Growing Pains: 5 Challenges Faced by Product Managers at Rapidly Scaling Companies

Product managers at rapidly growing companies are a unique breed that requires different skills to be successful. Just as a product manager at a startup might have a list of startup-specific challenges, product managers at rapidly growing companies face their own set of growth challenges.

We explored many of these growth challenges during our recent webinar, 10 to 10 Million: Navigating Growth as a Product Manager, which featured an expert panel of product veterans including Daniel Elizalde, Rich Mironov, and Jim Semick. We structured our entire discussion around questions submitted by webinar registrants. We received hundreds of questions from registrants, but as we looked through them to determine what our viewers cared about most, the same 5 challenges kept coming up over and over. Coincidence or trend? We’ll argue the latter.

Today, we’d like to share an overview of these 5 key growth challenges faced by product managers.

1. Aligning Product Strategy as an Organization Scales

We ran several polls during our webinar to learn more about our audience. We weren’t surprised when 33% of product managers who participated told us aligning strategy as their organization grows is the biggest scaling-related challenge they face.

Aligning Strategy

As organizations grow and expand, keeping stakeholders and employees on the same page with product strategy becomes an even more demanding responsibility. During growth periods, a lot changes; culture shifts, often new offices pop up in different locations, and new people are hired.

As new hires join the organization, they may not always have the same vision for the product. And it is up to the product team to fix this. So throughout all this (often rapid) change, there is one thing that holds steady for product managers.

“The only constant you see throughout the growth of a company is the need to align strategy and vision throughout all of the groups,” says Daniel Elizalde, “As product managers, we need to make it part of our core goal…we need to be the glue that holds this together.”

2. Development Processes Not Scaling Fast Enough

Early-stage companies typically rely on Lean Startup practices such as rapid experimentation. These practices enable them to quickly test, validate, develop and deliver new products and features. Growing companies sometimes have trouble continuing to use these practices effectively.

As companies expand and the development team grows, the entire development process has to change too. When one scrum team suddenly becomes 2, 3, or even 4 scrum teams, it can take time to adjust processes to be as effective as possible. Not to mention the extra complexity that comes with multiple development teams working on multiple products.

In these situations, product managers are forced to spend more time establishing thoughtful metric driven frameworks for prioritization and getting buy-in from the executive team. Once done, they have to make a compelling argument to be granted the development resources they need to move forward.

Scaling Fast Enough

25% of the product managers who participated in our poll said that scaling development processes faster is the biggest pain point for them as their company grows.

3. Satisfying Existing Markets While Expanding to New Ones

During periods of rapid growth, product managers get pulled in many different directions, which is something 20% of the product managers we polled say is the most challenging part of growth.

Existing Markets

The focus becomes both increasingly difficult and increasingly important as companies expand. Product managers are often asked to break into new markets with new products. How exactly does this play out?

As Rich Mironov says, at a certain point in the growth curve, “it’s really easy for the executive team to decide that the first product is somehow “done” and now product management should move on to the next thing to build.”

But executing on that next thing isn’t always so easy. He adds that the failure rate for second products is just as high as it is for first products because executives often forget the importance of validation and experimentation. “We need to validate or we will bleed off what will sustain the first product’s growth,” he says.

Product managers in this position somehow have to get executives to understand that “shipped” and “done” are not one in the same. And in order to sustain success, the development of existing products needs to continue. Before new products are developed, there needs to be a rigorous validation process.

4. Sales is Driving the Roadmap

I think there’s plenty of room to argue that this challenge is one universally faced by product managers regardless of the stage of their companies. Sixteen percent of the product managers we polled told us this was the most prevalent obstacle they face, and it’s a difficult one!

Sales Driving Roadmap

Pretty much every product manager has had sales approach them with a request something along the lines of this: “I need you to build this fancy feature right now because if you build it I’ll be able to close this whale of a deal.”

For some, it’s a compelling argument. But saying yes is not always the best choice for long-term product strategy.

At high-growth companies, product managers often feel as though the sales executive is the “loudest person in the room” who can sway the direction of the product roadmap. They’re left frustrated by this, especially when these requests come up on a whim and suddenly derail well-researched strategic plans.

5. Can’t Hire Product/UX Fast Enough

“Lone Wolf” product managers at small companies already have a difficult job that requires them to wear many hats. As the product grows, the team needs to grow too, or else the product manager will be spread too thin.

“Product management needs to grow the team as the company grows, and they need to have people there to evangelize strategy and not just leave it to chance,” says Rich.
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We were rather surprised to see that only 6% of our respondents said growing the product and UX teams quickly was the most challenging aspect of product management in a high-growth organization. Even so, it was still cited as a challenge by many of our attendees.

Hire Fast Enough

Product managers know it’s best to stay ahead of the company’s growth curve in developing and growing their teams, but hiring is still a daunting task. As previously mentioned, the skills required by a product manager at a high-growth company are unique, and identifying what those skills are is just the first step in the process.

Then there’s the challenge of deciding how the product team should be structured and how to effectively distribute responsibilities across the product organization. Are you going to hire a highly specialized team and have rigidly defined roles? Are you going to build a group of generalists who have more flexibility in what they do? How many people will you need to hire? There are plenty more questions asked by product managers around how to grow their team, and it seems no “one size fits all” answer exists–which is just part of why these growth challenges continue to pervade.

If you’re looking for some tips and best practices for navigating the above growth challenges, we recommend watching the replay of our webinar here to see what our expert panel has to say.