Filling the Product Management role in a startup

I was watching Mark Suster interview Brian Feld on This Week In Venture Capital, and thought I’d extract their discussion about the role of Product Management in a startup.

Brian Feld mentions that in a startup, especially a fast growing startup, one of the most difficult roles to fill is that of Product Management. Startups usually have a very strong engineering skillset, and it’s often one of these engineers that is thrown into the PM role. Brian believes you can teach people how to be PMs, however it takes a very specific personality type to be successful.

Some of the pitfalls Brian Feld mentions is that the existing members of a startup may be too process driven, or may not have the right mix of leadership and management. They might be creatively awkward and/or lack the ability to button down and drive the product to the goal line.

To quote from the interview, Brian Feld says:

“Product Managers need to be the CEO of their Job” (a quote he took from Mark Pincus of Zynga fame). “If you’re a Product Manager for a specific thing, you have to deal with it all, just like a CEO has to deal with the whole company.”

Finding someone that can own that whole function can be a very challenging task for a startup.

Here’s the actual discussion:

So can a bunch of engineers make it work, or should these startups spend time finding outside ‘experienced’ product people?

Everyone has a Product Manager lurking inside them. We all use hundreds of products each day. Some we love, some we don’t even notice, and some piss us off. If we were made the Product Manager of one of these products, I’m sure that after some thought we’d all come up with bright ideas of how to make the product better.

But my guess is these ideas would generally gravitate around each persons area of expertise or interest. For example, ideas may be centered around making the product work better, or look more attractive, and others may be focused around improving the marketing or sales process.

If your ideas span the whole spectrum of product design (design is not a stage), and product marketing, and you also have the leadership and management skills to implement these ideas, then you are probably a good candidate for the PM role.

So yes, a bunch of engineers can make it work, if, at least one of those engineers has the personality type to step back, formulate a wise, holistic product strategy and lead it successfully. If no one fits the bill, then go hunting for outside help.

Unfortunately the top 10 traits of being a rock star engineer do not necessarily line up with the PM traits above, so chances are, hunting for outside help may be the more successful move.

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