Before we begin: when we talk about ‘startup’ in this guide, we’re referring to early-stage, pre-seed enterprises that already have a core product team of engineers and designers (even marketers or sales reps). Of course, if the company you’re working for is bigger/smaller than the type we discuss, feel free to handpick any advice that relates to your situation.
Responsibilities of startup product managers
Defining the product vision
Chances are, by the time you join the startup, the founder already has a strong vision for the product (particularly if they are the visionary type). It’s your responsibility to take that raw vision and transform it into something more realistic and attainable. A good vision statement captures the essence of the product and describes the desired impact, e.g. ‘To bring people together around games’ (Discord). Once you have properly defined the vision, you’ll also be responsible for communicating it to stakeholders and uniting the team behind it.
If you’re starting from scratch, we’d also recommend using product management frameworks like Lean Canvas or Value Proposition Canvas to understand what your product has to offer to the end user.
Shaping the product strategy and roadmap
After setting the product vision, you’ll be tasked with crafting a product development strategy to help turn that idea into a reality. To gather the necessary insights, you may interview early adopters, run a product discovery session with the team, use a needs-finding framework like Jobs to Be Done, and research competitors. You’ll also need to create a roadmap that details how the strategy will be implemented through epics and tasks. Crucially, the roadmap is a living document that can be adapted according to new information you acquire along the way.
Collaborating with specialists across functions
Startup PMs spend a huge chunk of their time collaborating with stakeholders from functions like engineering, QA, design, marketing, and customer success. You should work closely with different product specialists on tasks like prototyping new features, refining the product backlog, or creating marketing campaigns. But remember, early-stage startups usually only have a few experts working within each function, so your job isn’t just to contribute, it’s to get everyone on the same page vision-wise.
Apart from these core activities, as a startup PM, you will also be expected to:
- Manage resource allocation. You’ll ensure that the right specialists are assigned to each function and that the product team’s limited time and money is spent on the right projects, tasks, tools, and experiments.
- Define and improve repeatable processes. As a startup product manager, part of your mission is to identify repeatable processes and systemize them. For example, you might create a single location for documenting project requirements, introduce a tool for automating user feedback collection, or make idea generation more efficient by incorporating a framework into your sessions.
- Talk to customers. Finding product-market fit is one of a startup PM’s main goals. To get there, you’ll need to spend a lot of time talking to customers – running customer development interviews, hopping on demo calls – and striving to understand the desires, struggles, and goals of your target market.
- Make data-driven decisions. You’ll have to make tough decisions on behalf of the team, even when you don’t have all the information at hand. You’ll regularly consult product dashboards, conduct quantitative and qualitative research, test product hypotheses, and create POCs, prototypes, or MVPs when necessary.
- Give feedback to peers. Providing positive or constructive feedback to your teammates is part of your role as a leader. You must create a team environment where people feel comfortable sharing ideas and asking for help when needed.
Must-have skills for startup product managers
Agile mindset. Startups are notoriously unstable and unpredictable, which means adaptability goes a long way here. You shouldn’t be happy to follow strict processes and carefully-laid plans. Instead, you’re willing to embrace change, take an iterative approach to development, and empower others to think outside the box.
Leads by example. Remember, at a startup, you won’t be a manager in the traditional sense. Leading by example is central to the role. You should know how to delegate, trust in the expertise of your teammates, and put the team’s success above personal gain.
T-shaped. Knowing how to manage people, coordinate a sprint, or build a product roadmap is not enough. To be successful in a startup environment, you must be a t-shaped expert who actively contributes to the project. For example, on top of your managerial skills, you may also know how to wireframe a new feature, create engaging customer surveys, or inspect/write a basic piece of code.
Proactive. Self-motivation and proactiveness are must-haves for startup product managers. You should know how to manage your time effectively and create opportunities for the team to collaborate. You will constantly look for ways to improve existing processes and drive positive change within the business/product itself.
Empathy. Being able to walk in your customer’s shoes is a huge asset in startup product management. When you have empathy, you can form stronger bonds with teammates and see the product from different perspectives (that of the founder, investors, etc.)
Do startups need product managers?
