The Role of Founding Product
What does it look like to manage product at an early-stage company?
I recently watched the first episode of the new series on Netflix called "New Amsterdam" that follows the story of the new Medical Director at New Amsterdam Hospital in New York.
His first day on the job, he keeps asking one simple question.
"How can I help?"
It hit home with me because lately I've been brewing on the complexities of product management at an early-stage company and it can get complicated fast. What are the best tools for user research, the best ways to slice and dice the data, the best design patterns, the best prioritization frameworks, the best pricing psychology, etc.
But this simple, 4-word question does a perfect job of summing it all up.
How can I help?
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This short article is for the product-focused founders and early PMs at early-stage startups. It seems as though Product Management has become this black hole of frameworks. And while those things are immensely helpful, I think they've tended to shape the role for newer PMs toward this data-driven, framework-powered robot that's unable to make creative decisions based on gut instinct.
On the latest episode of Lenny's Podcast, Casey Winters makes a similar observation.
"Every new person on the product team is acting like they work at Google and have these infinite resources and infinite time to make sure everything is perfect. It became such this focus on the right way of doing product management that no one's taken any risk. […] At Reforge, we're building frameworks that are tools in a toolkit. You pull them out when relevant. They're not a coloring book to stay inside the lines of."
—Casey Winters, former CPO at Eventbrite
This focus on product management as more of an art form and less of a science was the driving force behind this newsletter in the first place. That's why I named it "Making Product Sense" - product sense seems to be a bit of a lost skill in the last few years, pushed out by the ever-growing list of frameworks.
For the PMs at early-stage companies, product sense becomes increasingly important.
Early-stage companies don't have the luxury of capital. Even if you're lucky enough to raise a round or two, you probably are still hunting for Product-Market Fit which will make it difficult to raise the third round. Plus, you're contending with potential pivots, global catastrophes like COVID, the volatility of the market, aggressive competitors and more, all of which could kill you in an instant.
Early-stage companies don't have the luxury of time. Because you don't have capital, you also don't have time either. Until you're profitable, you're on a constant death march toward running out of money.
Early-stage companies don't have the luxury of data. Because you don't have capital or time, you don't really have data either (or at least not much of it). Because until you have the money to hire a data scientist or time to dedicate to building data infrastructure, there will almost always be things that are a higher priority.
So... that begs the question, how do you stop wasting money, move fast, trust your gut and still make good decisions?
The Role of Founding Product
First, let's clarify the role of a PM at an early-stage company. It's not to build a really beautiful prioritization system in Asana. It's not to run impressive SQL queries. It's not to build presentation decks on your strategy.
To quote Gibson Biddle, your job is to “delight customers, in hard-to-copy, margin-enhancing ways.”
Breaking that down, how are you:
Adding value to customers...
In ways that adds value to the business.
Frameworks are great, but frameworks have a way of getting in the way. They distract you from your most important role as a PM which is figuring out the best ways to serve your customers.
So how do we do this?
Ask your customers "how can I help?"
The best source of data is your customers. As a founder or early PM, you should be talking to customers every single day to keep a pulse on their needs as well as their reactions to your product in real time.
The second best source of data is your sales and support people. Sales people are getting a great pulse on user needs and support people are getting a great pulse on customer reactions to the product. In our case, I run support and my co-founder runs sales so we're on the phone with users literally every single day. But if you're not in either of those roles, make sure you're talking with the folks who are because they're getting the most raw, intimate data possible.
In a recent conversation with Linear’s Head of Product (coming soon), I was reminded that these conversations are often riddled with biases. A good reminder to try not to lead your customers toward an outcome you want nor to take their feedback as gospel. There’s a balance that’s required which goes back to good ol’ fashioned product sense.
Ship first, then learn.
I say this a bit tongue-in-cheek because if you have data to learn from, use it to make educated guesses. But don't spend weeks or months doing research and not shipping.
Practically, shipping first doesn't have to be production-ready code. You can use no-code tools to spin up a landing page or an MVP of a feature or even just mock something up and send it to a user to get their feedback. There are multiple features in our product today that are 100% no-code giving us the ability to test user needs and demand and eventually, if we believe it's worth it, they'll be integrated into the product.
That's it. There's a temptation to over-complicate it but if you're learning from customers and shipping, you're on the right track.
Here’s to the builders 🍻
That’s all for this one - I’ll catch ya next week.
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Loved this one. Something so key yet so lost in the morass of frameworks