How the Product Management Role Changes at Different Stages of a Company

Product management is among the most dynamic roles in tech. Even across teams at the same company, the role can mean very different things. But for product managers exploring new opportunities, stage of company should be one of the first characteristics considered.

I’ve seen several company stages first hand. I was the first product hire at a seed stage SaaS startup, when the team was only 7 and the roadmap was just being built. I have worked in product at a fast-paced public company, as it was growing through acquisitions and mergers. I worked at Google when it had 100,000 employees, when the things I built impacted billions of users and hundreds of millions of dollars a day. I’ve helped start a company before there was any product at all.

Product management at a big company feels like navigating a city: you need to get from Point A to Point B, and there are buildings and traffic and pedestrians and pizza rats in your way. But you have infrastructure to help you get where you need to go. There are street signs and GPS, you can hop on the subway or hail a cab.

Product management at an early stage startup feels like navigating the desert. There is nothing in your way, but there is also nothing there to help. You must chart your own course and for a long time, there won’t be any signs that you’re headed in the right direction.

Some people love bobbing and weaving their way through cities. Big companies have data and users and systems and tools that when wielded adeptly, can bring you to really interesting places. There will be obstacles–bureaucracy, politics, dependencies–but the best big company PMs can parkour their way through the busiest metropolis with aplomb.

Some people love blazing a trail. New products have infinite possibility. The best early stage PMs show exceptional judgment given very few signals. They listen to their first users to find just the right insight, and steer the company’s efforts toward solving the most salient problems. In a desert sky of stars, they know which one to follow. They are pioneers.

Of course, there are roles in between. In the growth stage, the best PMs are standing up the foundational processes and practices that will serve as the bedrock for their future cities. They’re documenting feedback and structuring data so that it can be leveraged long-term as guideposts.

They’re thinking about scalability and endurance. They’re ensuring departments are talking to one another so that their city design looks more like New York than Boston.NYC on left, Boston on right.

When to parkour and when to pioneer

Companies with mature product practices are great places to learn. At Google, there is a clearly defined product management ladder. At any moment, you know where you stand on that ladder, and there is a distinct articulation of expectations for the rung–or six–above you. You can point to where you are, where you want to be, and have a tactical understanding of how to close the gap. There is a robust system for feedback and performance evaluations. You get to work with experienced practitioners and to observe their best habits and model them in yourself. You also get to observe their worst habits, and remind yourself to do better. There is benefit to that large sample size: by studying many practitioners, you can hone your own style and understand what type of product work most excites you.

But it can be misleading. A company like Google has the resources to staff their teams with best-in-class specialists: UX researchers, designers of several flavors, back-end builders, front-end developers, data scientists, copywriters. A product role at an early company is more encompassing. Often there are no specialists, there is only you. You’re not just walking through the desert, you’re walking through the desert in 17 hats.

But at an early stage company, your work can have outsized impact. You’re not responsible for a slice of a product, you’re responsible for the product. You’re not focused on optimizing through iteration, you’re focused on launching and learning. If there is a problem you can’t stop thinking about, or a space you’re called to explore, it may be time to pioneer.

Bring a compass

No matter the company stage, some skills are universal. These will help you navigate whether you’re in a city or a desert. They are the crucial skills that will serve you in any product environment.

  • Written communication: No matter the company stage, you always need clear, structured, and concise emails. Slack messages, task tickets, and user stories are no different. Understand how to write for a technical audience. Omit extraneous words. When writing a product spec, specify success criteria. And of course, communicate early and often. Good news travels fast, but bad news should travel faster.
  • Verbal communication: Be cogent in stakeholders meetings. Exhibit empathy and exceptional listening with users. Learn to lead with a headline and back up with supporting points.
  • Prioritization: Use critical thinking to decide what is and is not worth spending time on. If you’re not sure, think about what data you need to answer that question and find it. Learn from yourself: keep track of what you and your team spend time on, and measure the eventual outcomes. Understand this ROI and use it to inform future prioritization.
  • Diplomacy: Negotiate among teams and stakeholders respectfully and effectively. This matters whether you’re a team of two or 222,222. Engage through inquiry and understand each person’s incentives. Look for opportunities where incentives are aligned, and try to reframe objectives for the best shared outcome.

Happy parkour-neering!