Would you choose to work in a small or a large company? Honestly, who wouldn’t want to work at massive companies like Facebook, Twitter and Google. But how does the day-to-day life as a Product Manager in these companies actually differ from working in a small tech start-up company? And ultimately does size matter?
Jason is a PM at Xero with eight years of experience in product. He ended up in product by accident. He didn’t mean it to happen and he doesn’t even know how exactly it happened. Previously he worked at the Department of Homeland Security for 12 years.
One day he read an article about product management and realized that he had done all the things related to it. He started using the title and gradually made the transition. Now he gives presentations in places like Product School. Here’s one of them:
Measure size in organizations
There are many ways to measure the size of different organizations. You can measure the number of employees, the revenue, number of customers and the amount of product management teams. These all can define the company. Some are large, some are small. However, most companies fall somewhere in between. They’re not really small or large.
Is size important?
In this case, yes it is. It changes the company’s culture, identity and how they operate. Large companies don’t really seem to have an identity because they are so massive and they have a lot of people working for them but even that is a sign of some kind of identity. It’s easy to hide one person in a large company but it’s nearly impossible in a small one.
For starters you need to have a different skillset altogether if you’re working in a small company versus a big company. Small companies are looking for a more varying skillset. You need to be willing to do various things yourself instead of expecting or even being able to ask others to do it for you.
If you want it done you have to do it yourself by getting your hands dirty. Sometimes it requires creativity and that is something that you rarely find wanted in larger companies.
Focus in a small vs. large company
It is quite obvious that the focus in small companies is different. Product to market fit is something that is of an important value to them whereas in larger companies they need to keep the trains running.
Also, the growth of the product is more important in large companies while smaller ones are trying to keep afloat or not fall too fast. In Silicon Valley, there are a lot of products and companies and it’s easy to fall fast.
When it comes to making the decision on whether to ship or not, small companies don’t really have that much choice. They just have to ship. Big companies evaluate the situation and manage risks before shipping. The communication to get to that decision point can also be complicated because of the number of people in large companies.
Autonomy & leadership
What is good about small companies is that there are no layers. Because there aren’t usually that many people in them it’s very easy to decide things. They appreciate if the Product Manager is very decisive and can solve problems himself. On the other hand, in larger companies the decision making isn’t up to you, in fact, there might not even be just one person who decides.
For someone who wants to advance in their career, small companies are not the best place as there are fewer opportunities. There might not even be a title such as the Senior Product Manager, just Product Manager.
How to choose what to do?
When I first started looking for product management jobs back in 2010, after quitting at the Government, I sent my resumé to every organization that had an opening for Product Manager. I heard from 1.
The reason for this was that I had no experience, but even without experience there is something you can do. Figure out the things that you’re better at than other people and focus on those crucial skills.
Questions from the audience:
Did you notice any differences in strategy and roadmap between working in a small company vs. large?
I did, but I wouldn’t attribute them to small versus large. It is more like where they are in the product life cycle. In the large organization I was at I felt like they weren’t realistic about where they wanted to go, and, how and what resources they were allocating to get there. They had a desktop software that they wanted to migrate to the cloud which is incredibly difficult to do.
It’s difficult because you have to get your customers to agree to do that while having that software impossibly backed up in your machine. They think of it more secure than the cloud so you have to first convince them of that. Then, they also wanted it to work exactly the same way as it used to work and they didn’t want to innovate. If you were doing it to cloud, initially, people wouldn’t have the same expectations.
How do you approach getting a job at a large organization vs. small ones?
The best situation you can find yourself in is when you get successful and you don’t need to look for a new job but you have the recruiters contacting you. In a large organization, they’re more wedded to their procedures. In government, for example, it doesn’t matter if you know the hiring manager. You have to go in the front door as everyone else. Large non-government organizations might not be that strict but you’re still going to get funneled into some automated system.
If you can find which recruiter is dealing with that requisition, that person may or may not ignore you. The best way to get into those large organizations is usually with a referral. It’s the same getting into a small organization but that referral becomes a lot more useful because it will get you around that. At a small organization, a lot of times it can be about interacting with the company, following the company and having some kind of connection with them.
What are your final words of wisdom to the aspiring product managers?
Think carefully about what you want and don’t waste your time searching for things that are not going to make you happy. If you’re desperate to get into a product management role but your internal dialogue is telling you that you’re going to be miserable once you get there, it’s not going to be worth it.
That first product management role is going to set you up for your second and the following ones and if you stumble there, even if it’s not your fault, it’s going to be harder to bounce back from that. It sucks to have to wait a little longer but be really picky about that first opportunity that you take.
It doesn’t have to be perfect, because it won’t and it’s not going to be. But, you shouldn’t be willing to take just anything, especially if you think you’re going to be miserable because it’s ultimately not going to serve you very well.