I had no idea what I was doing, but then no one else did. You just made it up as you went along in 2000.
The job title only came into David Norris’ vocabulary in about 2008. Before that he’d been through numerous roles that had been doing that job without realising it – Production Manager, Producer, Operations Manager are all examples.
Researcher, Growth Hacker, Co-creator, Influencer or Change Agent – a Product Manager may play each of these roles in different types of organisation. What an early funded start-up needs compared to a large scale established organisation is very different. Identify where you and your company are and focus on what’s most effective in your context.
Early Stage Startup Product Managers are Founders
In an early stage startup, the Product Manager is the founder – burning through their own cash to make it happen. There is no other way to be a PM in this type of organisation. If you want to be employed as a Product Manager then you have to join later on. The benefits are that you have a 1/100 chance of making real money, but it takes over your life and is unlikely to happen.
First Product Manager vs the Founder
Once a startup is funded, then you will usually hire your first Product Manager. This is a great opportunity for that PM, having the ability to design entire swathes of the customer experience from the ground up. They will also be able to see and have influence over the internal processes of the company, to make them align to what the product needs to achieve. The difficulty is that the founder will still have a strong idea in their head what they think the product’s roadmap should look like – and is unlikely to be ready to let go. The best way to resolve this situation is to earn their trust by working with them and showing them the way that you want to proceed and involving them in the process. You’re likely to get a bit of equity that has a small chance of getting paid off – but most importantly you’re learning.
Funded Startup Co-Creator
Once your organisation gets heavy funding it will enter a stage of high growth. Here you’ll see a single Product Manager grow into a full team with a full cross functional set of resources. You’re going from a situation with one single creator to many different, independent creators who can do more than a single person can. In this situation you’ll need to be close to your individual product, be happy to get your hands dirty and work with others whilst still maintaining focus on your area of responsibility. You’ll still get some share options, and they’re more likely to pay off. Again, you’re in a high learning experience.
Established Business Influencer
You’re more likely to be in a position where you need to show management that changes need to be made. They’re unlikely to have direct experience in Product so you need to abstract the ideas for them so that they can make decisions around them. An example of this is a way to people how much extra resource is needed within a development team – Tetris product planning:
Large Scale Change Agent
Once you get to a C-stage your product is the organisation and no single element of the customer experience. At this stage, you’ve got to think of yourself as an agent of change if you want to get anything done. You end up thinking 6 – 12 months ahead, especially in relation to technology.
Decide where you think you can add the most value and what kind of experience you want to have doing it. There’s something for everybody!