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Is A Startup The Right Place to Kickstart Your Product Management Career?

By Mansur Nazimuddin – Head of Product (Video Shopping and Amazon Live) at Amazon India

Are you contemplating a career move into the exhilarating world of product management within a startup? Or are you already a seasoned product manager seeking to explore new horizons into a startup environment? Either you’re already in a startup product role and trying to figure out which are the right startups for you or whether what you’re doing is actually product management or not? Making the right career move requires clarity and insight, and that’s what this blog will provide you with. 

This blog will guide you on whether a Product Manager (PM) role in a startup aligns with your unique career aspirations. It will help you navigate the intricate decisions that lie ahead – from choosing the right product roles and companies that suit you best, to understanding the significance of the company’s stage in your journey.

Key Takeaways:

  • This blog explores whether a Product Manager role in a startup aligns with your career aspirations and provides clarity on making the right career move.
  • It explores the developmental stages of a tech startup, and roles for product managers in each phase.
  • Further identifying the key differences between working as a product manager in a startup and a large company. 
  • By the end of the blog you will be able to decide if a startup is right for you or not.
In this article
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    What Really is a Startup?

    “A startup is a company designed to grow fast…. Everything else we associate with startups follows from growth.” Paul Graham

    According to Paul Graham, a startup is a company that revolves around this key aspect – growth. It is crucial to note that not every new company qualifies as a startup. For instance, someone opening a barber shop or a restaurant might not fit the traditional startup model. A true startup is intentionally designed to experience rapid expansion, even though the actual growth might face challenges due to the execution process. To achieve this growth, startups require specific resources and strategies, making it essential for product personnel to understand and contribute to this growth-oriented approach. The value of working as a product person in a startup largely stems from their contribution to fostering and supporting the company’s growth trajectory.

    4 Developmental Stages of a Tech Startup

    The process begins with starting a company, undertaking various activities to attract customers and generate revenue, continuing with several other activities for progression as the time progresses. The growth of startups especially tech startups tends to follow a linear trajectory. Lets begin with the first step:

    1. Drunken Walk: 

    In the early stages of a startup, a process akin to a “drunken walk” ensues, involving numerous experiments to discover product-market fit before funds deplete. This step is known as drunken phase since at this point nobody’s actually aware of what the startup is going to do as founders explore various theses to address a perceived problem with their solution. They iterate, pivot, and adapt their approach, striving to achieve product-market fit before financial resources exhaust. Success in this stage is rare and many companies die in this phase itself, as they dont find product-market fit in time. Everything, everyone in the organization at this stage are just focused on the outcome. 

    Once the startup have found a product fit like a very few of the other companies, it progresses to the subsequent phase, referred to as “product fit.”

    2. Product Fit:

    In the phase of “product fit,” the company experiences customer acceptance of their product while still refining the business model and ensuring favorable unit economics. This entails optimizing the sales model, establishing effective distribution channels, and addressing other crucial aspects in such a manner that it doubles up the effectivity. The focus now shifts towards capitalizing on successful elements, scaling the company gradually, attracting more customers and implementing streamlined processes for the validated solution and the product. Here you would actually begin your growth phase and solidifies product fit. Eventually, the business model proves effective, your product is working, you know how to scale it, with excellent unit economics and attracting substantial investor interest since by now all the pieces of the jigsaw are in place. This is when the company enters a phase of hyper growth, propelling it to unprecedented levels of success.

    3. Hyper Growth:

    During the phase of “hyper growth,” a company experiences a surge in sales, driven by a well-functioning business model. The pressure to expand becomes intense, stemming from both external and internal factors. Externally, investors expect continuous growth month over month and quarter over quarter. Internally, the company’s heightened visibility attracts competitors and larger firms, necessitating rapid expansion to avoid stagnation. The speed and scale of growth during this exhilarating phase are critical for success because if you don’t expand now then you are going to die a very slow death. It is a thrilling period often highlighted when reading about companies securing substantial funding, witnessing exponential growth, and aggressively increasing their workforce. Hyper growth serves as a pivotal step towards achieving significant scale and success.

    4. Scale:

    This is the most mature stage for an organization, signifying their emergence as a leader within its industry, though not necessarily the top company, it holds a dominant position. With a successful business model in place, the company scales at a steadier pace than before. This evolution of a tech company involves three distinct phases: the drunken walk, product fit, and hyper growth. Understanding these stages becomes crucial while assessing startups. Each phase demands different types of individuals when hiring for roles like product persons. Recognizing the company’s current stage influences the kind of work, hiring practices, and career prospects within that organization. It is essential to view companies not just based on their size, but also through the lens of their developmental stages.

