Product Management Advice for Startup Leaders I Wish Someone Had Told Me

Building a product is hard. Building the company around that product is way harder. Over the last few decades I’ve helped companies build a lot of new products. By my estimation, my companies have worked on over 700 products (apps, websites and an assortment of digital UI). I’ve also been a co-founder, partner, advisor, board member and mentor to dozens of other product companies. Here are a few things that I wish someone had told before I had to learn the hard way.

Get your hands dirty but not too dirty

To really know your customer, product and business you need to do the little things — at least for a while. If you’re an engineer you need to code, if you’re a designer you need to craft UI and experiences, keep in mind that as a leader, that’s not your role. Your role is to mold a product vision and to build a team aligned around that vision so everyone will have focus and purpose. Getting your hands dirty in the beginning is good. There’s is a lot of product knowledge and business value in being the practitioner. You eventually need to step away from the details to see the big picture.

When I started Fresh Tilled Soil, I did bookkeeping, sales, marketing and design. I’m really glad I did because now I know what it takes to craft an experience, or design a dozen screens for a complex UI, or manage cash flow in the lean months. Before you become too captivated by the technical work you need to hire people that are smarter than you at doing those things. The phrase technical-founder doesn’t mean you’re always in the weeds. It just means you get the nuances of the technical details. This sounds obvious but I’m continually surprised how few leaders let go of the day-to-day tasks and continue to meddle with the tactical things. Let go!

Specialize roles for strategic work

Similar to the point above, you need to find the right people for the right jobs. There were times when we had designers doing project management because it felt more efficient. It wasn’t. On the surface it might seem like doubling-up on roles saves time and money but the reverse is true. Designers were being distracted by the administration and logistics of the PM work and running out of time to do what they should have been doing — designing.

This is not to say an early stage company might not need their team members to wear a few different hats to start with, but don’t confuse being scrappy with messy operations. Strategically important roles need dedicated people with deep skills and experience. Support roles can be doubled-up or even outsourced, but don’t cut corners on the roles that generate the core value to your business.

Customer testing and validation from day one

There is nothing more valuable than unadulterated feedback on your work. Constructive criticism from external sources delivers more insight than any internal process you might have. If you’re a very early stage company or pre-launch build an advisory board of people that know your space. They can be a proxy for the customer’s experience until you have your first real users. Never believe your own opinions, even if you’re an old pro. Getting outsiders to help you see the flaws is so easy and costs you nothing. Shipping an experience that nobody has validated as useful, that’s just lazy.

Product management isn’t the CEO

In the first year or two it’s very common for the CEO to also have the original product vision and to lead the day-to-day product conversation. The problem is when this is still happening well after the company has some traction. As a CEO, I’m very tempted to “manage” things. It’s in my nature. It’s also not helpful. You just get in the way. After a few years you’re not close enough to the details to really be useful and you’re also not using your time wisely by doing this work.

Managing is not leading. Tactical management of design and dev assets requires a completely different set of skills to devising a timeless vision and aligning a team round that vision. If you’re the vision person, find a product manager. If you’re the best manager, find someone who can own the vision. Providing a team with a dedicated product management person is the single best thing you can do in a product company.

Enjoy what you’ve read? Good, because there’s an entire book full of this stuff. I’ve been working with two masters of product Martin Eriksson and Nate Walkingshaw on writing a book that all product professionals can benefit from. Mostly out of curiosity and on the back of decades of experience, we’ve interviewed almost one hundred product leaders for this book. Their insights and experiences will open up the conversation and take the lid off the mystery of great product leadership.

You can follow us at @rmbanfield, @bfgmartin, and @nwalkingshaw.

The Product Leadership book was published by O’Reilly and is available on Amazon.

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