Product Management at a startup

Greig Cranfield
Nov 9, 2016 · 3 min read
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Just figured out you’re a product manager? Go you! Like most early stage startup PM’s I cofounded a startup and discovered later down the line that all the stuff I’ve been doing was in fact Product Management/Product Design(Who knew?)

Product Management is a very ill-defined role at startups. It’s responsibilities vary, sometimes drastically, but for lack of a better name — you are a product manager. Currently, I am working in my second crack at startup life. My first company was a web based SaaS product I co-founded. Now I’m at an augmented reality product and R&D studio focusing on children’s educational apps. (check us out here) We had 2 apps in market and one close to being released when I first joined.

It’s not been an easy transition, but the first experience perfectly set me up for the second.

Here’s some of my experiences so far. Feel like you can relate? Give it a like.

Dirty hands

‘Delegation’ is not in your vocabulary and this is a good thing. From user research, prototyping, customer support, analytics, copywriting, you’ll be doing it all or at least heavily involved. Being hands on in every aspect of the product or a feature puts you in a much better position to make decisions, so see it as a good thing. It is the main reason why I love this job.

Get used to feeling overwhelmed

Sometimes it can feel like scaling the ‘learning curve’ is more akin to a giant brick wall that someone has graffiti’d ‘YOU ARE TOO STUPID FOR THIS’ across. Get used to that. I read books, blogs, listen to podcasts and go to all the meetups. Immerse yourself in it completely to learn frameworks and tips, but realise that ‘established’ Product Managers from big companies with big teams are probably not working on the same time constraints you are at a startup.

You are not a white knight

A lot of PM’s in their early career (and some older ones) are guilty of seeing themselves as a superhero, swooping in to save their user with their specific solution. This thinking will only lead to failure. It goes against everything you probably feel at the time, but you are going to be wrong with your assumptions. A lot. If you commit to fully understanding the problem you’re fixing and set that as your north star, then if your first attempt at a solution doesn’t stick, you have uncovered something that can lead you to the actual solution. The worst thing you can do is emotionally invest in ‘your’ solution or product. You’ll have blinkered vision as to what users are telling you and you’ll dig for validation. If you conduct user interviews trying to validate your idea, you’ll validate your idea (in your head). If you conduct user interviews and behavioural observations focused on learning more about ‘them’ and ‘their’ problem and less about your business idea or your product then you’ll get closer to the solution.

Set goals for outcomes, not output

Another temptation is to say “we’re going to release our MVP in 3 months then build features X,Y,Z over the next 6 months’. Get used to setting goals around learnings and solutions. Focus on outcomes like “let’s put our efforts in to learning as much as we can about how to make our on-boarding better for our customers this month” or “The data is showing X,Y,X, let’s find out why”. These goals need to come from ruthlessly prioritising what will get you closer to the vision. If a feature or improvement does not move you towards the vision, it can’t be prioritised in a startup or you’ll sink.

Agree? Disagree? I write to start conversations so let me know what you think or if you have anything to add.

(PS. Share this with a startup product manager to let them know they’re not alone!)

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