Navigating product management: Startup, SME and Enterprise "Product people - Product managers, product designers, UX designers, UX researchers, Business analysts, developers, makers & entrepreneurs 17 September 2021 True AMA, Enterprise, Premium Content, Small Medium Enterprise (SME), Startup, Mind the Product Mind the Product Ltd 1354 Anthony Murphy talk for Mind the Product Product Management 5.416
· 6 minute read

Navigating product management: Startup, SME and Enterprise

In this Prioritised member session, Product Leader and Director of the Association of Product Professionals, Anthony Murphy, shares key insights into dealing with product in organisations at different stages, from startups to large enterprises. Focusing on the critical aspects of how the role shifts between them, Anthony offers tips on how to adapt your product management style for different environments and how to more effectively manage your product as it cycles through the product lifecycle.

In brief:

  • Just as products go through a lifecycle and mature and scale in decline, so too do organisations
  • Your role as a product manager will differ depending on the stage of your organisation
  • You will need to adapt your product management style for different environments and as your product moves through the Product Lifecycle
  • In a startup you’re a big fish with lots of ownership and control, but you’re faced with a lack of process and support
  • In a Small Medium Enterprise (SME) you go from a sole product manager to a team, a few customers to 10x customers, and leadership is challenged with now leading a portfolio
  • In an Enterprise organisation you begin to customise and juggle, managing products at different stages of the lifecycle but as a product manager you’ve access to more support

Org maturity

Anthony starts by framing what he means by org maturity. Just as products go through a lifecycle — mature, scale, and decline, he says, so do organisations.

These 3 stages are:

  1. Startup
  2. Small Medium Enterprise (SME)
  3. Large Enterprise

So how do you adapt your product management in these stages? Anthony explains the benefits and challenges to be aware of at each stage and offers some tips.

Product management in a startup

At the beginning of the organisation cycle, we’re talking about a startup and it’s at this stage that most product managers will find they have a lot of freedom to own the product and make decisions. Something that can become much more difficult as organisations grow. You’re also a pretty high-profile product manager at this stage.

Then come the challenges.

For one, says Anthony, there’s a general lack of process as you begin to build the organisation. As the first product manager too, you need to be more of a journalist as you’re required to wear many hats (and switch them regularly).

Tips for startup product managers

Anthony shares some tips to help product managers in startups to manage the challenges at this stage of the cycle:

  1. Get on the same page as your founders: Spend time with them and ensure you’re all going in the same direction because the second you become misaligned, they will try to take back control of decisions, ultimately causing friction.
  2. Take it one day at a time: In a startup, you need to be focusing on the vision but, because there’s going to be a lot of change, it’s important to take things one step at a time — you don’t want to have to unpick everything over and over again.
  3. Leverage the community: Product management in a startup can be a lonely role as you might not have the support you need. Instead, go find it at product events and within the product community.

Product management in a Small Medium Enterprise (SME)

As the product starts to scale, the product manager’s role needs to scale too. From a sole product manager, you now become a team and you start to gain more support. You also start to become part of the product rather than owning it. Your organisation begins to shift from being highly volatile to hyper-growth.

As you begin to grow, you go from just a few customers to 10x customers and you start to move away from having a single product to having a portfolio of products.

Then come the challenges.

For product leadership, there’s the challenge of introducing the concept of product portfolio management. And, as you introduce specialist roles (from a product point of view), you can expect this to create a new level of friction

Tips for SME product managers

Anthony shares some tips to help product managers in SMEs to manage the challenges at this stage of the cycle:

  • Introduce process: Look for opportunities to resolve pain points. For example, where a lack of process is causing issues, create process. For example, you might need to implement process around how ideas come in.
  • Be aware of shiny object syndrome: It’s vital to keep an eye on retention whilst also servicing all the new and exciting opportunities coming your way as you grow.
  • Get clear with your peers: Clearly define roles and responsibilities and get on the same page as each other. For more on this, check out Anthony’s article 4 Roles & Responsibilities Workshops to Bring Clarity to Your Team.
  • Become good friends with customer-facing team members: As you scale, you move away from this part of the puzzle and it’s easy to become disconnected. Working with people in customer-facing roles can help you stay informed.
  • Be ready for change: When companies are in hyper-growth this is also a stage of hyper-growth for your career too. You’ll find that your role can change rapidly. Be ready!

Product management in an Enterprise

Now, at the Enterprise stage, you’re moving on from having product leaders to product management leadership teams.

As part of your customisation, you start to introduce more platforms which means you’re now starting to think about more than just customer base and product teams. Your focus now shifts to thinking about you optimise — how, with more horizontal teams, you can optimise the whole product point.

In your product manager role you’ll likely find that your impact increases (even though your scope narrows). You’ll enjoy more stability and career mobility, and mentoring becomes a thing because you have better access to people to learn from within the organisation.

Then come the challenges.

You go from high revenue growth to growth plateauing and you now have many more products to juggle:

  • New products, those you’re trying to take to market
  • Highly mature products
  • Products that are scaling and growing

It’s now time for product leadership to work out how how to effectively manage a portfolio with products in different stages of the lifecycle.

There’s politics to contend with too — misalignment and red tape start to impact process and slows things down. And, when you reach this size, cultivating new innovation becomes extremely difficult. With so many different teams and products (hopefully successful mature products at that) you need to be constantly iterating to ensure you’re building new products and services in new markets.

Tips for Enterprise product managers

  1. Understand what keeps your stakeholders up at night: Here, empathy goes a long way. Remember, being a founder is not easy. Spend time listening to them because the more you can align your messaging with their goals, the easier life will be for everyone.
  2. Build a story from top-down to bottom-up: Anthony suggests asking people across the department questions like ‘what are you working on now?’, ‘how does this relate to goal X?’ and ‘how does that fit into the organisation’s strategy and goals?’. Look at how the information you gather breaks down because as a product manager, it’s your job to make sure that people are still thinking about the bigger picture, and aligned to organisation’s goals.
  3. Set up rituals: It’s easy to get lost and forget what your strategy is. Create rituals around revisiting things and making sure you’re staying on top of things can help.
  4. Get out of the building: It’s easy, in a big enterprise, to get lost and forget to speak to your customers but it’s so important that you do.

If you take nothing else from this talk…

Anthony closes his talk by reminding us that we spend a lot of time as product managers, trying to be conscious of where our product is in its lifecycle. But, he says, we also need to be conscious of where our organisation is in its lifecycle too. How your role operates, and how you behave in your role, will differ depending on the stage it’s in.

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