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Product Management in Agencies and Startups : What’s the Difference? "Product people - Product managers, product designers, UX designers, UX researchers, Business analysts, developers, makers & entrepreneurs 14 November 2014 True Agency, Becoming Product Manager, Product Management Jobs, Product Management Process, Startup, Mind the Product Mind the Product Ltd 796 product management in startups and agencies Product Management 3.184
· 3 minute read

Product Management in Agencies and Startups : What’s the Difference?

The principles of product management are generally the same across the board: product managers are responsible for the successful delivery of product releases. But in every company the role of product management is slightly different, depending on the circumstances and culture of each enterprise. There are also clear differences in the product manager’s role when you compare what they do in an agency to what they do in a startup.

In this article I look at the differences between product manager roles in agencies and startups at different stages in the product development cycle and when working with stakeholders in general

At the initial stages of product development

At a startup the product manager works closely with founders, taking time to understand the business needs and technology requirements for the company’s product. Once the full feature list is defined the product manager works closely with design and UX to visualise these features and to prepare for user testing and feedback. The product manager prioritises features against user feedback and de-scopes features that did not work during user testing.

At an agency, however, the business rules and list of desired features come from the client, and a client may even choose to push ahead with features that are not received well in research, or do not make sense. If this happens the product manager’s responsibility is to argue the case for taking rational decisions and try to convince the client to change their mind.

During the development process

The development process in an agency is very similar to that in a startup. Product managers start this process by documenting all the features and writing tickets for those features into a tracking system such as JIRA, Trello or Pivotal Tracker. The style that the tickets are written in and depends on the individual company rather than on whether the company is an agency or a startup.

The product manager explains the requirements to developers, and then works through the list of tickets with the team to get an estimate of the difficulty of each ticket. This creates an estimated product backlog for the development team to work from.

At an agency the development team needs to work to a deadline determined by the client. This means the product manager needs to juggle what can realistically be achieved in the given timeframe to get as many of the clients requested features finished as possible. Often, this means that the product manager is continually busy conducting back and forth negotiation between the team and the client.

This process is usually easier at a startup because negotiations between the team, the product manager and the other stakeholders all take place in-house, and everyone should be committed to the same goals. When it becomes clear that a feature won’t be ready for the first release it can be postponed until the next release (assuming that the startup keeps going that long!).

At product delivery

After an agency delivers a finished product to a client it may signal the end of the product manager’s involvement, at least for some time. Developing long term plans with a client may be the responsibility of different members of the agency team.

In contrast, the product manager at a startup generally continues to work with different parts of the business to develop the longer term road map. The measure of success in a startup is the success of the product, while in an agency the measure of success that really matter is whether the client was happy with the work that was delivered.

Working with stakeholders

At a startup, the product manager works closely with key stakeholders such as the founder or CEO and the business development team to make sure the product that is delivered will help the business succeed. Here the product manager and the other stakeholders have a shared goal, which is to move the business forward along with the success of the product in the marketplace.

At an agency the goals of the client and of the product manager are not necessarily aligned in the long term. The success of the client’s product is usually way beyond control of the agency’s product manager, who won’t have the same sort of influence on the business team that they would have if they were part of the same company.

I hope I have shown here that there are significant differences between the role of the product manager in a startup and in an agency, that should be taken into consideration for roles in both of these environments.  However, it’s important to remember that the one thing that product managers always have in common is to – for however long they are responsible for a product – ensure its success. 

Comments 5

Is this form of marketing organization suitable for any type of company?
Do you have some examples where not?
THX a lot!

Very informative and timely. I work in a big company and deal with both internal and external stakeholders as I product manage multiple initiatives.

Interesting article, and I believe you’ve nailed the differences. What you describe in an agency though, is not a product manager. I’d say it is a project manager, and involves little to know product thinking and a finite lifespan (much like a project).

I’d say a true product manager has no place in an agency that delivers projects, regardless of what they might call the role. Same goes for a Product Owner – in an agency, they are not really a product owner in the true sense of the word – merely a go-between for the real product owner within the client organization.

Some tough aspects of product management in the agency world (having spent time in both):

1) a products life and real measure of success/failure truly begins once it has been launched; user/customer feedback, analytics, optimisation, user testing, v2 and more. In the agency world the product manager hardly gets to touch their baby after it’s been born. Time and budgets are viciously re-allocated to new projects and one finds themselves begging sales/account managers for feedback from the clients users.

2) Clients in the agency world (enterprise?) don’t want to pay for all the ‘fluff’ that we consider the most crucial part outside of delivery: Discovery. Discovery entails all the opportunity assessment, value propositions, personas, testing and iterating prototypes etc. Clients prefer to cram all of this into a single session or workshop. We end up delivering what they want but not necessarily what they need since every penny was forced into the delivery phase.

There are many positives to the agency side though! I just wanted to point out some of the downsides recently on my mind.

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