Product management is an important role within any company, especially in a startup where the product is still evolving.
Part cat herder, part strategist, and part analyst, if one thing is certain about a Product Manager, it’s that they need to constantly be on their toes and ready to rally a team behind a decision.
It also holds true that no two project management roles are the same.
That’s why we’ve gathered insights from some of our favorite PMs to create “A Field Guide to Product Management.”
The challenge of a Product Manager is to provide a solution to our consumers — one which can be translated into product requirements that are actionable for developers and designers.
This involves taking a top-down approach that brings a product’s vision to life by breaking it down into small incremental, operational steps. It’s about leveraging the technology available, all while striving to find the most elegant and simple solutions. The most efficient way to solve this challenge is to start by defining the problem well before rushing into creative solutions.
The most important metrics I monitor day-to-day are revenue, retention, and user acquisition. I also look at productivity metrics such as the number of ad campaigns we’re able to process per day, and product quality metrics such as average campaign performance.
Don’t obsess about what your competition does, or you’ll end up chasing their tail forever. In the startup world, a new venture pops up every day trying to do what you do — only better — and often with more money and resources. If you spend too much time benchmarking their product, you’ll end up losing the lead on innovation.
Sometimes having no one to look at for inspiration is better, as it forces you to use lateral thinking when trying to solve problems. Being copied is the best form of flattery, and you don’t want to flatter your competitors too much.
Don’t try to find miracle recipes for success, just make up your own mind and learn by doing. You don’t have to be the most talented developer or product designer out there to build great products. The only thing you need is a good understanding of what needs to be done and what can be done. Find a match between these two things, get the best people working together on it, and make things happen!
My biggest challenge is to ensure everybody is on the same page internally, and communicating efficiently. We solve this by using various monitoring and communication tools like Hipchat and Pivotal Tracker, along with regular team and product meetings.
The most important lesson I have learned in my product management career is to do few things, but do them really well. 80% of your users only need one of two of your features, but need them to be perfect. When you are a startup, you can’t answer every user request, you need to focus on the core problem you are answering to, and offer the best solution for this specific use case.
Ship! Release something as soon as you can, and iterate on this minimum viable product (MVP). I see too many people waiting for their product to be perfect. The more you wait, the less you know whether your product is answering a real need or not, and how to adjust it. It’s best to just get something out there and iterate as you go.
One of the hardest challenges as a Product Manager is focus. Focus for your product, for yourself, and for your team. The best way to fight a lack of focus is prioritization.
That means saying “Later” to a lot of things and “No” to a bunch more, but it’s the only way we can get the best work done. However, we do maintain a prioritized backlog all the time so there’s visibility into what’s coming next.
The biggest myth about product management is that technical skills are the most important part of being a good PM. You don’t have to know how to program or have a computer science degree to be a good Product Manager. While technical knowledge and experience can be a huge benefit, you certainly don’t need to actually build applications.
Here are things that I’ve found helpful:
- Have a good relationship with your development team and know how to build trust with them. Having their trust means they’ll come to you when they don’t understand something, feel stuck, or are running behind.
- Understand the development team’s workflow and how you can best serve them. Learn which agile methodologies the team ascribes to (hopefully they do) and the philosophies behind them.
- Take the time to learn the basics about application architecture: Frontend vs. backend, databases, servers. How these systems work together. What languages are your apps in? Why?
- Know what the team needs from you to get work done. How to write a complete user story. How to wireframe at the right level of complexity. What other things might you need to include?
- Being comfortable in HTML, CSS, GitHub, and browser developer tools can help you make tweaks to text, colors, documentation, and other simple changes even faster than you could ask for them. Check out Udemy’s Programming for Non-Programmers Course.
Above all, as a PM, you need to be a skilled communicator to get (the right) things done. You have to listen and understand the vision of your founders. You have to listen and understand the needs, wants, and workflow of your users. My one piece of advice is to find mentors! Find lots of them!
