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Advice for Product Managers in Start Up Environments

Often Product Managers who haven’t worked in start up environments previously can find the experience quite overwhelming. The internal structure within start-ups is usually much different to more established and mature companies. There’s an incredible sense of urgency in start-ups, and most employees will wear multiple hats, collaborate with many other departments, and take ownership for a number of different things. This can be a little chaotic for those not used to this environment. Founders also often have a more hands-on role in start ups than they do when the company matures, which means that as a Product Manager you are likely to deal with the founder directly.

Product Management in Start-up Culture

Start-ups are generally much more ‘agile’ – working quickly, making fast decisions, cutting and changing really fast. 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. Start-ups do not have the resources for this. So how do product managers adapt to the environment in order to fulfil their role and ensure business success? Here are some handy tips for Product managers working in start-up businesses.

1. Management & Ownership

Start-up environments are full of urgency and risk. In their infancy, start-up businesses have a lot of expenditure, and little to no income or profits. It’s high stakes, especially as most start-up ventures fail within their first two years. As a Product Manager you need to be willing to take responsibility and ownership over your areas and manage them as though it’s your own business. Treat resources, money, products, and time as if they were yours. You should also ensure you maximise communication, beyond the basics. Convey to other team members including engineers, designers, UX and QA teams the underlying economics of the business and the reason for urgency.

2. Get stuck in and Collaborate

Start-ups are always under-resourced and team sizes are considerably smaller than in more mature companies. Therefore, it’s likely that Product Managers will take on tasks and jobs that are not strictly within their remit. The focus is always on achieving the goals and objective so start-up team members will often work outside their areas of expertise. So, take that job description with a pinch of salt!

Build relationships with other departments and work together to maximise your time and resources. This might mean upskilling in other areas or might be as simple with engaging more closely with the customers to gain direct feedback yourself. In any organisation, Product Managers can help to amplify their productivity by getting involved and invested outside their own space.

3. No more 50-page product plans, it’s all about the MVP

In start-ups, Product Managers need to be agile and move fast to deliver new products and services in next to no time with hardly any resources. Product Managers should not have the time to write extensive and detailed plans and scopes, and should instead focus on creating and building a Minimum Viable Product. Product Managers should investigate how to expedite product development and delivery by looking at how prototypes, testing and reviewing can be streamlined. E.g. a Product Manager might decide to test a prototype earlier on in the process via limited release or internal testing.

4. Forget the rules

In start-up environments, processes tend to be trial and error based as there are no existing processes. Now is the time to create and refine processes continuously to ensure that the Product function are delivering quality products that are hitting the market fast!

Product Managers & Start-up Founders

Start-up founders tend to simultaneously play three main roles in their company:

  • Executor (designs, business plans, proposals, stakeholder management)
  • Manager (recruiting, hiring, onboarding, managing people and teams, culture)
  • Visionary (company vision, mission, and goals)

A founder will jump among these roles throughout the day, even from moment to moment during a meeting. Being aware of this dynamic is the starting point to improving the working relationship with the founder. Further steps Product Managers can take are outlined below.

1. Role Awareness

As well as the Product Manager themselves being aware of those three roles, it’s important that the founder knows the roles they are playing. This allows them to understand themselves better, but also to understand which role is needed in certain situations.

2. Determine the founders default role

Despite switching, sometimes very rapidly, between the three roles, a founder will have one which they gravitate more towards naturally. By identifying their natural role, you can determine how to best complement them as their PM. It can be hard to identify, but some traits of each might include:

Executors: likely to have lots of practical and technical knowledge. Their strengths include being a master of their craft, however a weakness can be becoming too much of a perfectionist.

People Managers: they really understand the drivers and motivators for the staff and are heavily involved. Their strengths are coaching, training, and guiding, but weaknesses can be the ability to slip into micromanagement.

Visionary Founders: like ideas, thinking, and dreams. Their strengths are being evangelists and motivators, but a weakness can be if they become detached from the realities and day to day requirements.

3. Become the Executor for Visionary Founders

As Product Manager working with a visionary founder, you should pay extra attention to the challenges of day to day execution, as this is something often overlooked by visionary founders who are more focused on long terms goals and strategy.

Therefore, you could introduce business critical processes that overcome the most common challenges, use facts to explain to visionary founders how current work contributes to long term visions. It’s also important to refrain from treating them as an expert Product person, and instead use their network to seek guidance on tactical decisions elsewhere.

4. Create co-creation spaces with executors

Executors are likely to still crave hands on experiences, and it’s therefore important to allow them space to do this, without enabling them to fall away from their full duties as a founder. Discuss with them when, where, and how they can get involved in less time-critical business tasks and take advantage of their expertise. Keep them informed throughout processes, and include them where possible (delegate less time consuming tasks to them to complete) rather than just using them for feedback. Keeping them involved throughout processes, and allowing them to still be involved technically, will allow them to still fulfil founder duties, whilst also appeasing their need to be a part of the team.

5. Offer conflict management techniques to people managers

Founders who are naturally people managers, will want, but struggle to keep everyone in the company happy. Therefore, suggest and implement clear conflict management strategies that aim to quickly quash and resolve any issues.

Conclusion

Through some understanding of the founder’s role, lots of frequent communication, and some adjustment to the way you work, you can build a complementary, and therefore effective, relationship with your founder. Having this respectful and productive relationship will help you work together to create a great product.

If you’re looking for your next product role, or if you’re looking for the perfect Product Manager/Owner to compliment your skill set and build a great product for your business, drop me a message today. Together we can build a thriving product function that’s right for your business.

Maxwell Bond are the leading recruitment partner of choice across the UK, Europe and USA, helping businesses of all sizes hire top talent across tech and digital roles. After a successful 2020, we signed an exclusive partnership with Wakelet as their official and exclusive talent partner. For more information, get in touch.