Bridging the gap: How and why product management differs from company to company
Based on my interview with Brent Tworetzky, SVP of Product Management, at InVision
If you’re a corporate accountant in Minneapolis, MN, you probably have a lot in common with corporate accountants in Austin, TX. But if you’re a product manager, you’ll likely find that a product manager at a company just down the road has a completely different set of skills and responsibilities. Few can speak to the industry’s evolution and fragmentation better than Brent Tworetzky.
Now the SVP of Product Management at InVision, Tworetzky started his career in product management at Mint, eventually taking on product leadership roles at Chegg, Udacity, and XO Group. He’s learned from legendary product leaders, built and scaled wildly successful digital products on both coasts, formed the New York Product Conference, and written extensively about how to level up product managers and product organizations. He’s made it his mission to highlight best practices, but recognizes deep-rooted differences arising from a myriad of factors such as company size, industry, and geography.
It’s a shore thing
“When I first moved to New York, I asked the recruiter, the CEO, and the head of HR about what they were looking for in a product leader. More often than not, they each talked about ensuring that products get delivered on time,” Tworetzky explains. “The executive team, of course informed by marketing and sales, is going to tell me what they need, and I’d be responsible for making sure it gets built by a deadline.”
He contrasts that with his experience in the Bay Area. “There, product management tends to be more strategic and highly collaborative, engaging engineering and design as partners in a user-centric approach.”
Tworetzky quickly wrapped his head around the differences and pinpointed what he believes caused them. “New York has the world’s biggest media companies, advertising companies, and financial institutions,” Tworetzky notes. “In the Bay Area, you have Stanford, venture capitalists, and the original startup scene. The ecosystems are different. The incentives are different.”
That’s why divergent product management approaches exist — they evolved to facilitate the process of bringing value to their respective markets, Tworetzky determined. “On the West Coast, you obsess over the problem, and what the world looks like when that problem is solved. Here in New York, you begin with a market and a defined business opportunity.”
According to Tworetzky, neither approach is necessarily better than the other. But the distinctions can be so pronounced that a mere explanation of a startup is enough for him to accurately guess where it’s based.
“Rarely in New York is someone going to build and scale something like Pinterest,” Tworetzky says. “Here we have fintech and adtech startups which are largely about algorithms and increasing efficiency of existing solutions in mature markets. We don’t have as many companies here that are about user discovery and changing the way users fundamentally behave.”
To be successful, it’s important for product managers on both coasts, everywhere in between, and across the world to recognize and embrace their company’s unique flavor of product management. While it’s crucial not to generalize, rules of thumb are handy for understanding the spectrum and where your role exists within it.
Companies, like many in New York, that are introducing solutions to mature industries tend to be sales-driven, so product teams are informed by what customers will readily buy and are measured based on output and revenue. Companies, like many in the Bay Area, that are creating new categories are generally vision-driven, so product teams are more cross-functional and iterative, and are measured based on validated learnings and outcomes.
The two models on each end of the spectrum manage risk differently and, with regard to startups, offer a varied range of results. Predicated on introducing solutions to previously unarticulated problems (e.g. Snapchat), Bay Area startups and product managers are tasked with launching moonshots. Failure is more frequent and expensive but success is exponential in size.
In New York, products are underscored by branding and business models (e.g. Casper). There is less funding available for startups without defined unit economics, so failures are less frequent and costly, while successes are routine but capped logarithmically. According to CB Insights, no New York-based startup has ever exited for more than $2.1B, while the Bay Area has a litany of larger exits every year.
A symphony of lessons
The inconsistencies from one company to the next have turned out to be a blessing in disguise for Tworetzky, who has managed to learn something meaningful at each stop — or product management ‘school’ — along his journey.
At Mint, a Bay Area startup since acquired by Intuit, Tworetzky was mentored by Aaron Forth who was formerly a product leader at eBay. “Their style of product management has been about quantifying what you think your results will be, thinking about ROI on development, prioritizing the most important things to work on, and providing really clear documentation.”
Tworetzky continued learning during his time in Silicon Valley at Chegg, under the guidance of Gibson Biddle who was formerly at Netflix. “Their style included a tremendous amount of user research, especially qualitative research like one-on-one interviews, focus groups, traveling the country to go see people in their natural environments,” he reflects. “We’d go visit students in San Diego and Austin to learn the differences.”
It was through these experiences that Tworetzky discovered that no single strategy had a monopoly on success. That realization enabled him to distil best practices from each in preparation for a rapidly approaching leadership opportunity. In the Fall of 2013, Tworetzky got an offer to be the VP of Product at a nearby early-stage online learning startup being run by two former Stanford University teachers. That company, Udacity, has since become wildly popular, educating more than 160,000 students in 190 countries.
“At Udacity, I brought my knowledge of documentation, prioritization, communication, and user research,” Tworetzky says. “But I quickly learned that being a product leader is different than being a product manager.”
Tworetzky confronted a new set of challenges and opportunities for learning. “I worked with executives and engineering leaders who were formerly at Google, where the product culture had been engineering-led. Engineers there often decided what they wanted to work on and drove their roadmaps.”
Eager to adapt, Tworetzky worked with Udacity’s Head of Engineering to test a radically different approach to product management every quarter. “We ultimately ended up with an approach where the product manager is the facilitator but everybody gets to have a voice and visibility into what we were working on,” Tworetzky explains. “We prioritized what we’d work on against the bigger goals of the company. If we were really clear about what success would look like, then anybody can come up with ideas while the product manager makes sure that the team is working on the most important things.”
After a couple years at Udacity, Tworetzky migrated East, eventually becoming the Executive Vice President of Product at New York-based XO Group. There, he studied the company’s large portfolio of products, stakeholders, and customers, further adapting his approach to product management, eventually culminating in a wildly popular guide to the craft.
The guide to product management success anywhere
Midway through 2016, Tworetzky published “What Does a Product Manager Do?” that captured the attention of the product management community. In it, he combined a decade’s worth of lessons into six ingredients for success:
Tworetzky has learned that a unified approach to product management is misguided, and that principles are more flexible and effective. His six-point model is highly adaptable and has been used by product leaders and managers in numerous organizations to increase NPS, revenue, and other key metrics.
At XO Group, Tworetzky even developed a “Product University” to help onboard and train product managers. His vision is to mentor and guide people who will become the next generation’s product leaders. While the program is intense, the results can be felt immediately. Of course, that’s no surprise to Tworetzky — after all, the curriculum is basically an accelerated version of his career.
In Spring 2018, Tworetzky joined InVision, a leading design software company, giving him the opportunity to not only further support the product community but also to develop technology solutions for them. His experiences are driving the strategy behind the company’s vision for growing into the operating system of digital product design.