The Product Manager: The Key to Unlocking Your Startup's Potential
Product managers are not always the first professionals that founders and CEOs seek to hire for their product teams. Partially because they don’t understand the role, and partially because they don’t recognize the need.
It is never the proper assessment of the situation but a business problem or challenges that leads an organization to product management as a way forward.
I found that startup founders or CEOs hardly ever recognize the product development process or cross-team communication to be the problem. It is the symptoms, like poor quality and usability, or missed deadlines, that they react to.
There are several quite common challenges that companies face when the need for a product manager arises.
Let me try to explain the role through that lens.
Lack of direction
A lack of direction is a very common problem. Most of the startups that I work with face it.
It occurs when teams struggle to establish a clear product vision and thus create a roadmap.
The problems that arise from it range from team members not having a clear understanding of their roles and responsibilities, resulting in duplication of effort, to a lack of focus on key objectives and goals, resulting in the team working on non-essential features or functions, to a failure to deliver a successful product overall.
Bringing on a product manager can be instrumental in aligning the team around a common vision and establishing a clear product strategy.
Poor product-market fit
Poor product-market fit occurs:
- when there is a lack of understanding of the target audience and their needs,
- due to a failure to conduct adequate market research, and
- when the company fails to iterate and improve its product based on customer feedback.
All that usually means there is a lack of basic research processes within a team.
A product manager can conduct market research, analyze customer feedback, and make data-driven decisions to improve the product.
However, the higher value is that a product manager can integrate these processes into the startup's product development process.
Inefficient product development processes
When the startup's ability to stay competitive in the market struggles due to delays in product launches or updates, or due to increased costs as a result of spending more time and resources on product development than necessary, or when there are increased errors and quality issues,
that is usually a sign that you have an inefficient product development process.
The most common reasons why it happens are a lack of:
- clear roles and responsibilities among team members,
- communication and collaboration among team members, and
- alignment between product development and other areas of the business.
Without established guidelines, team members may spend time reinventing the wheel or repeating tasks unnecessarily.
A product manager can help streamline product development processes, ensuring that teams are working on the most important initiatives and are aligned around a common goal.
There are other important business challenges that are in need of a product manager, like lack of prioritization, or lack of expertise.
All listed problems can happen during different milestones, and different startup phases, during the launch, when receiving the first round of funding, when experiencing growth, or when you are trying to keep your product competitive on the market, to list a few. Those are usually the most common situations in which founders engage product managers.
Who are product managers
They say Product Management is one of the least defined jobs in history. If you ask twenty people you’ll probably get 20 different answers. If you search in Google, it won’t be much different. It gets confusing.
That’s not unexpected.
The first thing that gets confusing is the name itself.
Product Managers are NOT managers of anybody.
Product managers do not manage people directly in the traditional sense of the word, not in the same way that a manager or team leader would. They are nobody’s boss. That is by design.
Product managers need to collaborate and work closely with a lot of people, and cross-functional teams that are responsible for various aspects of product development, such as engineering, design, marketing, sales, business, and customer support. They need to know how things are going, if is there something wrong, where the problems are… Imagine telling that to your boss!
So, who are they?
Product manager is an enabler.
They sit in between multiple areas of the company and act like communications hub.
While product managers do not have direct authority over the cross-functional teams, as mentioned, they are responsible for ensuring that everyone is aligned and working towards the same goals.
They provide guidance, support, and oversight to ensure that the product is meeting the needs of the business and the customers.
Product management is the process of strategically driving a product from conception through to launch and beyond.
Product managers are generally responsible for directing and orchestrating all activities associated with a product’s business, across the life cycle.
It is a cross-functional discipline that involves identifying customer needs and business objectives and then using this information to guide product development, go-to-market strategy, and ongoing product management activities.
Some of the key responsibilities of a product manager may include:
- Conducting market research to identify customer needs and market trends
- Developing a product strategy and roadmap that aligns with the company's overall goals
- Collaborating with designers and engineers to create and refine product features
- Setting and prioritizing product goals and objectives
- Conducting user testing and gathering feedback to improve the product
- Creating and executing product launch plans
- Analyzing product performance and making data-driven decisions to improve it
- Managing the product's lifecycle, including updates, new features, and retirement
First product person on a team
Your first product team roster is crucial.
There is a limited headcount available, and having a few experienced individuals on the team is essential.
In the early stages of a startup, there is often a founder who tends to be a product person and has a visionary approach. That is very useful, to begin with.
However, there are a lot of practices that are crucial for ensuring the long-term success of a product, and these founders may not necessarily have the experience or knowledge to implement them effectively within the organization.
Having someone to help you establish basic product development practices like a user research practice and competitor analysis could mean a lot to a team.
Hire a senior product person.
For the initial product hires, it is advisable to recruit experienced senior individuals who can work independently and be initiators.
While they may still be individual contributors, they should have ample experience in the field and help startups set up the processes, minimize risks, and enable their products for growth.
Seek someone with multidisciplinary experience.
Finding a person with multidisciplinary experience can save you a lot of trouble.
Your financial resources may not permit a full-time researcher. However, you can hire a product person with multidisciplinary experience who possesses research skills and enjoys that aspect of the role.
The same principle applies to other arias. Your first product hire need not necessarily be someone with a background in leading analytics or growth teams, but if you can identify a candidate who has experience in these areas, or any other that you need help with, you'll be able to make progress faster.
Find a ‘big picture thinker’.
When defining the role of the first product person it can be unclear whether this person is a project leader or not, and whether they are responsible for shaping the vision or simply executing it.
Even if they are only executing it, you want to hire someone who understands the big picture and can see how the organization operates.
Product management is a strategic role and one of the most important characteristics is a capability to connect all dots.