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A complete guide to working as a product manager at a startup

6 MIN READ | 2021-11-16

You want to work as a product manager. You haven’t decided whether or not you want to work at a startup or a corporate yet. There are significant differences between the two workplaces, and it is best to familiarise yourself with them and weigh your options. This guide informs you about working as a product manager at startups. Learn about what you should expect and what is expected from you as a startup product manager. 

What to expect as a product manager at a startup

As a product manager at a startup, you should expect a combination of perks and challenges. One of the major differences between startups and corporates is the company size and resources. Startups have fewer team members and resources. As a result, working at a startup comes with a unique set of benefits as well as challenges.

On the one hand, working at a startup offers the following benefits:

  • The rewarding workplace encourages you to feel energetic and passionate about your job. 
  • Due to the small team size, you are actively involved in product management, starting from the early stages of concepts and all the way up to delivery.
  • You continuously experience new ways of working, use new tools and new frameworks. 
  • You get to make fast product iterations where you implement a feature right away instead of spending months analyzing how to implement it.

At the same time, a product manager at a startup must also be aware of the challenges:

  • There is constant change that may prevent you from being strategic about long term goals and focus more on near term goals instead.
  • The resources are tight due to the budget that startups have available.
  • You are assigned multiple responsibilities from multiple roles at a time which can be strenuous & stressful.
  • You do not always have access to customer data in order to make decisions.

What you do as a product manager at startups

As mentioned, a startup product manager is responsible for various tasks at a time. This chapter will help you understand what kind of expectations you must fulfil as a product manager at a startup. 

Own the product strategy

Your most important task will involve you collaborating with the company’s founders; it is the development, ownership, and implementation of both a product strategy and a product roadmap that you will focus on. You are responsible for all the stages of developing a product from its conceptualisation to its delivery. You must outline the resources you will need, the steps and initiatives you must take, the goals you and the company want to achieve and more. 

Align with all stakeholders 

As a startup product manager (PM), you must ensure that all stakeholders, from shareholders & leaders to marketing and product development teams, are in agreement. You will be responsible for hosting meetings to update each stakeholder to ensure that everyone is on the same page. This is much easier at startups (as opposed to corporates) because there are usually fewer stakeholders. 

Be a generalist

A unique task for startup product managers is that you directly execute product strategies. This is something you wouldn’t normally do at a corporate because they do not face a lack of resources that startups do. As you adopt the generalist role, startups dare you to practice skills such as quick decision making, managing uncertainties, and developing an entrepreneurial mindset. Thus, you must have sufficient knowledge of product marketing, business, product development, and more. 

Manage the go-to-market strategy

In cases where there is no product marketing manager, the startup product manager will take over their tasks. A product marketing manager is generally responsible for creating and executing the go-to-market (GTM) strategy. This includes determining both the pricing & distribution strategies for the company’s products. 

Act on customer feedback

Once a minimal viable product (MVP) has been launched, a startup product manager initiates a hands-on approach with customer feedback. They must create two processes: one for sharing the feedback with the relevant teams, and one for addressing and resolving the customers’ problems. 

Measure results

A startup product manager is also tasked with the collection, evaluation, and sharing of product-related data. Thus, as a startup PM, you must ensure that the company is meeting business goals. Moreover, you are also in charge of leading the improvement measures that need to be taken through discussions with internal teams. 

Why startups need you

When you look at all the different responsibilities of a startup product manager, you start to understand why startups need them. A lot of the workload falls on the founders. Hiring a startup PM to manage a few of their many responsibilities can help them get some weight off of their shoulders. Furthermore, a startup product manager can bridge the gap across all the business teams and remove organizational silos to improve communication among departments. Overall, with their expertise, a product manager outlines a clear roadmap for the startup product that improves the workflow.

How to get a job as a product manager at a startup

If you want to get a product management job at a startup, you must learn how to become a candidate that stands out from the rest. Follow the steps below to learn how you can secure a job at a startup as a PM. 

Improve your tech skills

Although technical skills are not required for you to become a product manager, you have a higher chance of landing a job at a startup if you have a technical background. Tech skills are not simply nice to have; they are extremely useful to startups that severely lack resources. With technical skills, you have the potential to take up other responsibilities within the company. As a result, you get to broaden your knowledge and improve beyond your own expertise. 

