Product Management in a Start-up

expertszon by Gopal Shenoy

Is a product manager needed during early stages of a startup? If yes, what should be his/her role,  given that everyone tends to wear multiple hats and the distinction between Product Management/Marketing and Architecture/Development is blurred. Is this a healthy cross-pollination or a disaster in the making? (I had asked this of Gopal, triggering this post: Subrata)

I will offer my opinions on these questions drawing on my experience in the software industry and having played a role in the creation of successful products and utter failures.

1) Is a product manager needed during early stages of a startup?

Yes, a product manager is absolutely needed right from the early stages of a startup. A bunch of engineers can band together and write awesome software. But often, engineers fail to ask the fundamental questions:

1.    What problem does it solve?

2.    How many customers have the said problem?

3.    Are the customers willing to pay to solve the problem?

4.    Who is going to buy the darn thing and will they pay enough for us to be profitable?

5.    Does this solve the problem the way the customers expect it to work or do they have to change their ways?

It is a product manager that will help a company to answer the above questions and make sure product development is aligned with customer problems. Only then will a company be able to create a business, sustain it and be successful.

Otherwise, you run into the infamous argument (I call it a trap) that I have heard over and over -if we build something, they will come. No – unless you have something they absolutely want at the price they want, they will NOT come. If the user experience does not save them time or money, they will keep solving the problem the old way because a) they do not have time to learn new ways and b) humans by nature are resistant to change.

There have been very successful products that created paradigm shifts, but more so because of the tremendous value and differentiation they offered the customers. For example, in mid 80’s, Pro/ENGINEER the 3D mechanical design software from PTC was the pioneer in creating this market segment by switching a lot of users from AutoCAD 2D design software to 3D. It was hard to use, it was expensive, it needed designers to completely switch their ways, but the design benefits were very obvious to those users that switched (and not to mention PTC’s very aggressive marketing and sales force). But paradigm shifts are rare. I am not suggesting that you do not innovate and create new ways to solve existing problems, but new ways should always have easily understood customer benefits. Otherwise, you will face adoption resistance.

You could also argue that one could launch a product and let the customer community take the role of helping you discover problems the product could solve. Yes and No. I would argue that it needs to solve one particular customer problem well enough to get noticed even by the early adopters. Unless you do this, no one is going to even consider buying/using your product. Unless this happens, no one is going to help you shape the future of the product to solve other problems it could potentially solve. I will draw an analogy – does anyone ever get out of the house and start driving hoping that you will end up somewhere nice by chance. Not very likely. But we are willing to take such a risk developing products, hoping that we will strike rich?

In this day and age of the internet and its free products, there are companies that have created free products that have sustained themselves for very long (Facebook and Twitter come to mind), but in the long run even these companies have to figure out ways to monetize their business to survive (and by the way, the world is still watching as to how Facebook and Twitter are going to do just this.)

2) What should be a product manager’s role in a startup given that everyone wears multiple hats and the distinction between Product Management/Marketing and Architecture/Development is blurred?

The roles of Product Management/Marketing are blurred primarily because the industry does not have consistent job descriptions for these roles. In some companies, Product Marketing does market sizing, segmentation, positioning and pricing decisions and Product Management figures out the customer problems in the selected segment and then works with engineering to make sure the right and usable product is being built. In other companies, all of this ends up with the Product Manager and this is usually true during the early days of a startup.

But are there limits to what the product manager needs to do, such that he/she is not spread too thin? Yes, there are. I tend to use a very simple litmus test to determine activities in which a product manager must be involved – Does this activity help the product manager in listening to the market and making sure that the right and usable product is being built? If the answer is No, free up your time by getting it off your schedule.

I would especially shy away from getting involved in architectural and development related decisions for a very good reason. As a product manager, it is your role to think like a customer and then inform engineering what problems need to be solved and how. You can advise engineering in terms of customer expectations in terms of scalability and performance. But it should be engineering’s sole responsibility to figure out how to architect/design the product to solve the problems a product manager has identified. If you get involved in the latter, very quickly you are going to look at problems in terms of implementation details rather than from a customer’s perspective. Not a good idea.

Having said this, I will not hire a product manager if he/she is not ready to wear multiple (but relevant) hats even in a mature organization, leave alone a startup. Product manager’s role is one of the most cross-functional roles in an organization. Hence, by definition, such a role requires one to wear multiple hats, supporting sales, supporting marketing efforts, making sure the right product is being built by engineers and so on.

Thoughts? Comments? What have you learnt from your experience as to what works and what does not?

gopalshenoy7Gopal Shenoy is a Senior Product Manager at OnForce, an online marketplace for IT/Consumer Electronics services, based in Lexington, MA. He has 15 years of experience in product management of software products primarily for small businesses having worked at companies such as SolidWorks, RSA Security and Salary.com. He is an avid blogger on product management related topics on his personal blog at http://productmanagementtips.com.

Picture credit: Author

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4 thoughts on “Product Management in a Start-up

  1. Hi Gopal, I loved your article, was very insightful, thank you.

    I had a question for you – I recently graduated from college and have spent the past 2 years working in finance (mergers & acquisitions) for a large Tech company, and am now looking to jump into Product Management.

    Can you recommend me, based on your experience, what is the best entry point for a non-technical guy like myself (majored in physics but don’t know programming).

    Is there such thing as a junior product manager?

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