The hardest, but ultimately most rewarding aspect of being a Product Manager is knowing when to let go. The successful launch isn’t the bug-free one (because that doesn’t exist), but the one that gives you the most information about where to go next and the flexibility to accomplish that faster.
Not only do you learn the most about your product when it’s out in the wild, but you are leading your team in a culture of growth and iteration. Cut features, reduce complexity, repeat. Trust me, you’ll have a much happier team, happier users, and a happier product. It’s win-win-win.
The heart of what I do is prioritizing features. It’s a constant fight between user experience, business/partnership needs, realistic development expectations, and a dozen other stakeholders. To even consider a feature, it needs to fit into one of three areas: acquisition, retention, and/or potential for monetization. From there, I evaluate the likely positive impact, using a combination of engagement analytics, user feedback, and the experience of my team (and my gut) to make the final decision.
The PM needs to be the one who steps in to lead, then steps back and clears the way for other team members to shine. I’ll code, I’ll design, I’ll talk to users, I’ll crunch numbers, I’ll even slow down the roadmap – I’ll do whatever it takes to help the product and our team to succeed.
My tips are to be humble. Be hardworking. Be positive. Be resilient. Give away credit for ideas and implementations freely. Approach your product from the eyes of all types of users. You’re not a Product Manager for fame or glory, you’re in it to create the best experience for both your users and your team.
I have three main tips for breaking into the product management field: read as much as possible about it, do a project, prepare for each specific interview.
You need to understand that a PM position will be:
- different from a company to another, depending on their structure and needs, and
- what you will make of it.
There is a strong community around product management filled with people who are passionate about what they do, many of them with technical knowledge.
Naturally, there’s a ton of resources available on the subject, such as Good Product Manager, Bad Product Manager by Ben Horowitz and the “what makes you a top 1% PM” topic on Quora. These resources are great for gaining a comprehensive understanding of the field in general, but shouldn’t shape your personal take on product management (and you should have one).
Do a project. Now. A project allows you to demonstrate that you know how to conceive the right product, present strategic decisions, make trade-offs, have an eye for user-experience and good design, and that you understand your end customer. Don’t try to tackle a big product with gazillions of features. Rather, think of something that would be fun or useful to you, and for which you could get a first prototype out quickly. Little steps with actual results will prove insanely motivating to keep going.
When interviewing, prepare specifically. Put yourself in the most realistic situation. Work on your answers, and relate them to your past experience. Try talking to other people in the company to learn how their product really works, and how you could make a difference there.
Make a great impression by going the extra mile and doing some unsolicited work around the company’s product, such as mocking up improvements. This brings me to my last advice: Be clear about a few opportunities that you’re passionate about and focus on them instead of casting a wide net that will only let you perform average everywhere. And remember, this is a long process, but it’s worth it.
A word from your author
Building on what the others have said, my biggest challenges day-to-day are to:
- Understand our customers needs, and deal with priority and technical requirement or limits.
- Make sure that everyone on the team is on the same page regarding their priorities.
- Ensure that everyone has an opportunity to share their ideas about the product and the work environment (what’s great, what needs to be improved).
The key metrics I monitor day-today include monthly active users, churn rate, and the break breakdown of what platforms signups come from, the number of Intercom & support messages we received, and recurring metrics on key features of the Mention app.
Our go-to tools for product management and keeping the team on the same page are:
- Google Spreadsheets and docs, and
- Mention, of course
The biggest misconception about product management that I have found is that the tech team works for the product team, when it’s really a symbiotic alliance.
Most importantly, I have learned that product management is an evolutive job. My job doesn’t look like did two-three years ago. You have to adapt and understand technologies. It’s like catching a train that won’t stop.
Just remember, even if you’re the most talented and creative person, you need to validate your hypothesis with metrics. Additionally, beyond the tools we shared, there’s several others available that will make your life as a PM easier.
Any specific questions you’d like answered by a PM pro? Leave them in the comments!