Product Management Is a Company, Not a Department
#1: It’s a Hard Job
In the best of circumstances, being a startup product manager is a difficult job. A startup PM needs to assist the company in charting a course from a founding vision to a growing business, all within both the constraints and extreme uncertainty of a startup. A successful PM needs to reconcile the sometimes divergent needs of customers, sales, engineering, founders and an executive team, and possess the ability to simultaneously talk at a business level to customers and produce high quality technical requirements for engineering.
#2: Unrealistic Expectations
Many companies lack the willingness or desire to empower their product managers for the role they want them to execute. They talk to their need for strong product managers, while simultaneously fostering environments in which the PMs lack the authority and responsibility to make difficult calls. Too often startup executives are not honest with themselves and their PMs about the scope and constraints of the role they need executed, establishing an expectation gap that frequently results in disappointment.
#3: Too Many PMs Are Sht Funnels
At the 2010 SXSW, the then Gmail product manager said that PMs are either “sht umbrellas” or “sht funnels” for their engineering teams. Too many startup PMs accept the natural gravitational pull of being a sht funnel. Unfortunately, there is a direct correlation between successful startup PMs and those who are simultaneously respected both by their customers and engineering teams. Why? The bread is buttered on two sides in startups: 1) by the customers who receive the value of the product or service, and 2) by the engineers who build it. Everyone else is... well, just noise.
#4: Lack of Qualifications
The best startup PMs operate fluently in the nexus of the business and technical. At the core of their skill set are highly refined listening, influence and communication skills, that are complemented by real world experience in working with customers and engineering teams to deliver successful products. They should also have very strong technical, organizational and analytic skills. In short, being a successful PM requires a very mature and refined skill set that unfortunately is very difficult to find (and when it is found you are looking at a future startup founder instead of just a PM).
#5: Lack of Adaptability
There is no magic playbook for successful product management. Each product manager comes equipped with a playbook containing the plays they know how to run. A good product manager has a big playbook, and can determine which plays to apply based on the current needs / constraints of their situation. Unfortunately, many PMs either do not have the adaptability to adjust their execution to their current situation, and instead run the same plays in each company to widely varying effects.
I won’t pretend there exists a one size fits all solution to product management in startups; different situations will always require different solutions. But I do believe that in early stage startups, product management is a company, not a department. This philosophy is a recognition of the fact that the epiphanies that drive startup success are rarely centralized within any single team, and so by not empowering all your teams, you may be shutting off the potential source of the next great idea.