Q&A: “What’s it like working as a product manager at a startup?”

I was recently asked a question – here’s the answer I gave:

“I have just been offered an awesome job as a product manager for a startup and although I studied UX design, I think it could be for me. Just wondering whether you could give me some insight into your day-to-day duties and what the role might entail when working on a product for a startup?”

Hello and well done on your job offer!

You pose a very good question, let me see if I can answer it coherently.

Being a product manager in a startup can feel like organised chaos. There can be the odd exception, but many startups I’ve experienced can be a case of ‘two steps forward, one step back’. Getting stuff done can be tricky particularly once there are more people in the startup than can easily shout at each other across a desk. But everyone’s motivated and trying to do the right thing, so there can be a surprising amount of duplication of effort, and lots of one-off hacks to get things done.

As a product manager, your main duty is to nudge this slightly chaotic progress into a more clearly-defined direction. Make sure you return the focus of the product back to user needs, rather than the whims of the cofounders.  Your job is primarily to help turn uncertainties (= risk) about the product and its direction into certainties.  You do this by running quick, cheap and frequent experiments to gather just enough evidence to reassure you that you’re on the right track, and if not, to correct your course.

Sometimes these experiments can be conversations with users or surveys to uncover needs and check assumptions.  Sometimes they can be split tests or usability testing to find out what and why.  Sometimes they can be tech spikes or prototypes to check whether something’s feasible. The main thing is that you’re always learning, and doing so as quickly as possible to avoid investing tons of developer time building the wrong thing.

Your job is also to define what success looks like.  This could be what a successful result would be from a set of user research or testing, or what successful product adoption in the next month looks like, as well as what success looks like for the features you’re asking your developers to build. And if you don’t achieve success, ask why, learn and do something better next time.

Then there’s all the other stuff – answering questions about the product because you’re living and breathing it, fighting fires, and turning your hand to all sorts of tasks you’d never attempted before, and suddenly having to get good at them. As the product manager in a startup, if nobody else is putting their hand up to do something, it will probably fall to you to make it happen – get used to rolling up your sleeves, getting stuck in, and learning fast on the job.

Always be the most knowledgeable and prepared person in the room. Always be able to back up your decisions with at least some evidence – your opinion and gut instincts are fallible. Always be curious and always be learning. But don’t take things personally – your product is not your life, nor your child.  Things go to s**t from time to time despite your best efforts.  Pick yourself up (and the pieces of your product), dust yourself off, and have another crack at it.

Lastly remember you’re not alone – there are loads of product managers out there all hitting the same problems as you are. Go to ProductTank, share your war stories and drink beer with them (3rd Wednesday of each month).

Hope that doesn’t put you off :-)  Best of luck!

Cheers,

Jock

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