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The Startup Product Manager

Published: at 08:30 PM

Hi, I’m Kiran. I lead the product and growth function at Hoppscotch, where we make the API development lifecycle easy for developers worldwide! Check out Hoppscotch and read more about our company here.

In early-stage startups, the CEO is typically the individual responsible for managing the product function, along with other functions such as sales, marketing, hiring, finance, and operations.

When and why do CEOs at early-stage startups make the first product hire?

Early-stage startups typically hire a product person when:

  1. The product reaches a phase where it starts to gain traction and requires structured development processes.
  2. The engineering team has grown sufficiently.
  3. The need arises for a dedicated person to manage the product lifecycle, research, and prioritization.

What does a product manager at an early-stage startup do?

My simple definition of the product management function is “To ship the right product successfully.” I wrote an entire blog on it here. A really vague definition that doesn’t convey what exactly to do? That’s the job; your space is vague and filled with uncertainties.

Shipping the Right Product

A part of the product manager’s job involves “identifying” what problems users have. This involves talking to users to understand the current pains they have from accomplishing the task that they use the product for, as well as some good-to-haves on the product that might make it easier to accomplish their tasks. Now, you can’t solve all problems. Once you’ve identified problems, you need to prioritize what to solve now by working together with engineering and business divisions based on bandwidth, impact, and other factors.

Product managers are involved in the entire product development process. Once they have identified problems, they might work together with design and engineering to develop solutions for the identified problems and scope the work needed with an engineering manager so that the engineering team can start the implementation.

PMs at startups will also take up the responsibility of ensuring that the feature that solves the problem is delivered on time and as well as ensure that the feature adheres to standards and is functioning as expected. Thus, the PM is also responsible for the delivery and ensuring the quality of the feature/product!

Ensuring the success of the product

The success of the product is something that a product manager should define along with the stakeholders. Success can mean different things for companies at different stages. For an early-stage company, it could be acquiring and retaining users. Generating revenue from the product might be the goal for a growth-stage company.

A product manager is to ensure that the direction of the product is oriented with the direction of the company. This includes working with analytics and defining a north star, working with growth and marketing to drive users down the funnel. The PM also works together with sales to ensure that the product does not block sales from closing a deal!

If you’re the first product hire at an early-stage startup, you’ll generally be strategizing and executing all the things mentioned above. You are accountable for product, growth, marketing, analytics, and ensuring that the product sells.

You’ll need to balance strategy, tactics, and execution while managing stakeholders and aligning them.

As the team grows bigger and bigger, you’ll be delegating the functions that you’re handling, or there could be dedicated people to manage the other functions as you develop your own specialized product management role at your company.

Challenges as the first product hire at a startup

One of the biggest challenges of being the first product hire is to earn the trust of the team, especially the CEOs. Since leading by influence is something crucial for a product manager, earning your team’s trust plays a huge factor in your success.

There could be almost no processes in place, and you’ll have to work with other stakeholders to establish product-engineering processes and processes that link product to other functions.

A product manager at a pre-PMF company might have a lack of clarity on defining the product vision.

As a product manager at a startup, you’ll be the single person handling multiple functions as well as balancing out product strategy, tactics, and execution of non-engineering tasks. This could be a challenge when you start out.

Product management is a fulfilling career if you love orchestrating work. Not everyone might see the impact of the work that you’re doing, but the product management function is crucial for any product company.

If you enjoyed this read, then do check out my other blogs on product management here.