This is a controversial topic among product managers, especially those of us who consider our craft vital to a product’s success. It took me some time and quite a few startups to come to the short answer to this question: No, startups don’t always need product managers. But they do need someone to do product manager-y things. Let me elaborate.
The evolution of product in a startup
Generally, successful startups begin with a founder or co-founders that have a problem to solve and a potential solution to solve it. The ability to execute the solution well is foundational to the rise of the startup. So, oftentimes the product manager and the founder (or a co-founder) are the same person. Over time, as the product and the company begin to achieve success, the founder or CEO begins to remove themselves from the product roadmap and backlog to focus on building the company and increasing customers. It begins to be overwhelming for the founder or CEO to be involved in every detail.
As the company begins to scale, new products are added to the portfolio. As new products are added, new product managers join the team, ideally forming [empowered product teams].
Some time thereafter, startups hire their first director or VP of product because the founders feel overwhelmed in managing multiple product teams. Other times, product executives are hired because there are problems with product-market fit, executing to the vision, or other complex product problems. (Spoiler alert: If you’re the first director, VP of product, CPO, at your startup, beware! Many complex product challenges await!)
Earlier on, if founders feel that they are lacking in discipline, focus, or skill to adequately research, define, and build to the needs of their customers, they bring in someone with a “product” background—a friend, consultant, or tech co-founder who can help bridge the gap. (That’s where we come in!)
What do product managers actually do?
Product managers hold a keystone role in any organization, because they own the product roadmap and backlog. Great product managers strive to deliver value to customers in ways that support business objectives. Great product managers know how to decipher what’s vital to deliver and what may be ancillary. Great products talk to customers and provide a clear vision for the team.
Development teams love great product managers because the work is clearly defined around delivering customer value. In other words, the product is focused.
If the founder lacks the focus, time, or skills to clearly articulate the work to the product team, then you often see a breakdown between the product vision and what is actually delivered. Unless you have a scrappy, self-sufficient CTO or lead developer, you are likely going to find yourself struggling to define and build a valuable product. You’ll have a collage of features that somehow—if you squint really hard—make up a product. You may even find that some customers are willing to pay you for it… I guess that depends on how good you are at sales. But that won’t scale as the company grows. Sooner or later, the product discipline will be required.
What does a startup look like with a product manager?
Depending on the phase of the startup, I’ve seen time and again a product manager striving to wrangle the “ownership” of the product roadmap and backlog from the founder. After all, product managers are regularly told that they are the “CEO of the product.” But a startup can’t have two CEOs. Therein breeds a fleeting power struggle: Regardless of how amenable the founder is, the ownership will never be wrestled away until the company scales to a point where the founder must focus their time on building and growing the company instead of the individual product.
I strongly believe that the scarcest resource in building a startup is focus. And the product discipline breeds focus within the startup.— Ben Holland, KREE
That doesn’t mean that product managers cannot be successful in a startup. They certainly can. The key here is approaching the product manager role as the product clearinghouse and not getting too caught up in who owns what. This may feel like a lesser version of a product manager, and in some ways, this product manager doesn’t have a whole lot of overarching “ownership” of the roadmap. Instead, the product manager in a startup is the “facilitator” of the roadmap and the clearinghouse for customer needs and product ideas.
She leads the product discussions, aligns the vision and objectives with the backlog items, interacts with customers, provides guidance on maximum value to customers, and helps the company march toward a unified goal. In short, she helps the startup find the most elusive resource among startups: She helps them find focus.
We help startups who are struggling to bridge the gap between a full-time product team and a part-time team. Our part-time product managers and consultants can be embedded onto your team to provide the organization and structure that facilitate focus. You may not need a full-time product manager yet, but you may also find that you have too much going on for just your small team. That’s where we come in with just enough process and expertise to get you focused on what will help you deliver optimum value to your customers and your business. If you’re interested in learning more, drop us a line!