“Product Manager” might be the most fluid title in tech.
It can mean anything from a spreadsheet-obsessed APM at Google to a savant who can create new user paradigms from scratch.
But what makes for a good product leader at a *startup?*
Product Managers like to think of themselves as “CEOs of the product,” but not all CEOs make effective entrepreneurs.
Here’s what I look for in product folks who want to lead a <10 person startup.
👁️ Point of view
The most impressive product founders have a strong point of view that cascades from the demo, to the deck, even down to the word choices they use to describe critical interactions. It’s like they have quasi-religious beliefs about note-taking software.
✂️ Editorial mindset
Product people should want to cut as much as they build, to curate as much as they solicit. The “data wonk” approach to product doesn’t work well at the seed stage. There needs to be some sense of taste to drive early versions of the product.
🧠 Domain knowledge
It’s hard enough to learn the craft of entrepreneurship without also having to learn about a new domain simultaneously.
A beginner’s mind can be helpful sometimes, but there’s no substitute for knowing where the bodies are buried.
There are many broadly intelligent folks who can opine on any topic and sound superficially smart after a couple of months of study.
You can’t fake years spent obsessing over a technology or market and connecting with the movers and shakers within it.
This is especially true in spaces like healthcare where regulatory barriers, opaque payor relationships, and complicated acquisition channels are difficult to untangle and have snared many well-meaning entrepreneurs.
Early-stage product roles are unglamorous.
With finite resources, big visions often have to be exchanged for practical necessities.
You have to ship stuff that will make you cringe.
Product at startups is not a place for prima donnas!
🔢 Stats sans snobbery
Startups don’t have the benefit of pre-built dashboards filled with cohort performance data, NPS scores, and years of data. Still, product people figure out quick and dirty metrics to measure progress while their analytics mature.
🔮 Psychic powers
The best product people have an antenna for what’s next. Sometimes it’s the ability to invent a new feature, innovating novel UX paradigms, or just a supernatural sense for what aesthetics are coming into vogue.
💼 Business acumen
PMs are often keen to talk about the strategic importance of their work, but it’s a much smaller group that’s willing to sell, field CS calls, and make trade-offs to balance user needs and profit margins.
I believe that Product is the functional area that best prepares founders for the realities of startup life, but be sure you’re learning the right lessons before embarking on an entrepreneurial project.
Many PM roles are a better training ground for life in big tech companies than startup roles. The skills that will help you climb the ladder at a FAAM company probably won’t translate well to the under-resourced rough and tumble of startup life.
Product is a wide-ranging career path. As you choose job opportunities, be clear on which experience will best prepare you for your long-term goals. There is no “right way,” but each direction will open and close specific opportunities.