Product management + startups = people management
I’ve held several diverse product management roles* over the past four years. In each of these roles, no matter how different the actual work, teams and outcomes we were working towards, what ‘worked’- in terms of allowing us to align on a vision, undertake deep need-finding exercises, build prototypes, work together effectively and ensure that we released our product on time- was always the same.
These are my key lessons:
Keep the product roadmap as simple as possible + get buy-in early
Your product will keep evolving: you will never get it to be perfect. Your role is to build a common vision across different teams, keep things moving, align teams, solve problems and get buy-in.
To do all those things, all day, everyday, you need to keep the product and process as simple as possible. Particularly when each team you work with has its own vocabulary, culture and norms. Ensure all your stakeholders agree on what the bare minimum viable product looks like- and that this version is genuinely usable. You can dress it up later.
Manage towards outcomes: build trust
Your role isn’t to tell people what to do: it’s to facilitate your teams. Create a set of project team norms and values for each product that you work on, that are continuously reinforced. Be friends with the people you work with. Take your teams out for dinner and drinks, get to know them personally. Get their buy in. Understand what excites them, stops them, or frustrates them. Protect them and remove obstacles. Don’t control the process. Give people the freedom to create. Inspire and motivate them. Then leave them to it.
Over-communicate: it’s never obvious
Getting buy in across teams is not easy. Your role is to be the trusted confidante. You should be the first one to know if something is going wrong; or if a deadline is going to slip. Your team needs to know exactly what is expected of them; and why. Deliver bad news upfront and early. Stay direct. Ask for and give feedback regularly.
User perspective + empathy: it doesn’t matter what you think
User design is always much complicated than it seems on the surface. You will never get it right. It can always be better. Don’t get dragged down a rabbit hole, or get distracted by the way things look. There are no right answers. Continuously put yourself in the user’s shoes- by actually asking them what they need/want + also observing how they interact with the product- and then design the product specifically for whichever segment you’re initially targeting. Make sure the experience is simple, easy + intuitive- if not delightful.
Move fast: decision-making & measurement
Run the tests. Let the data speak first. But while you can always collect more data while you’re developing a product, in the end, you’re going to have to make some calls that are unscientific: based on your gut, instinct and qualitative feedback. Act quickly and decisively. You role is to say no, cut out the bullshit and keep going.
On the other hand, sure that you’re continuously refining your KPIs- and that you invest in defining what data you want to collect from your users early on, and revise this before you release each iteration of your product. You want to balance releasing a version of your product with being able to test whether it is actually ‘working’. Also, feel free to get (a little) creative in defining what ‘working’ means.
Prioritisation: say no
You’re not going to be able to put out every fire, or keep every stakeholder (the design, engineering, client and senior management teams) happy at all times. Balance the urgent v/s the important: don’t lose sight of what you’re end goal is. It’s okay to say no, as long as as a team, you’re still heading where you want to go.
Stay authentic: do what works for you
Real leadership is an exercise in influence: understanding what motivates people, getting people with very different perspectives and backgrounds to align on a single vision, and work together, and then carrying your team across the finish line. Use your own style to make it work.
*I led the development of an influencer marketing platform for a European adtech company, managed two very different Stanford-based startup teams (one primarily designer-led in the ed-tech space and another engineer-led in the healthcare sector) and worked with the UK government, a large charity and an impact investor to design and launch an incubator for public services in the UK.