-ahead to start on requirements gathering. Product Managers should consider simple means that (might get you in trouble) but will help you get the job done faster. Can you test ideas out with mock sites and hidden details? Can you A/B test ideas using select audiences? Can you call a competitor on a mystery shopper and break down their product details? Can you ask each and every person who could add value for their opinion – regardless of who they are or where they work? It’s not quite the dark side, but it can be a great way to create good products faster.

Product Manager lessons for Start-ups

1. Transform vision into executable strategy

Uniting a team and having them work together in the most effective manner requires the participants to have a good understanding of where they’re heading and how to get there. It’s fine to have bold, ambitious and even audacious goals – but it’s always the execution that will distinguish those will succeed from those who will only dream. Product Managers bring multiple perspectives, and typically will be able to see directly how a product or service, or iteration or development all fits into a broader business strategy. Start-ups could learn a thing or two about spelling out how the vision will be achieved and how success will be measured. This becomes a concise, consistent and clear strategy and this is of huge value.

2. Keep the focus narrow and honed

Product managers sure do love talking about solving problems! This type of thinking helps cut through to the core point of what it is you, your team and your organisation are trying to achieve. We’ve already spelled out the strategy, and now product managers help to keep focus and attention. Product managers have a knack for distilling ideas, conversations, requirements and feedback down to the core – the specific problem that needs to be solved. When this focus is good and people understand, they’re able to work more effectively. In a fast-moving environment, it’s natural for distractions to arise. Start-ups often shift gears, adjust priorities or ‘pivot’. By keeping some product management fundamentals in mind, they can ensure that no matter how fast they move or how big a shift might seem, it’s still bang on target.

3. Establish roles, rules and responsibility

In drastically under-resourced start-ups, it can be incredible fun(!) to step outside one’s area of expertise to help turn those grand dreams into reality. Sure, I’m a marketing dude, but hey, I know how excel works – let me at them financial models; what’s that? You need some user testing? Gimme that! Investors to pitch? Bring it! This is part of the appeal of a start-up, but as time passes and things evolve from scrappy idea to burgeoning business, this type of care-free attitude can become a hindrance. When roles are unclear, gaps can emerge and timelines can slip or wasted work can happen. Politics can evolve as new team members join and the culture evolves. Product mangers with their natural love of structure and order in sometimes chaotic environments can teach start-ups a thing or two. It’s not a bad thing to develop processes, structures, frameworks and rules. These need to evolve, in keeping with the overall strategy and with the refined focus

4. Create long term product management (not just product launch)

Reading through any start-up press and you’ll no doubt come across words like beta, launch, test phase, proof of concept, minimum viable product. To a lesser extent you’ll see ‘scale’. Most start-ups inevitably will fail, and those that succeed not only have a great concept and roadmap, but are also able to manage their evolution. Product focus at start-ups tends to centre around development through to launch and it often doesn’t take into account how this will change once a product is in market. What will it be like one month after launch? One quarter? One year? One decade? Using principles of product lifecycle management are key, as are making sure to see how products evolve in tandem and how a start-up may begin with one product but end up with a portfolio approac

5. Don’t drink the Kool-Aid

No one is going to invest or support a start-up which doesn’t believe in itself. Indeed, a degree of bravado and swagger is a necessity – this is what will gradually be burned up to fuel the long hours, hard work and crazy stress. It’s also what can be celebrated – small victories become milestones which become amazing results. Start-ups work best when the team is working hard and having a fantastic time doing so. That said, it’s important to balance optimism and hope with a cooler, more level-headed and pragmatic approach. Appling objective thinking is very important in helping a start-up decide when to take key decisions. There’s never an easy answer and some decisions will have very significant impacts, but it’s best to be prepared and think these through carefully. Sometimes things might not work out. It’s not hard to understand start-up founders have so much confidence! Aim high, give it all you’ve got, but don’t drink the Kool-Aid.

What do you think? Are you working in a start-up? Do you apply some of these concepts in your role? Or do you work as a product manager in a bigger, more established organisation? Do any of these ideas strike you as new, intriguing or down-right crazy? I’d love to hear what you have to say and hope that you can share your experiences and insight too!




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