Do product managers make good startup founders? The short answer is (probably) yes, product managers are well equipped to transition to startup founders. The strong entrepreneurial spirit inherent in many product managers has a lot to do with it, and many product managers actually aspire to launch or lead a company of their own. What’s more, product managers tend to have a broad set of skills and areas of expertise, either naturally occurring or honed in their product management role, which can position them well to make good startup founders. If leading a startup is on your bucket list, here are a few key skills you’ll need in hand before making the leap.
1. Dig Deep to Identify a Pattern
Product managers spend a great deal of time talking to customers. For some, that’s just part of the job, but others understand the intrinsic value of customer feedback and experience. These are the product managers who listen very carefully to what customers have to say. Digging deep to identify a pattern is second nature for them and enables them to get to the heart of answering “Is there really a problem worth solving here?”
Jim Semick, a former product manager and current founder of ProductPlan, believes that product managers should be investigators. If getting to the heart of a customer’s problem is a skill you need to hone, here are 12 great questions to ask customers straight from the product-manager-turned-startup-founder himself.
Of course, product managers also know that market validation is key to launching successful products or new features. On his list of 10 tips for using lean market validation to quickly test a startup idea, Jim names a number of techniques that work for both product managers and startup founders. “By simply engaging with real people and asking the right questions, you can confirm if your idea solves a problem, who your potential buyers are, and ultimately whether or not there’s a market for your product,” he says.
2. Prioritize Strategically for the Win
Product managers move deftly between sales, marketing, engineering, and other groups within a company to get work done. It’s the nature of the job to touch all areas of the business. The outcome, of course, is that product managers have extensive knowledge and experience about the various functional groups within a company and gain rare insider perspectives on goals, challenges, and cultures unique to each group. All of this knowledge and experience gives product managers a powerful holistic view of the entire company.
Of course being on the move all day, every day, and balancing scores of people and other variables requires a specific skill set. Product managers must be keenly strategic with their time and know-how to prioritize in the short term (throughout a workday, for example), and in the longer term throughout the lifecycle of a product or feature development.
“The ability to strategically prioritize is a crucial skill for product managers and startup founders alike.”
The ability to strategically prioritize is a fundamental skill for product managers and startup founders alike. If this is a skill you’re working on, there are plenty of tools to help. The Planning Board feature in ProductPlan, for example, allows you to prioritize and rank initiatives objectively as well as keep teams and tasks efficiently moving forward.
3. Wear Many Hats
Anyone who’s worked in a startup environment knows that it’s highly likely that you’ll end up wearing a few different hats at any given time. This isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but product managers generally thrive on it.
In addition to having the ability to prioritize strategically and dig deep to identify patterns, product managers need to know how to get things done with fewer resources. They often are called upon to make good decisions with limited resources in the heat of the moment. To be able to pull this off, product managers keep a finger on the pulse of resources, so to speak, which helps them use limited resources wisely.
This skill proves very helpful at a startup when resources are just plain limited and there’s not a whole lot of extra anything—not people, not funding, and certainly no time—to waste.
Of course, managing people is different from managing other types of resources. Product managers usually don’t have quite as much experience leading teams and therefore, more often than not, aren’t necessarily good people managers. Regardless, successful startup founders need to be good leaders, so look for opportunities to strengthen your people-leadership and people-management skills.
4. Rally Support Like a Boss
Product managers are skilled at rallying support behind an initiative. They know how to bring products to life and are good at crossing the chasm between early adopters of a product and the early majority. There’s perhaps a no better way to illustrate this essential skill than the way that Derek Sivers, entrepreneur and founder of CD Baby, does in this lively 3-minute TED Talk.
5. Get Inspired
If you’re looking for real-world inspiration, here are a few examples of product managers who made the transition to founders and CEOs:
- Craig McLuckie, Group Product Manager at Google to Co-Founder of Heptio
- Benjamin F. Wirtz, Senior Product Manager for JIRA at Atlassian to Co-Founder at Tishi
- Sundar Pichai, Product Manager at Google to Google CEO
- Adam Nash, Product Manager at eBay to CEO of Wealthfront and Executive-in-Residence at Greylock Partners
If you’ve made the leap from product manager to startup founder or CEO, what skills do you wish you’d had in hand first? Please share them in the comment section below.