In short, yes, they do. But it depends on what the startup’s expectations are. If they’re looking for a leader – a t-shaped, hands-on expert, as we mentioned earlier – then it’s always a good idea to hire a PM at the early stages of a product’s lifecycle. However, if the startup is looking for a line manager – someone to supervise the work of the cross-functional product team – then it’s not worth it. We explain more about the dangers of startups under-hiring/overhiring in the article Startup Hiring Mistakes.
But what does all of this have to do with you, a newly-hired product manager? Well, the better you can understand why the startup hired you, the more prepared you’ll be to deal with what’s to come. Generally, startups hire product managers because they want to:
- Delegate the day-to-day responsibilities of building and growing a product to a dedicated specialist.
- Streamline product development processes and establish a clear product vision.
- Install a product-oriented leader who will set realistic goals and unite the cross-functional team.
- Bolster the company’s credibility to attract investment.
And at Railsware, we’ve witnessed first-hand the impact that product management has on early-stage startups.
From idea to tech unicorn: Calendly x Railsware
Calendly is an online meeting scheduling tool, founded in 2013 by Tope Awotona. A former tech salesperson, Tope came up with the idea for Calendly after being frustrated with the back-and-forth messiness of appointment scheduling.
At the time, our team was made up mostly of engineers, but we were already starting to apply product management principles and frameworks to our development processes. So when Tope approached us with his idea, we kickstarted our cooperation with a product discovery or BRIDGeS session. It was about examining the idea from every angle, identifying potential risks, and prioritizing the elements of his proposed solution.
Our product team used that foundational knowledge to create a product roadmap and subsequently, a Calendly MVP. We worked with Tope to test the first version of the product and gather customer feedback, using a lean software development approach to quickly develop an improved version. We’re still working on the product today (now valued at $3 billion).
Throughout our continued cooperation with Calendly (and experience building our own products), we’ve enhanced and refined our product management processes. As a result, the products we build aren’t just functional – they solve a real market need.
Benefits and challenges of startup product management
Ok, so we’ve discussed key aspects of the role and the skills needed to succeed. But what do you have to gain by working as a product manager at a startup?
- Having a direct impact on the evolution and success of a new product.
- Working with a team of builders: people who are self-motivated, creative, and eager to contribute.
- Fast-paced, non-bureaucratic work environment with a culture of innovation.
- Lots of autonomy in decision-making and organizing your workload.
- Opportunities to improve your cross-functional skills and experiment with cutting-edge technologies.
Product Lead at Railsware
Don’t be afraid to take chances or make mistakes along the way. Sometimes, despite your best efforts, the product won’t survive – only 10% of startups ever do. But in my experience, the most talented and resilient product managers are those who have failed in the past. Learn as much as you can, and try to enjoy the journey.
On the other hand, what kind of challenges should you expect to face?
- Limited resources (time, money, manpower) can complicate the product development process and make executing the product vision difficult.
- The hands-on nature of the role, constant switching between contexts, and typical long hours can cause burnout. So can a workload that grows over time (at least until the startup can afford to hire the necessary specialists such as data analytics engineers, customer success managers, etc.)
- Uncertainty around whether the product will survive, and the lack of stability within the company itself, can also be stressful for some.
Working in harmony with the founder
First of all, don’t expect to be on the same wavelength as the startup founder. Think of it this way: founders are experts in their own products, but product managers must be experts in both the product and the customer. You are there to execute the founder’s vision while making sure the customer is always heard.
Misunderstandings or disagreements can happen when a founder’s eagerness or optimism clashes with the goals and requirements set by the product manager. Maybe the founder is pushing for a feature that doesn’t align with the product strategy, is technically infeasible, or you simply don’t have the resources to develop.
So, how can you avoid or mitigate these types of situations?
- Help the startup founder understand your decision-making process. Share the reasoning behind your data-driven approach (if they are not already on board) and explain the benefits of techniques like hypothesis testing, idea screening, and feature prioritization based on data.
- Collaborate regularly. If necessary, schedule a meeting every month to discuss ideas and resolve any concerns.
- Provide founders access to all relevant product materials – roadmap, performance dashboards, backlog, product reports, etc. – so they can better understand project requirements and priorities.
Product Lead at Railsware
Let founders focus on the big picture while you work on executing the current strategy. Clearly communicate the project priorities and clarify what can and can’t be done (at least for now). You don’t need to be on the same page as your founder, just different pages of the same book
And on that note, how does working as a PM at a startup differ from working at a mature company?
