Why Your Startup Needs a Product Manager
If you lead a startup, you might be in urgent need for a product manager. Not hiring one could be the worst mistake you make: here are many reasons why.
At first glance, your office seems to function like clockwork. Everybody is busy with their tasks. Maybe there is a meeting right now, or it is the end of the day, and everyone is out. Your salespeople are on the road. Your marketing team is busy promoting your brand at the regional conference. This is just like another day in your solidly growing tech startup.
However, underneath this quiet day-to-day, there can be many things going wrong. An underwater stream of unexpected pitfalls and badly launched features can await after turning the next corner.
And who will you blame?
Your team, who are just following the roadmap with precision?
Well, if you are lacking a Product Manager, perhaps you should.
This post will show you when and why your startup needs a Product Manager.
10 Reasons why your startup needs a Product Manager
Everybody dislikes trends, eventually. It’s not just music fans who hate it when their favorite band becomes just too popular. Management fads work the same way: open-plan offices, sprint methodologies, agile… There is no shortage of ideas that become really popular all of a sudden. And somehow this makes them less appealing as if they lost their truth.
This could have happened to the idea that you need a Product Manager in your team. Sadly, PM apologists often lack a proper explanation. They just tend to point out that some of the most successful organizations on the planet have hired product people. Self-interested PMs will, of course, attribute these gains to having professionals like them leading teams.
But there is a better case to be made.
There are many reasons why your startup needs a Product Manager. Perhaps you are only seriously failing at achieving one of the following ten targets. However, if you agree that currently three or more of these goals are unfulfilled, you are seriously lacking a PM:
- Anticipating the future: In the world of tech, solid work amounts for nothing without innovation. PMs’ key function is to develop, nurture and fix new and existing products. They are your users’ advocates, representing the “empty chair”. These twin factors make them extremely sensitive to market evolution. Their sole task is to remain ahead of the competition, employing their unparalleled intuition (supported by their data prowess) in order to gain first-mover advantages. Engineers, designers… they can become trapped in their silos. Let your PM fly free to take a peek at the horizon.
- Driving growth: Marketers are the collective which is closer to working through the pursuit of growth. However, they are usually involved at a later stage, when the product is already finalized. You need someone who is alert to increasing metrics at every point in the chain. Can discrete teams, in charge of particular tasks, notice these factors on their own? A product person is used to developing appropriate signals to note whether things are going the right way, or if there any probable pitfalls that can be avoided.
- Breaking walls: Not all startups are as big as to suffer communication problems. But once you break from the initial threshold and you bring in new people, healthy dynamics will decrease. The usual strains of daily co-working will appear. And, before you know it, resentment and miscommunication will plague your best plans. Product Managers are not just perfect for external stakeholders: they build bridges and break walls between teams. Namely, their job is not to make everyone a friend. But they should ensure that channels are open and clear.
- Reconnecting with your customers: Now, what about those external stakeholders? Are you sure that they are getting the love? Marketers will often snatch and run; coders and programmers cannot even figure out what the customer thinks. Your key translator, the one working hand in hand with UX designers and sales people, is the product manager. Through proper research and tried-and-tested techniques, like focus groups, they can make sure that you can filter through the feedback to figure out your users’ next favorite feature.
- Becoming evergreen: The growth machine can run out of steam if any of your services fail to breed loyalty. We are not inventing the toothbrush here, but your digital product needs to be as simple and reliable as to be used regularly. Something better than a large dataset is a renewable dataset. As for empathy gurus, PMs are experts in getting people hooked: their dream is to solve people’s problems, and they will not stop until they find the simplest, most elegant solutions.
- Building your teams: Onboarding at some startups is really hard. This is because teams are small but usually cover a lot of ground. You are not likely to have a dedicated HR person. However, PMs are (besides you!) the only professionals working across the whole organization. In fact, their first task is often getting to know everybody in the office. This is because they need to understand how the different schedules and projects match with each other. The product team can be the most reliant assistants when it comes to understanding how your teams work and which way to organize them better.
