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.

Product Management Reading

For the past several years, I’ve made a habit of clipping interesting articles about Product Management.  A friend recently asked for reading suggestions, so I thought I’d share my favorites here.

Be a Great Product Leader (Adam Nash) – This recent favorite concisely breaks down the role of a Product Manager into three key responsibilities; product strategy, prioritization, and execution.  It’s hard to argue with these three.  On prioritization: “At any company with great talent, there will be a surplus of good ideas…As a result, brutal prioritization is a fact of life.”  On execution: “In the end, product managers ship, and that means that product managers cover whatever gaps in the process that need to be covered.”

What Makes Someone a Great Product Manager at Google? (Quora answer by Edward Ho) – This response by an engineer at Google had two recommendations that jumped out at me.  First, “be an engineer.  I don’t mean that you actually need to be coding the product.  I mean you should be curious about how the product is built  as if you were an engineer.” If you’re not curious in how the thing you manage works, you’re not doing it right.

Second, Edward calls on Product Managers to be “[f]earless…the best PMs will speak to founders the same way they speak to engineers.”  Product Managers need to have the ability to “influence without authority” (to quote an old business school professor).  They are often lower in the organizational chart than the people who are looking to them to make important calls.  A good product manager can’t be intimated by this.

Why it doesn’t matter where Product Management lives in the Organization (The Cranky Product Manager) – I firmly agree with Cranky’s thesis on this.  I’ve worked for three separate product organizations.  The first two reported up through marketing and the current one reports up through engineering.  When product management is done correctly, it straddles both the business and technical teams so which ever one it formally reports to doesn’t matter.

“The assumption is that if we sit in Engineering we’ll be too spineless and too tunnel-visioned to focus on the customer, market problems, issues for the field, the competition, or market positioning.  But if we sit in Marketing that we’ll be so focused on empty soundbites and website color schemes that we won’t be able to give Development detailed enough requirements, that we’ll conjure up product features that can’t possibly be built (a la Warp Drive), and that we’ll stare vacantly into space instead of considering technical extension points (i.e. APIs) for our products.”

Frankly, anything by the CrankyPM is pretty good reading.

You Can Build it, but Can You Sell and Support It? (Saeed Khan) – Saeed has a great answer for the question “should sales and execution capabilities be taken into account for a product’s strategy.”  This needs to be a resounding “Yes.”  If you are developing a high price, high margin, complex product that requires high touch after sales support, you better have the capability to deliver that support.  The product strategy needs to fit within the companies core capabilities.

How Do Awful Products Get Shipped (Quora answer by Michael Wolfe) – We’ve all seen products that have been released before they were ready and wondered “how did that happen?”  Michael lists some of the organizational pressures and dynamics that can cause this to happen including: “If you don’t ship, the project will get cancelled and you’ll lose your funding anyway.”

Spare Me from Product Guys (HackerNews Discussion) – Aaron Harris posted on Techcrunch about the problem of “Product Guys” without real experience and the HackerNews community responded.  There is a lot of skepticism from this engineering oriented group on the value of Product Managers (including this).

Good Product Manager, Bad Product Manager (by Brad Horowitz) – This is a good overview for when Product Management is responsible for both the inbound and the outbound aspects of product management.  (It is also a great history piece on what it must have been like at Netscape during the browser wars.)  “Good product managers anticipate the serious product flaws and build real solutions.  Bad product managers put out fires all day.”  “Good product managers define good products that can be executed with a strong effort.  Bad product managers define good products that can’t be executed or let engineering build whatever they want.”

The Product Owner on One Page (Roman Pichler) – This is a nice, simple drawing of a Product Owners key responsibilities in an agile environment.

Seven Traits of Successful Product Managers (Michael Shrivathsan) – This was one of the first articles I read when I made the transition from business development to product management.  Hard to argue with any of this.

Parenting and Product Management

Cranky PM has a great post on Product Management and parenting.

So, YEAH.  Product Management is JUST LIKE parenting.  JUST LIKE.  Especially if:

  1. You go around asking everyone about your baby’s strengths, but especially his weaknesses.
  2. You do win-loss analysis after play dates.
  3. You actively seek market problems that your toddler can profitably solve.  For example, maybe Judd Apatow’s next film could use the CrankyKid’s cursing and new-found toileting skills?
  4. You send out surveys to relatives, friends, members of the local mother’s club, and those “Mommy and Me” Pilates people (or do we only have these in California?) about how well your child is meeting their needs, and what their perception of your child’s brand is.
  5. You maintain a 10-year roadmap for the child, in PowerPoint format.
  6. You conclude that after two years of being a drag on your household’s finances, that you need to shoot your spawn in the head.  Or at least “desupport” him/her by refusing to further feed, clothe or educate him/her.

I love #5. I’m definitely maintaining a 10 year roadmap on my kids.