Product Management: Startup founder vs. Product Manager

I love creating new products. I am also passionate about helping other companies succeed with new products. As a result, I moved from being a startup founder to being a Senior Product Manager at a large organisation (Atlassian, as part of the JIRA team) and back to a startup founder and mentor to other entrepreneurs. While there is “product management” involved in all of those roles, the transition from founder to “Product Manager” in a large organisation has lots of hurdles, and not every product-focused founder will be a great PM in any organisation.

A day in the life of:

As a founder, I would evaluate the potential for new ideas in a market, write some messy code myself to test hypotheses, find people and build a team, raise investment from investors and/or meet with potential clients to get product development funded.

As a Senior Product Manager, I took a product from initial concept to launch, but the company vision and goals were already defined and some of it was well underway. The tech to be built mostly an extension of an existing foundation (profitable and well tested as a bonus) and the team hired but still busy on other projects — which gave me some (decently paid) time to get the grips of what the product strategy could look like and gather context from stakeholders. Investors were handled a couple of layers above me and the clients were knocking on our door, desperate to get the product into their hands.

So from a startup founder’s perspective, Product Management in a larger organisation might initially seem like a piece of cake, but the transition was everything but easy. Throughout a variety of interviews and job offers from different organisations, I found 3 key differences in how Product Management differs between startups and larger organisations.


1. Focus and Scope: Defining vision and goals vs. executing on them

Founders define the vision and goals for the company and product, which are mostly synonymous in the early stages. Their main goal is to create the next big company — so a big, ambitious plan for the future is important to give the company, founders, employees and investors purpose. Founders need to give people around them a reason to listen to them, quit their safe-ish job and invest in their company vs. other companies. And people in the startup system love big ideas.

When joining a large organisation however, there is already a CEO who defined the company vision. Depending on the organisation, this will be strongly or loosely defined (so you might have to read between the lines), but it typically this trickles down to goals that new or existing products need to achieve and therefore teams in the company have requirements for people and that’s why a job opening for a Product Manager exists. Especially upon joining a company on a Product Management role, there will be existing ideas on how to achieve certain objectives, maybe even which market to target and what the key value proposition of a product is — no matter if the product already exists or still needs to be built.

In practice, that means for a new Product Manager that instead of defining the vision and purpose of the product, it is often better to dedicate some time time to understanding the Zeitgeist of the company. That includes the PM’s manager, team and other peers that the PM syncs up with. In Product Management terms, think about it as “internal customer development” — the business goal your product is meant to achieve is your problem. The manager, developers, designers, marketers and other peers are the customers a PM should “interview” before jumping into conclusions. Just like in a startup, ideas are nice, but gathering context to understand which ones have any merit is more important — the people you interview will have plenty of more ideas.

That is part of the reason why Google and other companies often give Product Manager candidates a challenge, like how they’d go about building a Google Docs for blind people. Having loads of visionary ideas and enthusiasm is nice, but a structured approach to finding a solution is more important. PMs still get to define the vision and purpose of the product in many cases — and it’s essential to communicate this and get all stakeholders on board — but it will have to fit in with all the existing context, which includes the company’s vision and goals. Other projects will compete for resources and might have conflicting priorities. The difference is, while a startup can celebrate beating competitors, a Product Manager will still have to work with their “internal competitors” on an ongoing basis. #DontBurnBridges

2. Social Dynamics: Authority vs. Influence

You might have heard of the “Eureka” moment — when suddenly the solution to a hard problem appears. As a founder, this is when you can gather your small team and tell them to stop what they’re doing and head into a new direction which will take the company to the next level. You can do that because, even though it might be bad style, the founders have authority. Frustrated employees and doubters can be replaced or persuaded later.

In a large organisation, this is career suicide. In most organisations like Google and Atlassian, neither developers and designers nor marketers report to the Product Manager. In fact, other peers might have conflicting objectives. So even if the underlying hypothesis is validated and an idea would take the company to the next level, the social approach can not be the same. In other words: It doesn’t matter whether you’re right or not, it only matters how you convince people that you’re right.

When I asked my manager how my performance as a PM will be evaluated, I was surprised to hear nothing about product KPIs, but instead hear her say that it’s all about how I manage internal and external relationships — with some bonus points for my strategic thinking. The key term here is “influence”. While founders would be used to influencing investors and potential hires to join their startup, the difference is that these are often 1:1 conversations and that a only one individual at a time has to be influenced, not a group. As a Product Manager, you might be able to invoke authority and get away with it very occasionally, but it’s like knocking down a door instead of using a key or asking someone on the other side to open it — it’s destructive.

A good philosophy for PMs in a large organisation might be called “no surprises”. If anyone in a group meeting is very surprised by what the PM says, he or she wasn’t diligent enough. I used to think of discussing all ideas with different stakeholders 1 on 1 before presenting them as boring, uncreative and slow. In truth though, if you make a habit out of it and really listening to the reactions of others, it is a much more efficient way to make things happen. Most importantly, it avoids stakeholders from freaking out about how something would affect them, and it avoids the Product Manager having to come up with answers to problems they haven’t considered before.

3. Product Philosophy: Define vs. Adapt and shape

Product Managers can come from various different backgrounds. Designers, developers, marketers, support reps, sales reps and analysts, to name a few, can all make outstanding Product Managers, because the key skills to be a great PM are relevant across many disciplines.

It is incredibly rare however to find someone perfectly balanced, so naturally, different organisations have different priorities when it comes to managing and creating products. There are sales-led organisations where the Product Manager is mostly just a project manager who makes sure the customer gets the features they want to pay for on time. There are metrics-focus organisations where the PM needs to be comfortable running SQL queries and doing some statistical analysis themselves. Other organisations are design driven, so naturally conversations with stakeholders will require more appreciation for nuances in colours and paddings than metrics. There are organisations that are very people focused and need the PM to be very consent driven while other organisations prefer strong leaders who are happy to stand their ground. Some will give you a lot of autonomy, in others the CEO will want to keep control of the product but is just looking for someone to handle the day-to-day implementation side of it.

Like the old saying goes, “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail” — not every person who would make a great Product Manager is a great fit for every organisation. Depending on what your core belief is about creating successful products and companies, you might excel in an environment that seeks quantitative validation which one out of 41 shades of blue is best, and whether a border should be 3, 4 or 5 pixels — or you might prefer Apple’s approach of very limited external validation prior to launching new products. The “Product Manager is the CEO of the product” analogy goes a long way, but while you get to define a lot of the environment around you as a founder, in a larger organisation you will have to understand first and then either adapt or try to shape it slowly. No two Product Management jobs are the same. Product Managers work at the intersection of development, design and marketing — and every organisation does every one of those a little differently.

Have you gone from founder to Product Manager at a large organisation? Share your story and lessons learned in the comments!

PS: Thanks to Sean Zvinis and Matthew Ho for their input, 2 great founders who have gone through a similar journey.