What it Takes to Become a Great Product Manager at a Startup

What it Takes to Become a Great Product Manager at a Startup

Product Managers must possess core competencies that can be applied in all settings, whether in large corporations or in small startups. But their roles and responsibilities will obviously different because of the differences in assets, market, and capitalization, among other factors, between these companies.

In a startup, a product manager has to be quick on his feet, so to speak, because the startup’s path is unpredictable – one day, it’s going well and the next day, it isn’t. As the startup meanders in its path, a product manager has to quickly adapt without losing sight of the company’s goal while also shaping the way forward. (This isn’t so in a large corporation where the path has already been set, the resources are aplenty, and the people know what to do)

Think of it as a product manager building and flying the plane simultaneously so there’s plenty of room for both error and improvement. Indeed, it’s a challenge that can either bring out the best or the worst in a product manager. The good news: There’s also plenty of opportunities to make an impact in a wide range of aspects – strategy, pricing, customer relations and retention, and positioning, among others – and all these with fewer resources.

How to Become a Product Manager

How then can a product manager survive the unique environment of a startup considering these factors? Here are a few tips that we think you, a product manager, should know.

Formation Phase

In the formation stage, the startup is on rather shaky ground. While the entrepreneurs are committed to the business, the business itself is still on paper in many ways – it isn’t a real business yet. There are numerous challenges along the way, from established competitors and indifferent consumers to insufficient resources, which contributes to an uncertain future, not to mention that the business team itself doesn’t have a strong structure yet.

At this time, a product manager has to prove the idea of the business and define its path, particularly the milestones that determine it’s in the right direction.  For this reason, you have the following roles during the formation phase.

  • Provide a clear purpose. Keep in mind that as a product manager, you have to answer a critical question, “Why should this product be on the market?” It’s a fundamental question that can determine the success or failure of the entire company and, thus, it’s one that you have to provide a clear answer.
  • Synthesize the product from an abstract concept. You have to create a product that meets the startup’s stated goals, a process that requires consideration of a wide range of factors including available resources, existing competition, and branding goals. You will also be required to launch prototypes, perhaps a few more than expected, until the ideal product comes into fruition.
  • Optimize the time available. Like it or not, time is always insufficient for startups and it’s true for product managers, too. Fortunately, there are tools, techniques, and technologies that optimize the available time so that the product can transition from an abstract concept to a concrete thing. (Yes, it’s also important to work with a team to achieve the product-related goals)

When the formation stage has passed, things become easier in many ways for a product manager. The product is there, after all, so the next steps can be taken.

What it Takes to Become a Great Product Manager at a Startup

Validation Phase

During the validation stage, the startup has to determine the target consumers’ reception of the product. Yes, the product is there but will the customers actually buy it, perhaps even recommend it to others?

If yes, then the company has to move fast to take advantage of the positive reception. If no, then the company must find the reasons why the consumers aren’t too excited about it, perhaps even change directions in its product development. In both cases, you have to be closely involved since you’re the product manager.

There are also crucial roles that you have to perform as part of your job.

  • Encourage confidence in others. This is best done by exuding a strong sense of self-belief and self-confidence. You may question nearly everything about your abilities and capabilities as well as the company and its people and product but you can’t let your doubts show. You must instead show others your unshakeable conviction in the product and company.
  • Set product boundaries. With so many possibilities for the product, such as new accessories or new improvements, it can be sorely tempting to add this and add that to the existing product. But here’s the thing: The core product can become lost in these additions. This can become problematic in the long run, likely because customers are already happy with the core product.
  • Show empathy. Keep in mind that customer feedback is vital to the business and, thus, listening to it is a must if the product is to become successful. This can mean letting go of specific product features that customers don’t need even when you think that these are necessary.

What it Takes to Become a Great Product Manager at a Startup

Growth Phase

At the growth stage, the startup and its product are in the Olympics of business, so to speak – both have to be bigger, greater, and faster, among others. You, the product manager, has to determine whether the company can actually give the competition a run for its money – or at least, run with them – or it’s time to quit.

Your roles include the following:

  • Identify and nurture talented people. With the company in its growth stage, it’s likely to engage in aggressive hiring since more people are needed – and to be more specific, more talented people are needed to sustain the growth. You have to find, hire and train new staff as well as bring them up to speed, empower them, and make them productive members of your team.
  • Foster stronger partnerships between the engineering and design aspects. Keep in mind that an excellent product comes with excellent engineering and design, thus, these should be closely tied during every step of the product development process.
  • Encourage controlled disorder. You have to strike a balance between innovation and acceptance in relation to the product.

In conclusion, your work as a product manager is filled with challenges but with your core competencies and your ability to adapt, you can overcome these challenges. Indeed, you will thrive, not just survive!


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Founder, Editor-In-Chief // A native Angeleno. John studied engineering at UCLA; founded Schmoozd, an offline social tech networking event in LA with 30,000 subs; ran a startup accelerator (StartEngine). Worked for several major brands like Toyota, DIRECTV, Hitachi, ICANN, and Raytheon. A mentor at Loyola Marymount University (LMU) Entrepreneur School, Dr. David Choi. And advises a dozen local LA startups building amazing tech in various industries; and invested in some. // Let's Connect: john@lastartups.com

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