The role of product manager is not necessarily one-size-fits-all. Within each company, from small start-ups to very large corporations, the product manager’s leadership will need to have different approaches. As a company scales, what can a PM expect and skills they should consider? Meta Product Leader Yu-Kuan Lin shares observations of how product teams evolve as companies grow, and the difference in leadership skills at each stage.
On the Biggest Difference in Leadership Based on Scale
Yun-Kuan describes his experiences working with a small startup and how that compares to working for growth. When your company is working on scale, the roles and responsibilities shift, as well as the mindset of how PMs approach their product.
“My experience and working in the zero-to-one stage, one of the most important things that we really want to focus on is figuring out what it is that the user needs. … Some of the things I’ve learned is that this is where a lot of the qualitative Insights are potentially going to yield more gains than the quantitative. When I think about learning about user needs, this is one of the things where I think our data analytics has become so sophisticated now, which is fantastic. The way we think about funnels and frameworks, and then like growth loops and all of these things are really fantastic. And then experimentation is now probably part of every PM’s is lexicon. That said, there’s a lot of old-school talking, literally talking to your users, that cannot be substituted and talking to be in many ways.
When we did everyday.me, which was my startup, for example, my co-founder and I, there was no other cost customer support, so we actually answer customer support ourselves for a whole year. I must have done like 10s of 1000s of send-us type emails and tickets and so forth. … Those insights that you will find is that, because your sample set is really small, we haven’t quite figured out what it is that people really want their problems to solve for and what you what they need from you. That is where quantitative insights can sometimes lead you astray. Some of the tips that I’ve kind of learned there is, there are a couple of questions I go to a lot at the very beginning in the problem discovery phase, and asking people, ‘before we even talk about anything that our team is going to build, is just tell me how you solve this problem today?’ In our case of this journaling, how do you keep track of these many ideas you have, or how do you track the number of miles you’re running every day, or what you’re eating, and so forth? Using that to pinpoint, is it painful enough problem where they actually have workarounds, that they have hacked to address this? This is often a fairly valuable signal into showing if this is a problem that is worthwhile for our team to solve.
A lot of things I’ve learned in the growth stages is thinking about how do you design for scale, but then not doing so prematurely. That’s always like a tricky balance. This is in terms of organization and how do you design a team, like engineering architecture or user interface, because this is one of the issues that you run into a lot when we’re scaling like crazy. … One rule that I found really helpful is to design for 2 to 3x to what you think you need now, the max of what you need, but not 10x. … One of the reasons to not go to 10x is because there are too many decisions and assumptions you may find will change very quickly in the future. … You just don’t know, and you end up making in these premature investments. But if you don’t design for any scale, then when things like really grow like crazy, you wouldn’t be able to accommodate.”
On What To Exhibit When Being A Leader in a Larger Company
While being a person of all trades is important for smaller companies, telling your story and making it heard is important at larger companies. Yun-Kuan gives ideas of how to curate that narrative.
“The core fundamentals never change. Building a product that solves like users’ needs, that never goes away, whether you’re at a five-person startup or like a 100,000-person company….. Basically, if we can’t take care of the fundamentals, then no matter what else we do, it will be challenging to survive or thrive at a larger company.
Your ability to tell our narrative and to storytell becomes more and more important at a large company. At a large company, naturally, it’s just a lot noisier, there’s a lot more information flying at everyone every day, like hundreds of emails, Slack messages, and all of these things. Your ability for your team to either move in a particular direction, your resources, a lot of that will be determined by increasingly not your immediate circle of influence, or even the secondary, but tertiary or beyond, whether it’s senior leadership, or a VP in a different department, or VP in a totally different function, and so forth. Those folks have, as you can imagine, probably like 10-100 times more things that come at them every day. How can you, for example, share that in one short email message, or in the email header, or the title of your posts, or in a short meeting where you’ve got a chance to speak on your topic. Then that conversation, that direction, or that decision might decide your team’s roadmap for like next quarter or two, or whether your team is five people versus 10 people.
The ability to be able to really condense that down, the ability to crisply distill whatever key information and point you’re trying to make, and drive that across and make a really simple to understand. … Wrap that up in 30 seconds. That elevator pitch is and that ability to communicate that level is pretty critical to succeeding in a larger environment so that you can cut through the noise and make your impact.”
On What PMs Can Use To Keep Up Leadership Knowledge And Context
Being a product manager and leader consists of life-long learning. As Yun-Kuan describes, we want to become known as an expert in a particular area, and following this framework, it can help to guide you in that direction.
“I’ll use this analogy of a letter T, or the T-shirt framework, which one of my design leaders told me years ago, and I really liked it and wanted to adopt it. … Speaking to my career, I didn’t really know what I was doing, I haven’t even gone through the full lifecycle of a product, from conception, to build, launch, to iterate to go to market. In the beginning, getting a little bit of that full-cycle experience in any particular field is important. Start there, and then probably go deeper. … The reason why I call it a T shape is that over time, what you’re aiming for is, you want to start to get to be known as an expert in a particular domain or a particular set of skills. So that is sort of the vertical part of the T, if you will. … If we can call it phase 1, basically learning a PM fundamental, shipping a product from zero to launch and multiple iterations, being able to have some wins or achievements show, that’s all part of that building that vertical part of your T.
Now, the second phase is where to start to increase your breath in multiple functions and multiple skill sets. You may not go as deep in any of them, but increasingly, for myself, once I got to a certain point, I actually benefited from learning more about design, sales, and marketing. How does customer support work? How do they think about customer retention? We even just talk about how each one of us is actually a little micro-influencer. There are plenty of great lessons to be learned from like content marketing, influencer social media, and supplying in our own Pm lives. This is the second part, the horizontal part of the T, building that out. Together over time, is when then you start to build a brand or a particular niche for yourself, as an individual as well as a product. We build products as PMs, we ourselves and our careers are also product. So what is that product-market fit for us as individuals? What is that unique problem that we want to solve and hopefully, ultimately, solve better than others?”