Product management for European startups — Part 1

After meeting hundreds of startups over the years; I’ve realized that there is relatively little experience in the field of product management in Europe, compared to here in Silicon Valley. Therefore, I’ve decided to write this blog series to share some of the knowledge and clarify some of the concepts — this is the first introductory post that describes the Product Manager role and its responsibilities. I will later dig deeper into organizational matters, frameworks, and methods, as well as best practices.

What is a Product Manager’s responsibilities?

There is a lot of ambiguity when talking about product management, and the matter of fact is that working as a product manager (PM) most commonly means a serious amount of ambiguity in the day to day work. The product manager most frequently operates at the intersection of UX, Tech and Business, and the specific responsibilities of the PM changes across different industries and different companies.

The first thing to understand is that the PM is not a manager of anybody, rather the communicator that puts all the pieces together by getting feedback from everyone else. The PM is a communications hub, a prioritizer, a researcher, a presenter, and most importantly, the PM is responsible for the ultimate success of the product. Simply put, the Product Manager is the person that should bring donuts and make sure that the product team feels happy, motivated and have everything they need to work efficiently (ref. Ken Norton). The PM role differs from company to company but most commonly, the work as a PM falls into vision, design and/or execution:

Vision

In general, the PM must be able to formulate a compelling vision for the product. To be able to do that, the PM needs to have a strong understanding of the target audience, the current overall company vision, and goals, as well as the competitive situation. As a part of this, the PM needs to dare to think bold and have a compelling thesis why the new solution will provide a significant improvement over the current alternatives. 
 
Equally important as developing the product vision and the thesis is to transfer the passion and sell the vision to the rest of the team. As a reminder: the PM is not the manager of the team, but is responsible for the outcome — transferring the vision and continuously ensuring that everyone is working towards it is key.

Design

The design part is about determining the right feature set and prioritize everything to make sure that your team is just doing enough work to ship and achieve the goals with the new release. The PM contributes by having a deep understanding of the user’s goals, sensibilities, and psychology, as well as an understanding of current behaviors/patterns based on user data. The PM works with the designers to develop a design as well as developing specifications that will guide developers to implement the design efficiently.

Execution

The execution part is all about breaking down the roadmap into concrete tasks, following up the progress, triaging bugs and feature suggestions, solving roadblocks and problems along the way as well as motivating and ensuring that the team works efficiently together. As the PM work with limited resources, it is quite common that he or she has some base level of understanding for design work and engineering so that he or she can help the team filling in the gaps when needed so that the team can keep the focus on the most important parts of the release. It’s equally important for the PM to constantly think of ways to improve and optimize the execution of the team.

Product at early stage startups

At early stage startups, it is usually the CEO who is responsible for product, and from a VC perspective, we appreciate if the CEO has a product manager skill-set that is good enough to take the startup to a position where it is more relevant to hire a PM. Product development is core in long-term value creation, which means that it is crucial for startups to incorporate the product management skill-set and mindset from the start, and then, when the timing is right, hire the best possible person for the PM role. I will talk about timing for hiring a product manager and building the product organization in the next post on this topic.