- Strengthening your infrastructure: They often say that PMs do not necessarily need a heavy technical background. But they need some insights into tools and techniques; an insight which will surely grow during their career. As a founder or manager, you are likely to have close contact with this side of the business. But a PM also works with commercial goals, including market research. Your whole infrastructure (the “hard” stuff that forms your company’s backbone) could have unknown bottlenecks. Or money drains. It takes a full-spectrum position like product management to know them!
- Cutting costs: This point is brief. While hiring a PM might seem like a substantial upfront expenditure, it can save you money in the long run. This is because they are adept at anticipating pitfalls, by designing flexible roadmaps. Also, familiarity with agile methodologies means that they are used to punching above their weight i.e. doing more with less. A good PM will multiply results without compromising revenue.
- Good PR: This is a bit of a hassle for the more technically-oriented PMs, but being a good public speaker is a fundamental requirement. In the world of product, you need to tell and sell stories to your stakeholders. Internally, because they rely on having influence without power. They need to persuade other teams to meet their goals. Externally, building hegemony in whatever sector they are involved is a top goal. Thus, PMs can make great PR agents for your branding efforts, especially if as a startup you cannot afford a dedicated team.
- Training future leaders: Finally, if Google is anything to go by, product people with experience are the future of many tech companies. You might be willing to keep it going for a while at your company, but who knows about the future? Your PM hires can slowly grow in experience as knowledge so as to become reliable “successors”; if you ever decide to move on to greener pastures, that is!
When to hire a product manager for your startup
If you have been in the startup scene for a while, you will have heard of the “valley of death”. Yes, that moment when you have figured out a successful strategy, building your customer base. But you are not quite there yet in terms of revenue.
This is defined as dying by success because while you are way bigger than at the beginning, you still cannot reap the rewards. The machine needs to be going forward for a little while before you arrive at a solid plateau. And this is where many startups fail.
If there is a right moment for hiring a product manager, it is right before entering this valley of death. There are several reasons why.
- Product managers are experts at devising alternative funding strategies. While your startup might have been born with a particular purpose, PMs are trained to see growth opportunities wherever they might lie. A subscription service, paywalls or extra upgrades cannot be introduced overnight. They need reassuring analyses by trained PMs who can implement them successfully; not desperately!
- Time is of the essence. As a founder or manager, you might be too busy running the day to day and the long-term strategy. But product experts can notice and plan the next steps in that medium-term sweet spot where your startup’s survival hangs.
- Industry acumen is key. Securing your rebound and eventual success might depend on certain factors which all have to do with your industry networks. Product managers are likely to have strong ties or at least solid knowledge of the tech business. Whether you have set targets on a possible source of funding or an alliance with a close company partner; PMs can rely on their communities to obtain the right information.
- Team cohesion is simply essential. During those tough months where your startup might hang on a thread, you will be thankful for your PM team and their amazing people skills. There is nothing better than clear communication channels, and a cross-team polyglot, to encourage your different departments to push just a little bit harder!
In short, a skillful PM can really make a difference, get across the valley, reach the safe plateau and grow to reach the top of tech mountain. Just make sure you hire someone you trust!
Banking on the Product Manager advantage
- There are too many business books written with an army and war metaphors. But, as commander-in-chief, your PM can become the Special Operations agent you can rely on to diffuse any complex situation.
Problems with value generation? Creativity and horizontal thinking will serve to produce another source of growth.
Issues with internal communication? Patience and trust-building will ensure that teams are in sync.
Public image not very impressive? Deploy your PM to a couple of high-profile conferences, and let them inspire passion about the product.
Are tech requirements becoming too complex? Your PM can serve as the translator between your engineering teams and your marketing operations.
Unsure about your next steps? A visionary product manager should be able to offer several roadmaps. Keep them in rein though!
All in all, product management is a unique set of skills within tech. Sadly, not every startup has taken advantage of these multifaceted tech workers. Make the move!
What do you think? What could a PM bring to your startup? Let us know in the comments!