    The Three Stages Essential for a Product Manager

    For product managers, understanding the company’s developmental stages is crucial:

    1. Drunken Walk Stage: 

    In the early stages of a company, product managers often play a minor role or even dont matter as the founders and engineers take center stage. The founders act as the de facto product managers, driving the direction and vision of the company. While there may be individuals with the title of a product manager, they might not have prior experience in the specific role. Often, these product managers may be friends of the founders or individuals who previously worked in entirely different roles, adapting to their first product management responsibilities. As a result, the presence of formal product management roles is limited during the drunken walk stage.

    2. Product Fit Stage: 

    During this product fit stage, the company starts to make its first formal product hires. Having identified a viable product, the focus shifts to scaling and understanding customer perspectives on a larger scale. Innovation at this stage is more iterative, not radical changes in direction, hence necessitating someone adept at organizing and implementing processes. Typically occurring between Series A and Series C funding rounds, this stage attracts experienced product managers, possibly with prior roles as PMs or Senior PMs elsewhere. These individuals are instrumental in bringing structure and organization, becoming the first head of product, and propelling the company to its next level of growth.

    3. Hyper Growth Stage: 

    In the hyper growth stage, the company experiences exponential expansion, demanding the establishment of processes and structures. The challenge lies in managing rapid growth while sustaining innovation. Well-funded and with increased resources, companies in this phase prioritize and seek product managers with classic skills like customer understanding, rapid iteration, and effective prioritization. This is the stage where the first product leaders are often hired, such as Vice Presidents or Directors of Product from other companies.

    Understanding these distinctions is vital for product managers to align their career goals with a company’s stage. Joining the right stage ensures a better match between expectations and the actual responsibilities of the role, avoiding potential disillusionment or misalignment.

    Product Manager’s Role at a Startup Versus an Enterprise

    The significant differences between working as a product manager at a startup compared to a large company or enterprise present an essential choice to consider in your career. Understanding the distinct phases of a startup journey helps discern how these experiences contrast with established companies. 

    Neither option is inherently superior or inferior, but they do offer different paths for professional growth and development. Making this choice depends on the specific roles, challenges, and opportunities each environment presents, as well as personal preferences and career goals. Lets understand the difference to figure out which best fits you: 

    1. Too much to do, too little time vs A meeting to plan for our meeting:

    In the context of startups, especially in their early stages, product managers consistently face challenges related to limited resources and time constraints. Balancing stakeholder alignment and addressing customer service tickets are just a couple of the diverse tasks that demand their attention. These constraints present significant hurdles for startup product managers, setting them apart from their counterparts in enterprises. While product managers in larger companies may also experience busyness, their activities differ significantly, often revolving around planning meetings and seeking executive approvals.

    Both environments come with their distinct sets of challenges and strengths. Startup product managers excel in managing organized chaos, swiftly shifting from one task to another, while enterprise product managers thrive in making structured cases and handling comprehensive planning processes. It’s essential to note that these preferences stem from individual mindsets rather than assigning value judgments. Certain product managers may find joy and fulfillment in one environment over the other, based on their inclinations and preferences. Understanding these differences enables product managers to make informed career choices and embrace opportunities that align with their mindset and aspirations.

    2. Which hat do I wear today vs You’re better than me at this:

    In a startup setting, product managers must grapple with the question of which hat to wear each day. Their role demands versatility as they juggle multiple responsibilities, including customer-facing, engineering-facing, and executive-facing tasks. From replying to customer service tickets and writing user research to managing surveys and crafting stories, they develop a broad skill set driven by the necessity to handle various functions within the limited resources of a startup.

    In contrast, larger companies emphasize specialization, allowing product managers to focus on specific areas of expertise. This environment encourages delegation and trust in team members who excel in particular domains, like user research or product project management. Working in a larger company fosters skill depth, enabling product managers to become exceptional in their chosen fields.

    Having interviewed professionals from both startup and enterprise environments, it is evident that enterprise experience fosters profound expertise in specific roles, such as product ownership or user research. Conversely, product managers with startup backgrounds excel in adaptability, a natural outcome of constantly wearing multiple hats and handling diverse responsibilities. Each environment offers unique learning opportunities and insights, and the experience of depth versus breadth contributes to the product manager’s overall skill set and habits.

