From Startup to Enterprise Product Manager: Is Bigger Always Better?

BY JOBINA HARDY ON NOVEMBER 27, 2017

Observations of a B2C startup product manager working in enterprise.

I once heard an anecdote about a very young child being told a story about a very old man. The child was asked to imagine what this octogenarian would look like. And the child said that as he was very, very old he must be very, very tall…

To this child, where every passing month was another pencil line on the kitchen wall, it stood to reason that 80 years later you would be 80 years taller. And as ridiculous as it sounds to an adult (whose sensible and wondrous logic has since been replaced by the mundanity of realism and experience) I may have been guilty of applying the same rationale in the world of business.

A startup, finding its feet and learning how to stand, should by certain logic be less wise, less capable and less developed than its older, wiser counterparts. Lessons are learned the hard way by trying and failing; structures and processes are thrown together ad hoc and then hopefully improved upon somewhere down the line.

So having lived in that scrappy startup world for all my professional life thus far I took a leap a couple of years ago, packed my Post-Its and trundled off to the metaphorical big city – Tes Global, an established business with a near 100% penetration of its target market and a legacy of over a century – to see what the difference really is.

And from my sample size of one, what have I observed? Is the old man very wise and genuinely very very tall? Well, no. He isn’t a glorious giant, just a man with more experience under his belt.

Neither necessarily good nor bad, there are however differences between how the young child and the old man view the world. This means a change in approach for product managers operating in startup and corporate environments.

Here are two of my most notable product take-aways and one piece of advice for survival.

1. Your Customers Aren’t Your Only Users…

In a small start-up team, of five, 15, 50, it is likely that your product is either the thing that you sell – your SaaS platform, your game, your blog – or the way that you sell it – your sign-up lists, your e-commerce platform, your marketplace. It is a core interaction with customers and what they derive value from.

As a product manager your raison d’être is these users and providing them the greatest value with the least effort. That is your role in propelling the business forwards.

However as the company gets bigger, into the 10s, 100s or 1,000s, even whilst still managing a consumer product you are more likely to have the onus of supporting separate internal business units with different remits. The customers of your product are no longer solely the users outside the building but also all your colleagues within who need to interact with it on a regular basis.

As a B2C product manager your raison d’être is still your external customers, but you have to service the internal customers as well… Marketing needs to be able to run targeted promotional campaigns on-site and Customer Services needs to be able to change the email address on a customer account; Merchandising needs to showcase best-selling products and Sales needs to report on total transactions.

In a corporate environment, more so than in an early-stage business, keep one eye on external customers and one on internal customers and you’ll be onto a winner.

2. YOU are Responsible for the big Picture

All new businesses start somewhere, with a tiny number of people. These people came together with an idea, a mission and a drive to make something happen. Often at this stage, the founders know what they want to create and they have an idea of what the product needs to achieve. In many cases the product goal is the company goal.

The first product manager positions in this early-stage environment are shepherding roles as much as visionary ones. It’s sanity-checking and reality-checking these entrepreneurial ambitions and ideas against actual user need and resourcing capacity. It’s instilling those early processes to save valuable time and ensure that only the most relevant and meaningful work is being taken on.

At a corporate stage, ideas are no less bountiful. These come from all directions with many more viewpoints and with different motivations. It would be easy to make the product manager role solely about shepherding and prioritising the ideas on the table and project managing these to completion.

However in these larger organisations it’s likely that the mission isn’t as clear or that your team can be situated further from mission control, making the incoming signal blurry, so what are you prioritising against? In the worst scenarios, decision-making may succumb to HiPPO – the Highest-Paid Person’s Opinion.

It is your responsibility to be thinking in detail about the purpose of your specific product and what it aims to achieve.

These enterprise product manager roles can be (counterintuitively, even more so than the startup roles) about taking a massive step back and taking control of the product vision.

It’s about uniting the teams around a shared goal – a shared purpose for these ideas – where your product and your customer experience is at the centre. All ideas must be driving you towards this North Star, or you could find yourself going nowhere fast.

3. Don’t Forget to Keep Celebrating Small Wins!

In a startup, it can be easier to see the wins from a product team’s work in a world of company firsts – the first paying customer, the first product launch, the first 100 transactions.

In the context of a longer-standing established business, celebratory milestones aren’t always as obvious – an established business may not celebrate your product’s 1000th visitor or your first £10k revenue when they’ve serviced millions of customers over decades and they have dozens of other products all contributing their part to the company’s bottom line.

In the context of the business as a whole any given achievement may be a drop in the ocean, but for your product and your team these achievements should be Everything.

As a product manager in a larger, more corporate environment, it comes down to you to define these small victories, to help the team reach them and then to sing these successes from the rooftops. These enterprise victories needn’t even be “firsts” and could instead be “bests” – the best conversion rate, the best repeat visit rate, the best NPS.

Your product team and your wider stakeholder team will be buoyed with confidence and motivated by their ability to create meaningful change, in turn giving your product more freedom and power to deliver even more exciting changes in the future.

At the end of the day neither the wizened old man nor the cheeky young upstart has life all figured out. Thriving in both environments still needs good, solid product management at the core.

But recognising some of the differences between these different business contexts may ease your transition and ultimately help make your product a success.

About JOBINA HARDY

Jobina is a Senior Product Manager at Tes Global, an education business in Central London. She held numerous job titles in her life in technology startups before stumbling across the one phrase that really made sense for all of it – Product Management. In case you’re curious, she also grows vegetables, enjoys fancy dress and sings a lot.

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