A Product Management role is similar to colors : They come in all hues with varying breadth and depth. The objective of this article is to understand how Product Managers (PM) typically work in different organizational setups.
4 years ago, I started off my career as a PM for a Product organization known for its highly reputed Lending suite. It was a very challenging profile : stakeholders with a lot of expectations, demanding clients and an engineering function with a different set of priorities. But all in a structured and guarded manner.
Cut to now, I am at a rapidly growing startup facing more or less the same set of challenges in addition to the typical challenges of a startup : agility, uncertainty and rapidly evolving business priorities in addition to Engineering being on a very different planet!
The question then typically pops up is a pretty standard one.
What am I doing different now? While this seems like a very simple question, the answer requires to better understand what a Product manager in a startup, a product firm and a non-product firm does differently?
Legacy Product Organizations : The biggest perk of such an organization is the fact that they create market-leading products with next-gen innovation built on their legacy business. These are some of the most prestigious organizations like Apple, Oracle, SAP, IBM, Microsoft, etc. These are firms which dominate their industries and develop new markets. PMs have to be on the cutting edge of innovation anticipating emerging business needs. And businesses chase them for the sheer impact they bring to the table. But then again, you need immense experience and most such PMs come from Engineering background due to intense focus on Technology.
Massive depth in knowledge, focused research on next-generation technologies as well as capability to evaluate such technologies is critical to the success of a PM
Internet Product Organizations : These are some of the biggies like Facebook, Google, Amazon, Netflix, Whatsapp, Uber, etc. Their markets are more consumer-centric and much more rapidly evolving than their legacy peers. Agility and Innovation is in their DNA as they cater to a highly demanding set of customers. They often battle emerging global and regional competitors across geographies online. PMs here need to be very agile as well as very impact-centric in their approach, thinking at least 10 steps ahead of the consumer. And more importantly, they need to be obsessive about user experience. Unlike the legacy PMs, most PMs here come from Techno-functional backgrounds with massive diversity in experience.
Consumer-first, impact-centric approach as well as ability to understand and anticipate their consumers and competitors’ product strategy is critical to success
Early Stage Product Startups : These are often Product companies catering to the needs of businesses in one or more segment. Their markets are largely enterprise but they are always battling it out with their larger competitors as well as equally nimble peers. PMs here need to wear the hat of a business owner and needs to understand not only the clients but the end user as well. The biggest challenge is in building a product that businesses would want to use and developing features that will eventually be used by them. One of the most critical skill sets required is people management and persuasion skills since PMs often have to balance customization vs. white label product. And you are certainly not adored by Engineering team!
Business-centric, priority and feedback-driven approach with the capability to showcase your niche product fit compared to legacy products is critical to success.
Early Stage Non-Product Startups : These are often businesses who have in-house Product teams like FinTech, eCommerce, Food Delivery, etc. These markets are usually working in a highly competitive segment where Product can be a key differentiation but its not the business owner usually. PMs here need to apply all the hard-learnt rules of product management in the context of the company, the ecosystem and competitors. You have to work actively with stakeholders, partners and ecosystem players to stay ahead of the curve. And it all boils down to how much value you bring to the table and stay differentiated consistently. PMs here need to wear various hats, from Product to Project to People to Process management!
Outcome-centric, impact-driven and business-focused with the capability to develop products that stand out in the current markets and can scale up rapidly
Stable Product Startups : These are businesses that have captured a few customers and are able to cater to their requirements and have a stable product stack they can sell to. Product alone no longer is the key differentiation but aspects like Pricing, Implementation and Support take centre stage as the organization seeks to outdo its competitors. And this precisely makes the job of a PM tough. A PM needs to interact with a lot of internal stakeholders, clients and ecosystem partners for everything, including demos and feedback. Impact is more often than not, measured by the incremental revenue you bring in by tweaking an existing feature or how you can launch a new product without reworking your existing stack or with minimal engineering bandwidth. Disruption is often not the focus!
People-centric and business-focused with the capability to develop new products, drive customer success and stand out in the current markets is critical to success
Stable Non-Product Startups : These are businesses where Product is an enabler since the organization has stabilized since inception. PMs focus on improving business and optimizing operations by focusing on incremental features having high impact. Disruptive features are much lesser and a lot of Project Management also creeps in as Teams and Sprints get planned. It’s all about managing stakeholder expectations, maintaining business alignment and bringing in impact at scale and its tough work! Add to it, the complexity of domain understanding and communication intensity. But, PMs also need to bring to the table disruption in existing processes without disrupting business itself. Such PMs typically come from Techno-functional or Business backgrounds with a good understanding of business excellence.
People and process-orientation with the capability of developing impact continuously by aligning stakeholders to a common goal is critical to success
It’s key to note that the above categorization is a simplified generalization. There can be verticals in a company which can be mapped to one or more categories. And it’s becoming common as non-product firms are getting into product space or organizations have diverse Business Units.
Culture, Product orientation and Organizational focus matter than vintage of the business itself when you try to understand what your role entails
As an individual, I started off working with legacy product organizations where I gained invaluable understanding of processes and people management. And then, I moved to early stage non-product startups. And I have seen my current organization mature from an early stage to somewhere closer to a stable firm. And I have seen a massive change in my the way I have had to tackle problems, from random 1 page requirement after a meeting to a structured Sprint and Release planning post multiple discussions with stakeholders.
The challenge for me as a PM has changed from creating impact to sustaining and driving impact as organizations grow and processes stabilize and get structured
PMs in Product firms typically work closer with Clients, Marketing & Sales, Implementation and Service teams as they seek to increase business. PMs in non-product firms, on the other hand, work closer with Internal business functions and Engineering teams. As the organization scales up and stabilizes, the role demands more structure and process orientation compared to when it was an early stage startup. While scale of feature impact also increases, expectations too rise as an organization matures.
The Bottomline : Irrespective of whether you are PM in a 10 or a 10000 member organization, your WHY needs to be clear. What differs radically is the WHAT and HOW parts of your role?
This is one of the articles from my experience for (aspiring)PMs. Do check out my other articles across different aspects from team handling to making sense out of your role or understand team dynamics.