Friday, September 3, 2010

The Value of the Startup Product Manager

I'm a big fan of Steve Blank. I think he is spot on about the Customer Development model in startups. I regularly read his blog and have read his book, The Four Steps to the Epiphany.

That said, he posted recently about speaking at the Silicon Valley Product Management Association, and, from what I can tell, he's missing the point about product management in a startup environment.

He is correct that in many ways, product management in a startup is drastically different than product management in a larger organization. However, those differences are surface-level details, more the deliverables of product management than the actual purpose of product management.

Product managers are experts at collating all the information sources that come into an organization about a product, filtering out the meaningless information, and ensuring good decisions get made based on objective facts and not subjective feelings.

Many (if not most) startup founders are emotional, passionate people. They make decisions based on what feels right, and those instincts serve them well to get a company started. As Blank knows, though, listening to those instincts over a long period of time instead of getting objective will cause problems. That is, after all, the whole point of "getting out there" in Customer Development.

So here is my list of what a startup product manager does:
  1. Ensures decisions being made by the founders are consistent and in-line with the current goals of the company and not because the founders saw something shiny.
  2. Extrapolates and defines the actual market from the individuals being talked to because, no matter how much the founders may believe it, everybody is not a market.
  3. Ensures a product is being produced instead of a bunch of closely related code by monitoring user experience, evaluating final fit-and-finish, and driving organizational release readiness among others.
  4. Balances the passion of the founders with the rationality of getting a product ready for a market.
  5. Maintains the development backlog, keeping things out of development that don't belong there and making sure the things that do belong there get done (see #3).
And that is what your startup's product manager does. He is not a secretary setting up customer appointments for the founders; he brings discernment to a murky environment and order to chaos. And that is why you should hire product management first.

To be fair, I did not see the presentation at the SVPA and am going off what I'm inferring from his blog post. I also know I am overstating the comment on being a secretary, but this is the blogosphere, so it's OK, right?

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