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Are you a Good Startup Product Manager? Free yourself from dead-weights.

Are you a Good Startup Product Manager? Free yourself from dead-weights.

Have you ever had that feeling of what to do as a Product Manager? Have you doubted yourself for not being able to know everything about your target market? For startups, you search for every single article, marketing data, and even do many interviews with your core audience, but you are never sure if your product will be a home run? Or you followed the lean product methodology, most feedback is positive, but when you officially launch your product, it was not as successful as you imagined? How about when your friends, family, boss, and even job interviewer asked what you do daily, it's hard to explain?

These are some examples of what a Product Manager faces internally. They don't help build confidence, and it does not help that most PMs are obsessed with improving themselves like there is something wrong with them. Activities such as:

  • Read best practices in Product Management.
  • Read how fantastic and amazing PMs are at any of the FAANGS.
  • Read blog posts like this one.
  • Read r/productmanagement from Reddit.
  • Spend a lot of time at Product Hunt, Hacker News, etc.

They give that short-term feeling that you will learn the next best thing and gain control of your problems. They provide the hope that the new best practices will help you conquer all your issues. Until the next crisis happens, you will go back to the drawing board to seek another solution. Then you question yourself if you are in the right career or be as good as some famous PM.

In this blog post, I will share the ideas surrounding good/bad product managers from the market and how they may not help us achieve the goal of becoming the great Product Manager we aspire to be. Instead, you need to release yourself from those standards like dead weights so you can fly to your greatness as PM.

Following what others are saying, are you sure?

You want to become better Product Managers so you can release products that people love. And that leads to fame, wealth, and glory! That is one of the main carrots for people working in the startup scene. Working hard and fast, get that next series ABC funding so eventually, you can IPO and get rich and famous. There is no shame in that—no need to hide the dream. I am assuming that is your goal.

To achieve that dream, most of us will read best practices and learn as much as possible to prepare ourselves for any challenge. But, is it possible that just following what's out there will help us achieve our dream of launching the next best app?

If you are using the current best practices to solve your problems, you are already late in the game. Unless you create a copycat product, replicate something from the past, or transfer an existing product into a different vertical or market, most of your problems are probably very specific to your context and reality.

Also, depending on the organization you are working with, you have different resources and people to deal with; in a startup, you may not have the luxury to have many people and money to build your product. Still, you can absorb from the best practices and other PMs' stories to expose yourself to different situations, but that's about it.

That's why it's pretty common that PMs may fail to apply best practices in their organizations, and they don't know why or blame somebody else.

Imagine if Google had followed the best practices and ideas from Altavista, Excite, and many others. Do you think they would be where they are today?

You can see that even within the same company, best practices don't last forever. Even for Google as of today, with the most intelligent people and great PMs, what was the last blockbuster product they had released as of late? Or most people at Google are trying to optimize that extra 2%-3% increase in traffic every quarter, not a shameful growth since it's compounded but will their ways of doing things help your startups become the next big thing? Or Yahoo, when Marissa Mayer applied the best practices from Google to her new company, that was not enough to save it from irrelevancy.

Most best practices are very specific to a context and time. What has worked before may not work today. It's like investing in the stock market. Don't use the past performance to predict the future!

We have to be skeptical and independent thinkers. There is a lot of survivorship bias and PR work behind those best practices ideas and stories. Companies want to display their best ideals and stories. Who is going to show you the ugly stories? Plus, there is a lot of echo chamber. Please don't believe in everything they say because you will create unrealistic expectations of what you should do or be. You will try to emulate something that will not help you. It's better to spend your time charting your path.


What is a good/bad product manager based on the market?

I found a very curious article from Ben Horowitz's "Good Product Manager/Bad Product Manager." That article is over two decades old. Still, I think it has an immense influence on the Product world's zeitgeist and, consequently, the startup universe.

Let's see my summary from the article.