Looking to improve your tech skills? Check out the following resources:

  • Harvard University (free)
  • OEDb (free)
  • edX (free)
  • Codecademy (free)
  • GrowthTribe (paid)
  • Codaisseur (paid)
  • IronHack (paid)

Start your own side project

Show off your skills by putting them into good practice. Build your own side project, whether it’s a blog or a digital product. That way, you do not only exhibit and improve your entrepreneurial skills, but you also express your passion for what you do. 

Tailor your resume

Remember to always tailor your resume to the specific requirements and needs of each job position. Thoroughly review all job listings and note down all requirements. Align them with your own skills and experience to showcase the way they are relevant to this position and why you are the right fit for the role. Provide both quantitative & qualitative data where relevant to back up your claims.

Come in with experience

Although working at a startup is a smart career step for both entry-level and senior candidates, as a product manager, it is recommended that you come in with previous experience. Startup product managers get little to no guidance, and this can be especially challenging for new PMs. Experienced PMs are generally more eligible as they bring existing processes and frameworks with them to the startup.

There are exceptions, however. If the startup you are interested in has a seasoned product leader, you are more likely to receive the guidance you need to tackle scrappy tasks at the beginning of your journey. 

Looking for startup product manager opportunities? Check out Techleap’s startup job board! You can find plenty of options such as:

Career trajectory at a startup

“A product manager has the responsibilities of a founder but not of their authority. People have to follow you not because you say so, but because you convinced them to. ” — Shivangi Srivastava

Did you know that product managers can make great startup founders? Their entrepreneurial skills combined with their broad set of responsibilities from various areas of experience give product managers the potential to become co-founders sometime in the future at the startup they work for.

Want to know what key skills you will need to make a successful startup founder? This chapter is for you.

Identify customer patterns

Product-manager-turned-startup-founder Jim Semick believes that product managers should be investigators by knowing how to ask the right questions to customers. As they spend a lot of time talking to customers, PMs begin to pick up patterns among their customers with regard to the products and their usage. Thus, experience enables prioritising important customer problems and eliminating ones that lack significance.

Prioritise strategically

Startup product managers work closely with sales, marketing, engineering, and other internal teams. They focus heavily on meeting goals, resolving problems, and dealing with other challenges across various teams. Those who learn how to develop a strategy to prioritise important short and long term tasks while managing teams have fundamentally entrepreneurial minds and thus, make a great fit for the founder role. 

Wear many hats

As seen from previous chapters, a startup PM’s list of responsibilities varies across different fields which are dependent on broad knowledge of expertise. PM’s are constantly in charge of various strategies that require overseeing tasks and aligning teams together. In addition, they showcase their resourcefulness through the way they get things done despite the lack of resources.

Note that not every PM is automatically eligible for the founder’s role. Founders require experience in leading teams and managing people. As an aspiring product-manager-turned-founder, always look for opportunities to strengthen your people management skills as well as leadership capabilities.

How to become a successful PM at a startup

Being a product manager at a startup requires a lot of mental preparation. There is little guidance for things that you will be doing for the first time. It can be exceptionally challenging at the beginning, and you must learn how to persevere and trust your capabilities. 

If you want to become a successful startup product manager, follow the tips provided below. 

Be direct

Working with multiple different teams can be extremely strenuous and difficult to keep up with. Make communication as easy as possible by being direct and asking the right questions. Do not be afraid to be transparent and ask your team “why is this important?”. Eliminate any ambiguity by prioritising important tasks and communicating them to your team effectively. 

Work closely with founders 

Help founders conceptualise new products and continuously ask questions that lead you to the root of the problem. Remember that taking risks at startups is OK. Make quick decisions & be resilient in your efforts to have the best results by asking the right questions and identifying important problems. 

Learn fast & move on

With every new product you build, there is little existing data that will help you understand whether it will succeed. You might even find yourself in a situation where the entire project must be dropped as a result of numerous issues. Learn how to act fast by identifying issues early on and fixing them quickly. 

There are many good product managers, but it takes a special kind of skill set to be a great product manager. Remember to maintain your drive, be passionate about what you do, and continuously work on finding new ways to improve. 

Conclusion

Working at a startup as a product manager requires you to take on many responsibilities. Parallel to this, common challenges - such as frequent change and lack of resources - encourage you to develop an entrepreneurial mindset and excel on a broad set of skills from various fields within a startup. For these exact reasons, your career trajectory at a startup has the potential to lead you all the way to the top and help you become a startup (co-)founder.