Pitfalls to avoid in startup product management
Aiming for perfection before launch
Time is of the essence at a startup, so you can’t afford to spend months testing different parts of the application or tweaking the user interface until it’s ‘perfect.’ Focus on getting a functional, good-enough product (or feature, landing page, etc.) out the door and into customers’ hands. Otherwise, you risk running out of money or losing to the competition. Just make sure to listen to the feedback you receive from customers after the launch, and use their (validated) suggestions to improve the product.
Obsessing over metrics
Again, it’s easy to get tunnel vision and waste time trying to increase your conversion rate by 0.05% or squash every bug before a new release. And while you can’t ignore KPIs or red flags raised by the development team, your role isn’t just about hitting targets or closing tickets. So don’t get fixated on small, even irrelevant problems. Know when to step back, assess the bigger picture, and switch up your approach. Maybe your conversion problem isn’t due to a poor onboarding flow, but rather a flawed pricing strategy. Or maybe your product isn’t valuable enough or doesn’t solve the right problem for your target audience.
How to make product decisions at a startup?
1. Understand customer needs
Some product decisions are made solely to increase revenues or make the app more appealing to investors. But on the whole, when you make product decisions, you’re making them on behalf of your customer.
Ultimately, you’re trying to solve a problem that your target customer has. As a PM, you are their advocate, their voice. So, when making changes or additions, you must see the problem from their perspective. Get to know the basics: what motivates people to use your product? What are they itching to see? How valuable is the current solution?
This requires in-depth research. But don’t just read articles, snoop on competitors, and analyze industry reports. To create tailored solutions, you need to do a mix of qualitative and quantitative research. Some examples are:
- Conducting CustDev interviews
- Running customer surveys
- Analyzing customer reviews from public forums (e.g. G2, Trustpilot, LinkedIn, etc.)
- Checking performance dashboards
- Market research
- Competitor research
At Railsware, we often use frameworks for decision-making because they make the whole process more efficient. We even created our own framework, BRIDGeS, to be able to dive deeper into multi-context problems and streamline the prioritization aspect of decision-making.
At this stage, it’s time to develop, organize, and prioritize your assumptions. For example, if you’re in the process of picking a new feature for your B2B SaaS product, you may already have a strong hunch about which one should be implemented first, based on customer feedback/suggestions.
But that’s still just a guess. At Railsware, our product managers typically use the MoSCoW prioritization framework (created by Dai Clegg) to prioritize hypotheses, ideas, tasks, backlog, and everything in between. MoSCoW stands for Must-have, Should-have, Could-have, and Won’t-have, and can easily be applied to any decision-making process. For instance, when we are using the BRIDGeS framework to make a decision, MoSCoW prioritization is also the second step in the process.
Every product decision carries some degree of risk. You can never predict with certainty how users will react to a new feature or say, the elimination of a free plan. But instead of taking your research findings and intuition as proof that something will work, you should always aim to validate your assumptions with hard evidence.
Start by testing those ‘must-have’ product hypotheses you created earlier. For example, you could run A/B tests on segments of your audience, create a feature flag, or simply conduct a survey to gather customer feedback. However, the style of the test will depend on the subject of your hypothesis (e.g. Facebook ad, landing page CTA).
For bigger product decisions, we recommend creating:
- Proof of concept (POC) when you are unsure about the technical feasibility of a feature or need to assess whether a new technology is a good fit.
- Prototype when you need to check the functionality or concept of a design.
- MVP when you need to test the viability of the barebones product.
Read POC, Prototype, MVP – How to Start Small for a deeper dive into each of these concepts.
Tip: You don’t have to second guess every product decision (after all, what startup PM has time for that?) When in doubt, test, but don’t forget to use common sense too.
As a startup PM, you’ll be expected to wear many hats and contribute on the go to multiple different functions. Ultimately, you’re responsible for transforming a good idea into a successful product, which is no easy feat. The role is full of challenges, and you’ll likely face several setbacks during your tenure at the company. But it comes with rewards too: learning on the job, working with other innovators, and making a direct, even lasting, impact on a new product. Lastly, we wish you good luck!