Three Tips for Succeeding in Product Management at a Startup
Maybe you’re looking to use all the great product management skills you’ve honed during your years at larger companies to catapult a smaller company to success. Maybe you want more responsibility. Maybe you just really like to hustle. Regardless, here’s what no one tells you about transitioning from a non-startup to a startup: you’ll only succeed if you’re game for questioning everything you’ve come to know and love about product management in your career so far. Fortunately, you don’t have to start from scratch; I’ll share three habits product managers at established companies take for granted that don’t work when finding product/market fit is your number-one job.
For seasoned product managers with excellent product management skills who’ve spent their careers at well-established companies, the allure of a startup is real: it’s a chance to shape a product in its earliest days — and possibly create something groundbreaking in the process. It’s an opportunity to build an internal product culture that reflects your uniquely honed product management skills, not a patchwork of opinions from those who came before you. All the layers of approval embedded in the hierarchical structures of a large company? There’s simply not enough people in a startup to sustain those. Little sits between you and your vision hitting the market.
Here’s what no one tells you about transitioning from a non-startup to a startup: yes, all those things can be true, but success only comes if you’re game for questioning everything you’ve come to know and love about product management in your career up to the point of transition.
I made the startup leap myself after 12 years honing my product management skills at companies that had made it, including Dictionary.com, Autodesk, and Pandora. I was confident that those years had taught me how to build great products. I learned, though, that my number-one job in a startup wasn’t to build a great product, but to find product/market fit as quickly as possible — and there was little from my years of experience that prepared me for that.
Here are the three biggest learnings from my experience.
- At large companies, you can reliably look to your product for insights around what to do next. Seeing how your users engage (or not) with your product can help you identify what’s missing and prioritize filling those gaps. Often a startup’s user base is small, so how your users interact with your product today may not be representative of how a larger market should be using your product tomorrow. When developing a roadmap, look to your target customer first: how are they attempting to solve the problems your product is designed to solve faster, cheaper, or in more delightful ways? Overindex on translating those insights into features.
- At large companies, it’s more likely than not that a test you ran a year ago will have similar results if you ran it today. When your company has achieved some amount of product/market fit, you’re usually getting a steady stream of users from a relatively predictable set of sources, so it’s not unrealistic to expect that users will behave in similar ways and will continue to do so. At a startup, the context surrounding your product is constantly shifting. For example, where you’re running marketing can substantially change the demographic and psychographic profiles of your prospective users; a new category of business (i.e., online interior design) becomes more and more familiar, with a few key brands establishing expectations for how products in the category should work. At a startup, what succeeded (or failed) a year, or even three months ago, may no longer be true. Test it again. Keep building your product management skills.
- At large companies, it’s more likely that you can deploy similar engagement and retention tactics when bringing something new to market. After all, your product probably helped define a category — digital music consumption, travel booking, or ridesharing, for example — and establish a set of expectations for how products in that category should work. Assume there’s no go-to-market playbook in a startup. Look at every product release as if it’s the company’s first: what’s the best way to get it in the hands of people who would benefit from it the most?
The most successful startup product leaders I’ve seen prioritize learning over practice and consumers over customers — which can feel antithetical to the product management skills purist who’s cut her teeth at some of the biggest and best product companies out there. Like the allure of a startup to an ambitious outsider, though, the upside of the transition from large company to small and scrappy is real: the impact of your work on end users is usually direct and profound. With the right amount of self-reflection and course-correction along the way, it’s a journey worth taking.