Good product managers are:

  • Confident.
  • CEO of the product.
  • Responsible for everything of their product.
  • Marketers (user-facing and "packaging").
  • Goal-oriented.
  • Great communicators.
  • Strategic thinkers (anticipating issues and finding solutions).
  • Focused on revenues and users.
  • Realistic executioners.
  • Disciplined.
  • Increasing market share delivering values.
  • Great in PR.

Bad product managers, in contrast, are:

  • Always finding excuses, overworked.
  • Finding the "how."
  • Bad communicator.
  • Putting out fires.
  • Focusing on feature parity.
  • Building unrealistic products.
  • Letting engineers make whatever they want, confused.
  • Waiting to be told what to do
  • Bad in PR.

Nothing surprising or off, right? It brings an image of a callous and efficient PM.

Let's review an article by Julia Austin's "What It Takes to Become a Great Product Manager," from 2017. I think it is a bit more substantial and current. In summary, the best PMs have three things:

Mastering of the core competencies:

  • Interviewing customers
  • Running sprints
  • Prioritizing
  • Allocating resources
  • Defining metrics of success
  • Pricing modeling
  • Translating business-to-technical or the other way around

High EQ:

  • Relationship management
  • Self-awareness
  • Self-management
  • Social awareness

Right company fit:

  • Technical skill
  • Company definition of PM
  • PM drives engineering
  • Engineering drives product
  • The PM-engineering partnership
  • Company's stage:
  • Startup
  • Mature company

She tried to expose as many nuances and attributes that define a good PM.

The third and last article I want to share is Andy John's "What Makes For a Good Product Manager?" and he believes that a great product manager has to develop foundational, intermediate, and exceptional skills.

Foundational skills:

  • Create requirements
  • Customer feedback
  • Data insights
  • Run meeting

Intermediate skills:

  • Customer insights
  • Basic design knowledge

Exceptional skills:

  • Customer innovation
  • Vision and strategy
  • Broker hard decisions

The understanding of the data from a PM is fundamental from his point of view.

Interestingly enough, both Julia and Andy are against the idea of PM as the CEO of Product. They believe that the PMs don't have the authority to be an actual CEO to command others. Instead, a PM has to rely on influencing others in other to get things done.

As you can see, each author defines a good PM with different structures and keywords.

Ben is a venture capitalist and entrepreneur, so he wants to get things done. His success relies on people who can get "sh**" done and, ideally, don't even complain. Plain and simple.

Julia's background ranges from working at DigitalOcean, VMware, and startups. Her text reveals a very comprehensive view of the industry. I have to say that is a pretty good article to show in Harvard Business Review. It even follows McKinsey's MECE principle, mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive, in how she laid out the subject.

Last but not least, Andy has worked on products at Facebook, Twitter, and Wealthfront, and those companies are already big enough where one of the essential skills is to draw insights and trends from user data. When you are a solo entrepreneur or PM of a product that has not found the product-market fit yet, you won't have enough data to drive many insights.

You can see they have different experiences, points of view, and contexts; therefore, your exercise of trying to live up to the expectations of a good product manager may be confusing at least. Are you trying to be a good PM for a startup, Google, or your CEO? Do you fit into Ben, Julia, or Andy's parameters of what a good PM is?

Does it mean that you can be any PM? Doing whatever you want? Not really. I'm going to write about the minimum qualities a good PM has to have, but for you now, try to stop being someone where that someone is not even agreed among people.

Conclusion

It's easy to say, but you need to pause the comparison you make of yourself against whatever the best practices or ideal PM should be. Using other people's best practices, like a mathematical formula, will lead to disappointment. Even if it were a math function, the inputs from a company such as Google are very different than the inputs you have from your startup. We don't even need to think about the outputs.

Also, there is no explicit agreement amongst many professionals in the industry about what a good PM is. It looks more that it depends on the unique background and experience of those preaching, good or bad. There are some common qualities of what a good PM is, but first, you need to acknowledge that trying to fit in is not productive and helpful.

Instead, you need to free yourself from those standards. That is such a psychological weight that you carry, and by releasing yourself from those ideals, you are taking the first step to your greatness. I will cover that in our next blog post.