Does your startup need a Product Manager?

What is Product Management?

As defined by Wikipedia:

Product management is an organizational life-cycle function within a company dealing with the planning, forecasting, or marketing of a product or products at all stages of the product life-cycle.

The role consists of Product development and product marketing, which are different (yet complementary) efforts, with the objective of maximizing sales revenues, market share, and profit margins. The product manager is often responsible for analyzing market conditions and defining features or functions of a product. The role of product management spans many activities from strategic to tactical and varies based on the organizational structure of the company. Product management can be a function separate on its own, or a member of marketing or engineering.

Even with this definition it can still be quite challenging to define exactly what a PM does for your startup, or even just trying to explain the difference from the CEO, COO, CTO or the founders. With this in mind, many startups put themselves at risk because they may think it’s simply not necessary to have a separate person for this role. However, many of us believe that the sooner startups formalize this role the better the odds for success.

Usually because of the small sizes and the demand to wear multiple hats, the PM role isn’t filled by just one person, instead it is bundled with the C(x)O duties as maintaining the product vision and plan for the company.

However, as the roles of the C(x)O begins to split to more operational and technical issues as it should if business is doing well, this should be handled by someone else while still assisting the CEOs product vision. Jacques Murphy explains a Product Managers role in startups very nicely on how in startups a “Product Manager fills in the gaps in the product effort, whatever they happen to be“.

What Product Managers Do

In startups, a succinct explanation of what a PM does is to translate the product vision into an actual execution plan by delivering the right features at the right time. Here is a snapshot of what PM duties may be in your startup:

  • Translating the CEOs product vision
  • Being metrics oriented and constantly tracking product performance, usage, conversions, etc.
  • Attempt to influence & coordinate key personnel
  • Help mediate disputes between coworkers.
  • Make and justify tough decisions (which may upset many key allies).
  • Be hands on by knowing how to code (atleast a small amount of knowledge) to fully understand the possibilities and limitations of technology.
  • Respond to demands from upper management while still being accountable for product decisions.

Failing to formalize PM duties because you think it is just a position that people have at larger more complex companies is really just a horrible excuse. The idea is to save time and not rush into creating prototypes via code too early, or deploying anything without enough analysis and really about making sure someone is clear headed about product decisions.

Over at TripLingo this role is split between the  CEO and myself. Having five co-founders with different disciplines definitely gives us a wonderful advantage; one being the ability to really focus on multiple responsibilities without feeling too overwhelmed. Jesse Maddox (our CEO) handles more of the Strategic duties of a PM and I, also being our User Experience lead, take the Tactical responsibilities. Some brief examples of how we split this role would be how Jesse handles creating the Market Definition, our Distribution Strategy and Customer Acquisition Analysis; whereas I would be crafting our Development Cycles, Feature / Platform Timelines, Personas and Use-Case Scenarios.

Every startup situation is different and as such it’s difficult to say explicitly when the best time would be to either higher a Product Manager or add someone as a co-founder if this role isn’t being fulfilled already. How we handle it over at TripLingo may not be the best fit for you and your startup, but the point to take away is to understand who is currently doing this and is it being done correctly? Saeed Khan also makes a great point on why you should look into adding a PM position sooner rather than later.

Great Books on Product Management

What do you think makes a great Product Manager? Or better yet, how important do you think a Product Manager is for a startup?

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