The 6 types of Product Managers. Which one do you need?

Eskimos have 1,000 words to describe snow. Marketers have well defined adjectives for their field: affiliate, SEO, content, performance, enterprise. Developers describe their functions and their expertise: front end, back end, java, node.js. And then there is Product, which often starts and ends with a single defining word…product.

Background — The rise of Product:

Ten years ago, Product was barely discussed as a function. Roll forward the clock to today, and product managers are some of the most in-demand talent. Just last year, the WSJ published an article stating that the most coveted post-MBA job is a product manager role (a bit frightening, I admit).

So, what is a product manager? There have been a number of articles outlining the skills of product managers: many write about product as a blend of business, ux, and tech, including posts by Marty Cagan, Martin Eriksson, and this gem by Dan Schmidt. And then there is this classic post by Ben Horowitz and David Weiden on Good vs. Bad PMs.

Credit: Martin Eriksson

Overall, as Marty Cagan says in his book Inspired, the job of a product manager is “to discover a product that is valuable, usable and feasible”.

Why this matters:

However, this broad definition is missing a set of adjectives for the role, Product Manager. The lack of a common vernacular creates a shallow definition for the variety of product people out in the world. And, that lack of definition leads to hiring mis-steps and not understanding the superpowers and kryptonite for each type of product person.

At first, you might believe that this is a large company problem because they can hire multiple product managers, each with their own specialties. But this is even more critical for startups where you must make sure your first hires are the right ones.

The 6 main product manager types:

  • Superpower: Loves the chase of finding conversion and retention improvements. Might have been a marketer in a past life, blending customer psychology with behavior change tactics. Helps consumers find what they are looking for with the optimal amount of work.
  • Kryptonite: Risks becoming addicted to the sugar high of boosting $ at the expense of the overall customer experience. For example, turning off an auto-rebill reminder will likely pop your short-term retention, but could negatively impact long-term retention, refunds, and brand loyalty.
  • Example job function: Responsible for optimizing conversion flows from marketing landing pages, pricing, and onboarding. Responsible for driving engagement/repeats by revealing new content or products
  • Aliases: eCommerce, Marketing, Performance, Conversion
  • Superpower: A detective at heart, they can study a customer’s workflow/process and find unique opportunities for improving it. They cut out extraneous steps and optimize every interaction.
  • Kryptonite: Assuming users will adopt a new behavior/workflow. Old workflows are addictive because they are familiar; there will often be a switching cost for users even if your new tool is better in the long run
  • Example job function: Building editing tools, dashboards, tracking tools
  • Aliases: SaaS, workflow
  • On a related note: There are also Internal Workflow Product Managers. This flavor of Workflow Warrior loves driving improvements for the functions within a business including marketing, customer service, tech and sales (to name only a few).
  • Superpower: Understands the psychology behind users sharing and connecting with others. Loves testing ways to drive engagement and deepen connections. In a B2B setting, builds collaboration into a workflow.
  • Kryptonite: Focuses on building a vibrant community at the expense of financial/business goals.
  • Example job function: Responsible for building the contributor side of a marketplace, driving social interactions in a gaming app, or collaboration for enterprise SaaS.
  • Aliases: Social, platform
  • Superpower: Build it and they will come. Amazing at building services that others (internal teams or external developers) want to use. Typically more technical PMs who understand how to build a service/API.
  • Kryptonite: Not understanding that you must also market it. Learning scalable ways to address the variety of use cases or customization of your service.
  • Example job function: Manages the development of external APIs and the developer platform.
  • Aliases: API, ‘technical’
  • Superpower: Expert translator between user needs and the problems algorithms or AI /ML models can solve. In the past, this role was commonly a ‘Search PM’.
  • Kryptonite: Focusing on technically interesting problems that have low business/customer value.
  • Example job function: Improving search success rates and time to conversion.
  • Aliases: Search, ‘technical’, analytics, AI/ML
  • Superpower: Expert at unique mobile use cases, mobile ux/design, and app store processes. Ideally, has a personal relationship with the Apple review team!
  • Kryptonite: Believing that understanding mobile is enough. Must build capabilities in one of the areas above as well, because understanding the native ecosystem will be a skill that every PM has in the future.
  • Example job function: Leads iOS and Android native app teams
  • Aliases: Native, Apps

The product profession has grown enormously over the last ten years and deserves to have a set of common adjectives (probably even more than 6). I look forward to the day when all companies and job descriptions use a common set of vernacular to find the right person!

With these product types, you’ll be able to determine exactly what type of PM your company needs, and what questions you’ll need to ask to find them.

Questions, comments and debate desired…I’d love to hear what you think.


If you’re building a startup that is scaling, I’d love to hear from you and explore how I can help. Reach out to me at catherine@firstmarkcap.com