This is the first part of a two part interview with Rich.
Rich, thanks for getting together today.
Let’s start by focusing in on your experience in entrepreneurship and product management. Many folks think that startups don’t necessarily require a product manager. However, I have seen organizations successfully include a product owner or manager from the very beginning. What’s your perspective on this? Should startups incorporate a product manager from the very beginning?
(Rich Mironov) I think this depends heavily on the size and stage of a technology startup:
If this is truly “at the very beginning,” then there are probably two to four founding employees and no formal, full-time product role yet. Most likely, there’s a CEO (who covers investors and fundraising, customer cevelopment/sales, HR, finance, marketing, legal/contracts and office manager as well as bits of product management), a CTO (who builds prototypes and mockups and less-than-MVPs) and perhaps a couple more technical contributors. There’s no room for someone who just wears a product management badge.
It would be great if one of them has some product management experience, especially if they’re following somewhat-by-the-book Lean startup, since defining minimal products and trial-closing prospects are skills that technical founders often lack – and product managers already have. But what founders lack in experience they replace with youth, manic energy, relentless work ethic, and belief in their own infallibility. Somehow, they brute-force through this early phase or close their doors. (I expect that bare-metal startups with product management expertise should survive at higher rates, but can’t prove it.)
Decision-making with 2 or 4 or 7 people is based on the swarm model: everyone sits together, everyone hears everything, and important discussions and decisions are shared in real time. When an urgent task pops up, it may go to whoever’s free, rather than to the most experienced. Product plans happen on the white board.
When a startup hits 12 (or 15 or perhaps 20 employees), it outgrows its free-wheeling communication- and decision-making structure. Suddenly, there is an engineering department of 6-10, and someone formally in charge of development. Likewise someones assigned to customer support, and a sales and marketing function with a couple of people. There’s an urgent, overwhelming need for a product manager to coordinate and drive decisions:
• Gather, sift, and interpret customer inputs from several places
• Decide (in consultation with the founders) what’s next in the backlog
• Build a complete pricing model and price list and blocking “one-off” pricing gaffes
• Make sure stories / features are spec’d enough to build
• Post a roadmap and track commitments made to customers
• Buffer the developers from the founders’ off-strategy “good ideas”
• Protect current customers from unintended feature drops
Single-digit-employee startups place a high value on completely transparent processes and group decision-making, which is exactly right for them. That model inevitably breaks down, though, as soon as the organization starts to specialize and break into departments.
I’ve parachuted into nine startups at this stage, as either the first marketing/product employee or as interim head of product management. These startups need the mechanics of product management, but also a clear set of priorities that’s stable enough to last for a few days. (E.g. enough time to get something small done before the founders change their minds.) In my opinion, my most valuable contribution includes some behavioral training to slow things down just enough to sort “urgent” from “strategic” and “after a moment’s reflection, we can ignore that.”
Finally, startups with 60 or 80 or 120 employees start to look like BIG companies. They may have a Vice President of Product Management and five product managers, or product managers may be scattered one-each in five development teams. Now we’re in the organizational world of budgets and formal resource allocation and “strategic synergy.” Welcome to formal reward systems, portfolio planning, and ops reviews.
This concludes part one of our interview. Next week we’ll pick up with Rich’s thoughts on Steve Blanks material and how it does or doesn’t fit into the world of product management. You can learn more about Rich by clicking here.
Greg Geracie is a recognized thought leader in the field of product management and the President of Actuation Consulting, a global provider of product management consulting, training, and advisory services to some of the world’s most well-known organizations. Greg is also the author of the global best seller Take Charge Product Management. He is also an adjunct professor at DePaul University’s College of Computing and Digital Media where he teaches graduate and undergraduate courses on high-tech and digital product management.
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