May 5, 2020

Even early-stage startups can use a good product manager

Tenry Fu
Tenry Fu
CEO & Co-Founder

Even early-stage companies can use a good product person

As an early-stage startup CEO, I get a lot of advice about hiring priorities. Something I have heard is that a product person is a waste of headcount at an early-stage company as the technical founding team is driving the vision and product roadmap.

I respectfully disagree.

First, it might make sense to talk about what kind of role a product person is. A product person, in short form, PM, actually has multiple interpretations: Product Manager, Product Marketing and Program Manager. Sometimes, a person called PM in one place can do very different things in some other organizations. Generally speaking, you can think about PM responsibilities lying on a spectrum from technical inbound (hash out priorities and make sure engineering knows what needs to be built) to marketing outbound (product marketing and getting the message out about what the product does), on top of driving the schedule and deliverables across multiple departments. A PM in any individual organization can be in any position on this spectrum. A good product person for a startup is going to be one that is comfortable covering ALL territory on that spectrum.

In the earliest days of my startup, the founding team had conversations with people that could be potential customers of our product. They were great conversations where we heard a lot of validation of the ideas that we were developing. It was exciting to hear people tell us that we had something interesting and refreshing. Surely, evidence that a product manager was not going to be a lot of value add!

Then we started trying to figure out how we should talk about what we built. What IS the value of our solution? How do we make sure that everybody UNDERSTANDS what the value is of our solution? We decided we needed somebody to help us with product marketing as a task. However, we also realized that as most startups have to do some exploration of product/market fit, we wanted somebody who could really help with it as we simultaneously tried to clarify our message. This is what an early-stage product person does.

We brought a product person on board and discovered something else — that person sometimes has different opinions. A good product manager listens differently to a conversation; they understand technology but they are listening more closely for other things:

  • Priorities and what is the must-have vs. nice-to-have,
  • What attracts or distracts the customer,
  • User experiences and how a user wants to interact with the product,
  • Most importantly, pain points; and is the pain point big enough to merit the customer’s willingness to pay to solve it?

Since they didn’t slave over code to implement a feature, they aren’t as emotionally attached to that feature being the “right answer” or “right priority”. Even for a tech-savvy and heavily engineering-driven startup, this kind of diversity and healthy debates are absolutely beneficial.

We, as founders, need to stay heavily involved with the customer and we need to be able to set aside our egos and listen to them. However, we also need to be able to scale the rest of the business from engineering operations to support and fundraising. Having somebody that is primarily focused on being true to the customer is liberating as we all know somebody will provide that additional gut check. At a startup, everyone wears multiple hats and has to be self-driving. It turns out that having an extra set of multipurpose hands when you are moving towards a product launch is just a smart move.

Hewlett-Packard founder David Packard used to say, “A group of people get together and exist as an institution that we call a company so they are able to accomplish something collectively which they could not accomplish separately”. This is the true soul of a startup company: be the change you seek, but make sure everyone is going in the same direction. Together we will accomplish great things!

Thought Leadership
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