What is a Product Manager and Why Does My Startup Need One?

Roman Pichler’s Vision, Strategy and Tactics diagram

By Andy Ayim 1 Comment

The Product Lifecycle

The Product Lifecycle

By way of introduction, I am a product manager at a high growth Fintech company based in London. Prior to this, I co-founded a music discovery and streaming platform with over 100,000 loyal fans called Mixtape Madness. I also love sharing stories about founders and investors from diverse backgrounds like Nas, Chamillionaire, Troy Carter and Tristan Walker. So this post mixes two subjects I am passionate about, product management and improving inclusion for people of color in tech.

I moved into product management two years ago after a four year career as a management consultant. I have written this post as a letter to myself about the things I wish I knew when transitioning into products and even when I ran my own startup. I often get asked: “what is a product manager?”; “What does a product manager do?”; “How does product management differ from project management?”; “Why do product managers ask so many questions?”; and “Why do they use so many Post-it notes and Sharpies?”

Before I describe what a product manager is, I feel it is equally important to dispel what a product manager is not:

  • A Mini CEO: A CEO’s mandate is to be responsible for all day-to-day management decisions and for implementing a company’s long and short term plans. The CEO acts as a direct liaison between the board of directors and company management, communicating to the directors on behalf of management. A product manager’s role is not this. There are no “mini roles” in business; there are junior, mid-level and senior roles. That’s it. Product managers are not rogue but rather create a Product Strategy that feeds into Business Strategy set by the CEO and management.
  • A Project Manager: Project managers are responsible for ensuring work is done on time, to budget, and according to an agreed scope. This is not a product manager although we do care about lean, cost-effective, iterative development and delivery. In comparison to software development, a better example of project management is managing the construction of a house.
  • Scrum Master: Double-hatting as a scrum master is one of the worse things a product manager can do. These roles can contradict each other as they are working from two different perspectives. The scrum master is concerned with ensuring the team is progressing without challenges according to the practices of Scrum methodology. They manage the agile process whilst the product manager guides the team to achieve the product vision.

Now that I have shared exactly what a product manager is not, let us start of with a common definition of what a product manager is:

“Product managers are accountable for a product or product portfolio throughout the entire lifecycle”

iPod Product Releases

iPod Product Releases

What does a product manager do?

  • Facilitate: Work at the intersection between UX, tech and the wider business
  • Provide Vision: What does long term success look like for the product and why?
  • Define Product Strategy: How do we go about achieving our product vision and business goals?
    • A good tool to use for this is Google’s OKR’s framework (Objectives and Key Results)
  • Act Tactically: Guide the development team as a ‘single point of contact’ on a daily basis to achieve the strategic objectives for the product
  • Find Product Opportunities: There are a number of customer, market, competitor, and tech related questions to ask when assessing opportunities. I prefer using a quick and dirty method from Marty Cagan, 10 Assessment Questions.
  • Deliver Incremental Value: Work with the team to deliver incremental improvements and iterative development early and often
Roman Pichler’s Vision, Strategy and Tactics diagram

Roman Pichler’s Vision, Strategy and Tactics diagram.

What should you look for when hiring a product manager?

  • Curiosity: Not accepting the status quo, willing to ask why continuously
  • Customer Focused: Spends time with customers regularly by ‘getting out the office’ and using feedback to validate hypotheses and guide product decisions
  • Practitioner of The Lean Startup: Demonstrates experience of working iteratively (“build, measure, learn” loop) and learning continuously
  • Goal Orientated: Outcomes over outputs, goals over features; For example, on a eCommerce website it’s important to track actual sales over just site visits (impressions)
  • Data informed: ….but not held by ransom by data
  • Practitioner: Measurable examples of customer testing and going from idea to MVP
    • Accountability: Responsible for making tradeoff decisions related to his/her product and the performance of that product (good or bad)
  • Prioritisation: Understands how to decide on what order to work on things based on factors such of ease of development, cost and customer value
  • Challenge the Status Quo: Challenge others in a respectful way with empathy driven by evidence not simply opinion
  • They Know Their Boundaries: Guiding the team on the Why & the What and trusting developers to figure out the How

When would your startup need a product manager?

Typically, founders of a startup will manage product from inception until the company grows to a size whereby they transition into the CEO position and devolve responsibility for product to a product manager. Remember, product managers manage both new and existing products depending on the size of the company and where the product is on its lifecycle.

I hope the above provided a comprehensive overview of what product managers do, what to look out for when hiring one, and how they add value in companies.

QUICK PLUG: My inspiration is my mother. She became an entrepreneur at age 60. Now she needs our help. She is raising funds to buy a shuttle bus to support low-income families in Ghana pick up their children for nursery. You can learn more about her project and how to support it here: https://www.gofundme.com/juliets-nursery-mini-bus-campaign

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    About the Author

    Andy loves sharing stories about founders & investors in tech from diverse backgrounds. To read more stories like these, sign up to his weekly newsletter: https://www.getrevue.co/profile/Andy-Ayim