Product managers are always honing our craft. We’re growing product sense, ruthlessly prioritizing, creating clarity, leading by influence, honing execution, or telling the vision. How are those PM skills stretched in different ways at a startup vs. a larger company? Common Room’s VP of Product Karen Ng joins us to share a framework to think about the risks and rewards of each.

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On PM skills in startups vs big companies 

There are some common skills across the board for project managers, whether they work at big companies or at startups. Karen points out that these skills just might look or act differently, depending on the size of the company.

“It really is this idea of you are building something so quickly and moving so fast, that you barely have time to lay out down the tracks in front of you. … When you think about the two sets of companies, There are a few ways that these have some comparisons. Again, no startup looks the same, but there are elements of it. Every experience you might have in a bigger company might actually turn out to be so similar to what you might find in a startup.

One of the things about the startup that you’ll expect, just from an environmental perspective, is there’s a ton of ambiguity. Depending on what stage that startup is, you’re probably in a phase of potentially finding market fit. There’s a lot of ambiguity to create clarity from versus a larger established company with a little bit more structure. That structure means that you can learn from a ton of things. It also means that if you can you can enter spaces that would be really difficult to do as a startup. Startups often have a runway of resourcing and financing, where you are doing the same innovation in a large company with that structure. So for instance, if you’re building something that needs to enter a market that requires hardware, you have more time and resources in a larger company. At a startup, you tend to have a bit more velocity. What you’re doing is you’re building and you have early market fit. So you’ll find hopefully a greater degree of velocity at a startup versus at a larger company. 

The impact of opportunity is great, but there’s a lot more alignment that you’ll need to do across larger teams and different disciplines. So alignment is a huge part of that. Impact is across both so you have an impact as an individual PM and also as a company, both at a startup and a big company, but that impact at a big company might look different on a smaller scale. You might be a feature PM for a smaller feature but have a very large impact as an example 

At a startup, you’re a bit more scrappy. So you’ll find this also in big companies, the way that Android and Google were like, it’s a very scrappy environment as well. The bigger companies tend to have more resources. So that means you can often split out different tasks, there might be a difference between somebody who runs pricing versus somebody who runs marketing is a little bit more common at a big company. At a startup, this one kind of goes back to us as a PM in your craft. You are a bit more independent, often depending on what your startup looks like, in building your own career, versus a larger company often has an established promo process, career levels, and career model that you can also lean on, as well.”

On product design and creating clarity as pm skills

Karen notes that product design is a PM skill that is acquired, not necessarily just a given. PMs need to hone this skill, in addition to creating clarity, which is the heart of what product managers do.

“One of the things here is, this is what is meant by the art of designing a product. This looks in terms of deliverable very similar to a product requirements doc, it could be a spec, it could be a presentation that you’re actually describing what that framework would look like. But the art of doing product design is a craft that we end up honing. At a startup, you’ll probably get a bigger rock. I work with a great PM, Kyle, who was asking how big is this particular feature we were working on. At a startup, you’ll kind of get a space that is probably four or five larger feature teams, so you’ll get the chance to design very large things all the way down to the details. The trade-off is that at a larger company, you might have started out with just one feature, which was, I want to notify people when something changes with this group of people. So the trade-off is more having the ability and the guidance to kind of hone a craft. The benefit of getting both is if you join kind of a world of a startup where you get a large space, but you still have people around you that can help hone that craft, you’ll kind of get a bit of both. 

Creating clarity … is really the heart of what a product manager does. We talk about many things that PMS should do, but really you want to take ambiguity and make order to it. It’s really around figuring out how to ruthlessly prioritize. We are often pulled in so many different directions. You might have seven customers asking for something, you have a bunch of things that you didn’t finish from the last sprint, you have your CEO asking for a set of things, and then you know that you should be building a couple of compete items that you know should go there. How do you figure out which one to do next? That’s the art and the craft of prioritizing based on imperfect data. This is also an area where you could be creating roadmaps, thinking about objectives, and aligning people and objectives. It’s execution and also storytelling communication. Think about your role as a product manager as to how to create clarity, and how you learn how to make good decisions and that option in that world.

When you find yourself saying that you should have many different options that we put in the product, it’s probably a case where we couldn’t decide. There are some cases where it makes a lot of sense to do options. Options are the enemy of clarity. … Creating clarity is in the little things. You’ll get this in both a startup and a company, but you’ll find that there’s probably an idea of what a SPECT or what you think the product should do. …  The whole goal is funneling from open-ended to concrete comparison between a startup and a big company, and you’ll learn in both. In both cases, there’s so much more ambiguity often in a startup that you will learn how to hone the skill really well or you’ll find that it’s not a great environment for you.” 

On growing skills with a risk vs. reward framework

As PMs, we continue to grow certain skills, but it is also important to find the right space to grow them. Karen has developed a framework for this process and how you should understand it.

“It’s a risk versus reward framework. Thinking about the kinds of things that you value as reward, one part of it is learning. Learning quickly. One part of it is scope and impact. One part is thinking about what you want your day-to-day to be around, mostly building versus aligning. One might be compensation, one might be leveling, but think about all the things that you find as a reward and balance that with the risks you can take to accelerate all those skills. 

If you find that you’re in a spot where you can take it, it’s worth the risk to accelerate growing all these skills. It’s such a great place to be in a startup for that reason. You’ll find different levels of startups and different levels of big companies. It’s just a way to think about risk versus reward trade-off. Just as you think about where you want to grow your skills and how you’ll roll them everywhere, think about what is know that you what you want to learn, and think about the risk versus reward.”

About the speaker
Karen Ng Member