Product management is the function in an organization that plans, organizes, and manages the products the organization makes at each stage of the product lifecycle.
In an organization of one, it’s pretty clear who does that job, as it is with every single other job. But as we round the corner to our third or fourth hire, our advisors often start talking about being more deliberate about the product lifecycle and roadmaps.
The Evolution of Product Management In Startups
Where a roadmap was a rough plan to add these three or four things “soon” as a sole proprietor, the roadmap starts to grow in complexity. Perhaps it starts in a Miro (https://miro.com) board so everyone on the team can collaborate on the roadmap. But then it becomes more like a Gantt chart, invariably finding its way first into Airtable and then Jira, or maybe we even spring for a purpose-built roadmapping tool like Aha! (https://www.aha.io).
Now we’re thinking about product management as a discipline. And if we are founders, we’re probably also still sitting in that chair. This means that as the organization grows, we need to become great product managers.
Once upon a time we would of said to head on over to the PMI website at https://www.pmi.org/certifications - and choose a certificate program. But today there are just as many free solutions or programs out there such as those for product management on Coursera. So let’s skip all that and look at some pretty lean project management tasks to embrace while growing and sitting in all the other chairs a founder has to sit in.
Analyze Market Conditions
Wow, that’s a pretty fancy way of saying that we should understand what our customers might want out of our products, how many potential customers we might get for each of those features we build, and what’s changing in the market.
This involves a number of activities, including but not limited to:
Produce roadmaps and swim lanes to achieve goals
Conduct Won/Lost calls with customers we win and those we don’t win
Define personas, or fictional characters that indicate segments of customers we build products for
Define product specifications for new features and products so developers know how to build them
Plan how we will address technical debt, or areas where the product needs to be improved that aren’t included in a feature
Interview customers to get feedback on efforts and new features of products
Keep an eye on what the competition is doing
Name and work n branding for products
Create a Customer Advisory Board (CAB) which is a group of strategic customers who we can get feedback from
Produce marketing assets to document new features and options
That last piece is often known as product marketing and is included in product management in some organization or in a dedicated marketing department in others. The role of product marketing is to promote the product, often providing product information and updates to internal sellers, podcasts, social media outlets, and even prospects and customers.
Product Management as a Discipline
Ultimately, founders make great product managers until we don’t. Over time, if we are successful, the product management function will become a central part of any technology startup. There will come a time when we build features that go unused, when customer acquisition slows, when developers frequently complain about technical debt, when the look and feel of the product start to seem dated, and when customers don’t think we listen. This is when it’s time to bring in dedicated product management.
The first hire is important. We want someone who knows our target market. This might be a stakeholder or champion from a strategic customer. But we need to make sure that it’s not just an evangelist but someone who has an eye on structured improvement. Preferably someone with a background in both the subject matter and project or product management.
Some organizations elect to bring in a seasoned product manager. For this, consider someone with previous experience in product management at a similar type of company and/or someone with one of the certifications previously mentioned.
The founders will need to work closely with the person we hire to do this job. We shouldn’t micro-manage them or make them feel like they aren’t empowered. Instead, we should lean on them for experience and do everything we can to keep the new dynamics from getting political. There will always be a push and pull between the product manager who is constantly pushing for improvements to the product and the technologists who deliver on those improvements. Add in the customers who need new features and the job quickly becomes difficult. One simply cannot make everyone happy all the time. The more data driven the next rounds of efforts, the easier the job becomes.