    3. Later is important, now is critical vs Excellence, even at the cost of speed:

    The third crucial aspect revolves around a company’s commitment to both a “bias for action” and “striving for excellence.” While many companies claim these values, achieving both simultaneously is challenging, and only a select few manage to strike the right balance. Typically, startups prioritize a bias for action as speed becomes critical in the early stages, where the lack of agility can prove fatal. In contrast, as companies mature and expand their user base, they prioritize excellence, as the consequences of errors become more significant, impacting user experience, costs, and perception. The perception of large companies being slow and startups being fast stems from the behaviors required for success and the different costs associated with mistakes. Balancing these values effectively is essential for any company’s sustained growth and success, making it a crucial consideration for product managers.

    Factors to Determine Whether a Startup is for You

    The points listed below will help you identify whether a startup might be the right fit for you or not, which include: 

    1. Are looking for accelerated growth:

    Startups embody a growth-centric environment, albeit with significant risk, akin to what founders undertake, though to a lesser extent. If a startup experiences rapid growth, the financial and growth outcomes can far surpass those attainable at a larger company. However, the gamble is substantial, as the likelihood of startup success is considerably smaller. Examining professionals who spent the previous years in well-established companies, such as Flipkart or Sweden, reveals remarkable career acceleration. Nevertheless, it’s crucial to note that this acceleration is contingent on the specific startup’s achievements. For individuals driven by a penchant for risk-taking, a thirst for swift personal and professional development, and an unwavering ambition to create and scale innovative ventures, a startup environment holds tremendous appeal. The key lies in finding the right startup and embracing the challenges and potential rewards that come with such a dynamic landscape.

    2. Are a founder in the making:

    For aspiring founders, being a product manager in a startup is an invaluable learning opportunity that closely parallels the experience of being a founder, but with fewer risks. It serves as an excellent training ground, particularly in the early stages like the drunken walk phase. If someone envisions themselves starting their own venture within the next couple of years, joining a startup as a product manager can provide comprehensive exposure to various essential aspects. From mastering rapid experimentation and engaging with consumers to interacting with founders and investors, product managers gain a breadth of experience that prepares them for their own entrepreneurial journey. For those with ambitions of launching a startup, working as a product manager in a startup offers an ideal platform to acquire essential skills and knowledge, making it a great stepping stone towards their future endeavors.

    3. Dont care about the size of the pond or its name:

    The analogy of “fish in the pond” applies here, where the size of the pond represents the company’s prominence. If one doesn’t mind the size of the pond they swim in, it shouldn’t deter them from considering a startup role. Working in a startup often means lacking the recognition of a well-known brand, and this fact may not resonate with most people. Stories abound of individuals who mention their startup roles, only to face confusion from others who are unfamiliar with the company. Embracing this anonymity is crucial for those interested in working in a startup environment, as it may not come with the same level of prestige or public recognition as established giants like Amazon, Google, Microsoft, or others. Nevertheless, this aspect should not discourage anyone from pursuing startup opportunities, as the experiences and growth opportunities in such environments can be unparalleled.

    4. Learn many things really quickly:

    Success in a startup environment hinges on the ability to rapidly acquire diverse skills due to the inherent breadth of the job. Adopting the “T-shaped” skill development paradigm proves advantageous, where one becomes proficient in various areas while delving deep into one or two specific domains. In a startup setting, being a top-notch product manager in multiple aspects while excelling in one key area, such as customer interactions, technical expertise, engineering collaboration, or data analytics, holds significant value. Embracing the mindset of continuously learning and mastering new skills is highly prized. The capability to confidently state, “I can quickly adapt and learn new things outside my current expertise” is a valuable asset in the dynamic and evolving landscape of a startup.

    5. Bias towards action:

    The ability to execute effectively holds immense importance in this context, as individuals are primarily valued based on their accomplishments and eventual exits. The emphasis on action and a drive for excellence underscores the significance of thriving in such an environment. Those who excel in swiftly translating ideas into tangible results and strive for unparalleled performance will find themselves perfectly aligned with this mindset. Success in this realm hinges on taking decisive actions and consistently delivering exceptional outcomes, making it an ideal destination for those who thrive on a bias for action and an unwavering pursuit of excellence.

    About the Authors:

    Mansur Nazimuddin – Head of Product (Video Shopping and Amazon Live) at Amazon India

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