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The product management challenge - when, who and how

shutterstock_1114233050The early stages of any start-up are critical to the overall success of the business.

In product development, it is during these early stages that the onus lies heavily with the product manager, which by default, often tends to be the founder.

In order for the product to be a success, it needs to be innovative, realistic, profitable and more importantly, meet the demands of the market. Who better to nurture this product to fruition than the founder?

As the company scales, that responsibility becomes discernibly more complex. The speed at which a product develops and how it meets market demands is often dependent on the capabilities, knowledge and objectivity of the individual responsible for it.

During this period, the business will likely be met with the following questions:

  1. Who will take the initial role of the product manager?
  2. At which stage should the founder step down and hire a full-time product manager?
  3. Who is the best person for the job?

This blog looks at some of the requirements of the product manager and how they shift in alignment with a business’s growth, as well as the journey of the product/company founder.

The founder as the product manager

It is common for the founder to take on the role of product manager in the early stages, and rightly so. The founder has the right knowledge, depth and insight crucial for steering the product’s development at the beginning.

Over the long run, however, many companies bring in a dedicated product manager to take the reins. A product manager focuses on the product. They give direction and guide the team to make sure it’s the right product for users. They take ownership of both successes and failures.

But surely these roles sound like a perfect fit for the founder? Can the founder continue to be the product manager moving forward?

Founders tend to fall into two camps - the technically-minded and the business-minded. Generally speaking, neither of these mindsets are focused enough on the product itself as it progresses. A product manager has a foot in both camps. They understand the market and they understand the technology. They continually ask “what does the customer want and what will they pay?” and map that against what can be built in cost-effective and realistic way. In short, a good PM is always looking to achieve product-market fit.

Once the product development has gained momentum, it’s usually time for the founder to hand over control and make way for a dedicated and experienced PM who brings with them objective, product-focused decision-making and strategic direction.

When is it time to hire a PM?

The beginning of the product development is a time of accelerated activity for the whole business - when that activity starts to gather momentum, it is a great time for a founder to start relinquishing some of the direct product responsibility. Warning signs that the time has come to hire in a dedicated PM tend to be:

  • Other responsibilities such as hiring and sales are equally demanding attention and you’re on the verge of burnout
  • As a consequence, your lack of fast decision-making is impacting the rate of shipping releases
  • The product backlog is becoming disordered
  • The lines are becoming blurred over who is managing the product, the entire team is getting involved, and individual priorities are no longer clear
  • You are too involved in the business to make decisions objectively, to the detriment of the product development, your engineering, and your design teams

A PM can join and form a strong understanding of the product, remaining detached enough that they can take an objective approach - unlike the founder, who may well have developed emotional and personal desires about the product they started.

The time to hire a PM will be different for every business, but the aforementioned points should help you identify when that need comes. The business will need of the founder to focus on other aspects, and equally, it will become clear that the product needs a dedicated manager.

Choosing the best person for the job

Once you have recognised the need for PM, you might consider recruiting internally or externally. The product manager should be the ‘CEO of the product’. The decision on who that is depends on what the company, its people, and the product need at that time. Ultimately, it will be one of the most important hires you make as the company scales. An understanding of the core responsibilities of a PM should help with this decision. But, firstly, how does the PM differ from the CEO?

  • The PM does not directly manage anyone
  • They do not have the final say or complete control over the product
  • They do not base decisions on personal desires or preferences
  • They do not have direct budget or resources, and therefore no direct authority

When looking to achieve rapid success, your product manager will be one of the most important hires. They are the person responsible for defining the why, when, and what of the product that engineering builds. They set product strategy, generate and curate ideation, define release timelines, and prioritise development of features by ranking them against strategic goals.

They take full responsibility and measure themselves against the success of the product. They know the competition and the strong basis of knowledge and confidence. They shouldn't become preoccupied or distracted by other priorities.

A product manager needs to be a dedicated professional who has one eye on the market, influencing decisions at every juncture of the product lifecycle. This includes trends, cultures, laws, and regulations. Their primary goal is always to ship something of value, that meets demands, meets cost expectations, and, as a result, provides a return on investment.

Naturally, it is during the early stages that the founder will take the role of product manager, but if a dedicated product manager is brought in at the right stage - not too early, not too late - they can take the baton at that turning point when the correct amount of momentum and passion has built, guaranteeing a long-term focus on the product and each iteration as it develops. They will come armed with the knowledge to react to changes in the market and customer expectations, with a focus on strategy and customer needs.

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