Scaling Start-Ups with Product Management

Brook McCarthy

Scaling product management

Scaling is the Holy Grail for most start-ups. From the heady rush of launch to securing investors, scaling is the principle that underpins start-up business the world over.

So how do you scale Product Management within start-ups and other organisations? When is the best time to scale? And how do you avoid the worst pitfalls, to ensure that scaling is strategic, invigorating and, ultimately, profitable?

“You can’t scale your team with a formula or a ‘how to’ book,” says Adrienne, co-founder of Brainmates. “Every business is different. However, it can most definitely be a deliberate, thoughtful process and it certainly has key indicators and overarching guidelines that minimise your risks and amplify the likelihood of your success.”

Knowing When To Scale

Kent Weathers, Head of Product at Leadbolt, explains, “one of the negative signs is when the start-up founder’s time is not being spent enough on the product. They’re so busy and overwhelmed that they’re getting lost in the details, they’re spending less time with customers, are perhaps making decisions too slowly because they’re busy trying to grow the business.

“That’s a sign that it’s time to look for a Product Manager. On the other hand, a good sign of the need to scale is when the start-up is growing and has multiple products, particularly when these serve different target customers. Then it’s very important to grow your Product Management team because you need Product Managers who own that customer’s experience.”

Start-up founders can be notoriously proprietorial of their product, a major hindrance to scaling, as well as trying to do too much and being stretched far too thin.

Says Michael McGee, VP Product at Flare HR, “founders don’t tend to want to start off with a Product Manager – they want to start off with a vision that’s their own and see where it goes. You can get quite far with just your own hearty mettle, you can get a great order, you can create something your people love so that you have product market fit.”

“The moment you found that, you probably need a Product Manager to ensure that the flame is kindled the right way, with the proper customer empathy applied to what you’re doing next and why, because that’s a really, really dangerous point in the life of your vision, your product and idea.”

Jen Marshall, Brainmates’ CEO says, “ideally, you scale a business before you reach the point where you need to have that size team because essentially you’re investing with a view that in future, this team will be providing a return as your product goes up through the life cycle.”

“You need to do it beforehand, and that takes a bit of guts. If you wait for the big rush to hit, then you’re stuck trying to deal with issues and problems, and you get really busy, and you’re too busy to set up robust processes and the systems that will help you to move forward.”

“But, of course, bringing people in too early means burning through cash and burning new hires out, because you don’t have enough for them to do.”

Ultimately, it’s time to scale when you have evidence of growth, you see trends in the market, and you can verify a shift in how people perceive you and want to engage with your business.

The Three P Pillars: People, Process, and Practice

Amzir Marzouk, Director of Digital Products and Customer Experience at Amaysim offers a great conceptual framework to apply when scaling Product Management. He speaks of the 3 pillars of scaling; People, Process and Practice.

This is particularly important because the biggest misconception about scaling is that it’s hiring more people to do more of the same. But successful scaling is so much more than that. “If you don’t have the right environment to scale, then bringing more of the same in isn’t going to work,” says Adrienne.

Scaling is a deliberate act which requires you to mix people with the right skills and attitude with processes that help the business achieve a set of outcomes. Everyday rituals and practices help keep the scaling wheels in motion.

Product People

“You can buy good Product people or you can make them,” says Adrienne. “To make a good Product person to help you scale, you look for subject matter experts within your business who love your customers, who want to solve problems, and who have a ‘growth spirit’, deriving great joy and satisfaction from seeing numbers improve.”

“Invest in these people by sending them for Product Management training and giving them coaching and mentoring.”

When buying good Product people to scale your startup, you’re looking for the right sort of people who will fit your organisational culture. You need to hire the right skillset at the right time. You need to consider what you need for today and plan for the future.

“It’s a two-step dance of knowing exactly where you’re at, while also predicting the future,” says Adrienne. “If you’ve made a wrong hire, you need to ‘fire fast’, because scaling and growth are a pivotal time in your business so you’ve got to get this right.”

Colin Fraser, Head of Digital Products offers a solution for managing people during this process. He encourages his team to create Role Charters. These are different to job descriptions.  Role Charters are “a set of goals and metrics and responsibilities that that person feels that they can own, and they can have. That starts to be one of the practical tools that you can have once you’ve gotten to the point where you’ve got multiple teams that are doing crossover type pieces.”

Product Process

Processes are also crucial to scaling because, without effective processes, you have lots of people running around, creating not much impact.

“Your Product Management process can’t be bought off a shelf. Your process is unique to your business and its maturity, your industry, and the types of customers you service,” says Adrienne.

Processes need to suit the business and its goals, they need to be known across all departments, and they need to empower people to work towards their common goals.

Determining a unique formula of repeatability in what you do is crucial to growth. The process you use to identify great ideas from poor ideas and take nascent ideas to flourishing products on sale, and the practices and rituals you use to keep people aligned with each other are your arsenal for repeatability.

Colin Fraser suggests that the actual process of bringing your product team together is a substantive and integral part of the Product Process.

Once you’ve established repeatable processes and practices, you need discipline across your organisation to stick to it.

Product Practice

Finally, like all things in life, comes practice, which includes the day-to-day rituals we perform, standard tools used by the business, road-mapping software or OKR software, and other infrastructure.

It might be customer stories displayed on walls, the types, and regularity of meetings run, or the way in which a business learns from their mistakes.”

Brook McCarthy

Brook McCarthy | Author