Running your startup without a product manager

Product managers’ involvement starts from the vision to development and marketing. Daily tasks include developing a product strategy and roadmap, writing product requirements, prioritizing features and tasks, working with designers on creative materials, and coordinating with Quality Assurance teams to ensure release theme and scope is upheld during release. The product manager’s role is explained in details in Marty Cagan’s book, Behind Every Great Product, but it seems that you won’t be needing that since this article is about running your startup without a product manager

If you’re an early stage startup, tight on budget, or if you’re one of the co-founders wearing different hats and thinking that you can handle product leadership, or if you just don’t feel like splitting the pie, here is how to run your startup without a product manager or an executive level product manager (CPO/VP of Product):

Translate your vision and strategic objectives into an action plan (roadmap)

Start by having the co-founders translate their vision to roadmap items, features they want to see in the next quarters, as well as who and what the product should serve. It is highly recommended to have the advisory board involved in the discussion.

Prioritize by taking into account product-market fit and users’ needs

Propose a list of features and improvements for the users on the roadmap from the incoming quarter and ask them to vote on any features or improvements that were suggested by important stakeholders, investors or clients and added to the list. Voted features and improvements are then prioritized accordingly and discussed with a technical person to provide a rough estimation of what can be done in the upcoming weeks.

Delegate feature definition to users

After having a list and estimations of next features and improvements, ask users how they imagine the features to be, what functions they want, and how will they use it.
Get 2 or 3 power users to provide a sketch/wireframe or a mock-up on how the feature or the improvement should look and work.
Organize a meeting of the upper management and the designer with one technical person to discuss the provided sketches or wireframes, take the designer’s input, and ask the designer to adjust the wireframes according to the needs.
Notes should be taken about the functionality, flow and interaction proposed.
After having a final wireframe, functionality should be documented by taking into account all the notes and the designer’s input.
When faced with a problem or a challenge, it is best to ask the target party (users, clients).

Employ iterative design and get early feedback

The designer should start working on translating wireframes and functionality into the design. To avoid errors, it is recommended that interactive or animated mockups be created by a designer to help understand the flow and the correct behavior. Company stakeholders and management should go over the designs or the interactive mockups to validate if the design is good enough to be implemented.
All the documented materials, designs and mockups are then added to the main project management system. In case of an Agile/Scrum, a user story or a task should be opened with the wireframes, definition and functionality.
When all the user stories and tasks are ready, sprint planning can be done. All the relevant user stories and tasks are added to the sprint, assigned, and estimated.
The developer should break down any big tasks or user stories to sub tasks with a better time estimation.

Make sure nothing is blocking development

When it comes to development, make sure the development team is not waiting for anything. The design should be ready, all the tasks should be well defined, and everyone should know what he’s going to do.

Validate before shipping

When a feature is done, initial QA should be done to validate that the feature that was implemented is done by the requirements. If not, and big issues are found, the management should be aware, and a decision should be made. Before shipping the feature or the improvement, company stakeholders may check if it is good enough to be shipped.

Prepare to Fail… Horribly

It doesn’t matter if you’re creating a roadmap or sketching how the next feature should look; if you don’t know what you’re doing, there is a very high chance that you’re going to fail. Seeing product managers doing their work is tempting. Product management work involves dealing with highly subjective matters, not to mention that the core concept of your startup is between the hands of the product manager. I have been in conversations where there was extensive debate about the smallest details. I’ve seen all kinds of co-founders, from those who got paranoid and started micromanaging the whole product team (and sometimes development) to those who never cared what is going on as long as they get the features on time. However, no matter what issues you have with accepting the fact that you need a product manager at your startup, you just cannot go out by yourself and rely on users to define features and do the mockups. User feedback is important, but an expert knows when to listen and who to listen to. Dr. Jakob Nielsen, who is a pioneer in the field of usability and user experience, makes that clear in his article, “First Rule of Usability? Don’t Listen to Users”.

“The quality of a startup’s product can be defined as how impressive the product is to one customer or user who actually uses it: How easy is the product to use? How feature rich is it? How fast is it? How extensible is it? How polished is it? How many (or rather, how few) bugs does it have?”

- Marc Andreessen, from: The only thing that matters in a startup

Final thoughts about running your startup without a product manager

Having a good product manager onboard who can get you the best strategy and execute it brilliantly, will have a high impact contribution that anyone can make in an organization, but if they’re not able to work well with people, and you start micromanaging them or ignoring them totally, they will fail. Your product will fail, and your startup will also fail, so keep in mind that your success depends on the success of the product, and that’s what product managers are for.