Defining the Role of a Product Manager in Startups

We are familiar with various definitions that describe what product management is. Whether it is depicted as a function which sits at the center of customers, technology, and business or as a process that spans ideation, prototyping, development, launch (or even withdrawals), we perceive the concept of product management within these contexts. No doubt, core competencies and skills are fundamental for all product managers.

However, it is vital for anyone interested in product management to know that these definitions, functions, and responsibilities vary on a deeper level according to the stage of the company, the business model, product line, etc. Here’s an attempt to define and explain the role of a product manager in startups from my experience as a Product Manager in a B2B environment.

Redefining the Principles of Product Management

An early stage startup would in all likelihood be building products and features. Even before the product team is formed and has started growing. By the time product managers get involved and the product team begins to grow, the need to define certain processes strengthens. This eventually allows them to achieve their product goals. Let me delve into the topic and define the 4 Ps I have learnt so far as a product manager.

Process

Delivery of successful products is closely dependent on well-defined processes. A clearly defined process outlines responsibilities within teams, identifying stakeholders involved in decision making, communication medium and frequency, etc. Processes are not supposed to be stagnant, nor rigid. It differs with respect to the teams.

As a product manager, you could uphold processes like standups, sprints, release notes, documentations, etc. while working with teams. But be aware that finding the right process is yet another process. It’s almost impossible to find the perfect process that aligns with the team, the company culture, and the product itself. It might take a few iterations to arrive at one that suits you best and runs smoothly.

So it is essential to experiment, change course, and assess the potential impact of these changes. The key to success is patience and effective communications with everyone involved.

Prioritization

All product managers face constant feature/ enhancement requests from various stakeholders and new functionality requests from customers. It’s practically impossible to accommodate all ideas and resolve all requests to please everyone. It thus becomes extremely important to prioritize all tasks in the pipeline. Also, to chart out a roadmap for the next few sprints/ weeks.

As a product manager it is equally important to learn to say no. Rather than creating an expectation mismatch which might lead to an unsatisfied client/ team member. You ought to know what to build, when to build it, and what does not necessarily fit well in the product roadmap. Especially when resources and time are limited. I have also learned through experience that prioritization and clear communication of the same cuts down on back-and-forth and makes life easy for everyone.

Product Initiation

Now that there is a roadmap and priority list in place, the next important thing is to get off on the right foot. What stands out in this phase is documentation.

A product requirement document would consist of all crucial information for the MVP (Minimum Viable Product). It includes goals, scope, feature requirements, pricing model, release plans in phases amongst other things. Startups typically have fewer stakeholders compared to big corporates, which can be used as an advantage.

Discussing the product outline with stakeholders can ensure buy in, awareness across teams that deal with clients, and modifications of the product plan if needed. Technical challenges, if any, can also be identified and accounted for. When there is a consensus and understanding in the initiation phase, we move onto the next phase: Product execution.

Product Execution

In a startup environment each person dons multiple hats and gains varied experiences; same goes for a Product Managers. I have been required to brainstorm on technical challenges, work on solutions with stakeholders and take decisions, and coordinate across teams to ensure smooth development of products.

While large organisations might have dedicated resources to manage projects, startups would often see product managers shoulder these responsibilities. I can say through experience that it only adds on to one’s knowledge, helps empathise with engineering teams (which is also very important for a Product Manager to work effectively with the engineers), and helps in better decision making over time.

Needless to say, these processes are cyclical as the life cycle of a product never ends. Even when a product is launched, we gather and analyse data and customer feedback, which in turn provides insights as to how you can improve the product further, broaden its functionalities, address customer pain points, or even at times, how to pivot an entire idea. Once these decisions are taken, the 4 Ps mentioned above come into play again and the cycle repeats. Further, there are other crucial functionalities for a Product Manager such as defining OKRs, product metrics, which are used to make decisions and measure the success of products. We shall deep dive into those in the next part of this article.

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