Product Management and Start Up Maturity Cycle

A few weeks back, I had the opportunity to attend Practical Product Management training from Pragmatic Marketing.  The instructor, John Gatrell, said something about the maturity cycle in early stage organizations as it relates to product management that I had not considered before.

Jon said that in the beginning most startups are engineering led (this part I knew).  Since the founder usually leads the product development team, this is likely the one time when a company is most market-driven; where they are most focused on building the products to solve real market problems.  As the organization grows and functional specialization begins, a professional sales team is hired and the development organization become more removed from the market and loses some of this focus.

With the new sales team in place, the company focuses on top-line growth and the organization tends to become more sales driven.  One down side of a sales driven organization is that the sales team can get overly aggressive and will sell features that the product doesn’t necessarily support yet.  More and more the product roadmap gets determined by the commitments sales people are making to clients in order to close deals.  This approach helps win business but is not a strategic or thoughtful approach on how to evolve a product for long term market success.

Eventually, the sales team asks for help telling the company’s story and the organization will strengthen its marketing capability.  The marketing team will naturally focus on outbound activities like PR, collateral, and lead generation that help build the sales funnel.  At this point the company is talking to the market but probably not listening as effectively as it could be.

When the company reaches this point, it needs to evolve back towards a market-driven, listening organization that is centered around solving real market problems.  The Pragmatic approach emphasizes, and I agree, that the key role of the Product Manager is force this market-centric discipline on the development organization.  The Product Manager needs to synthesize all the information he or she receives to make data-driven decisions about how to evolve the product and not simply respond to the latest “must-have” feature from a sales rep.

As a side note, I’m glad that Pragmatic has certified me after 7+ years of operating without a license to practice product management.  It is quite a relief to be legit.