How to eliminate the #1 killer of startups
I recently I wrote about the Product Management Gap: the period of time between having a successful demonstration of a technical innovation (the proof-of-concept) and when a full-time team member is assigned to focus on managing the product(s) that feature it.
The Product Management Gap is a pervasive and deadly problem in the VC-backed startup space that I feel accounts for over half of the ventures that succumb to the dreaded Series A Crunch. Although it’s easy to identify, and affects nearly every startup, the Gap is also stubbornly difficult to fix without access to the talent, and budget growth-stage companies have at their disposal to hire qualified Product Managers
How large is a startup’s Gap?
One way to conceptualize the impact the Gap is having on an organization is to think about what a product manager would actually be doing, if one were hired, from a time and function perspective: measure and analyze product engagement; track middle-to-bottom of funnel sales and marketing conversions; gather feedback from team members in different roles; talk to customers; and then use these inputs to objectively inform their product development roadmap — which they tend-to like a parent cares for an infant.
A PM’s product development roadmap is the blueprint that defines how the teams limited creative resources should be contributing to the CEO’s mission and vision. In my experience, doing this well requires just as much focus, time, and energy as any other common tech startup role, yet it’s commonly a secondary or tertiary responsibility of a founding CEO or CTO.
An effective Product Manager must test new ideas, and then champion, deprioritize, or reject them backed with enough quality data and clear reasoning so that their founders and peers respect their priorities without losing their own drive to execute at full-speed as individual contributors.
The value (and challenge to finding) a great product manager stems from the rare mix of character traits, experience, and vertical-relevancy one needs to be the right fit for a particular venture:
Methods of Closing The Gap
As I’ve written previously, “the primary reasons teams don’t have Product Managers comes down to lack of awareness, a lack of understanding, and, ultimately, a lack of budget.” My intent is that readers now have a heightened awareness and understanding about the vital importance of the Product Management function… but that doesn’t translate into the budget to be able to simply hire a full-time Product Manager. From a cost perspective, I’ve found the following to be the most effective Gap-closing solutions (from most-to-least):
1. Hire a Product Manager
Whenever feasible, adding a skilled and experienced Product Manager to a team is the most straightforward way to mitigate the risks associated with the Gap. Ideally these responsibilities belong to a dedicated co-founder (in addition to the traditional CEO & CTO founder pairing).
There is a school-of-thought that hiring a PM in the early stages is anti-lean since bringing on someone who is adequately qualified can be time-consuming, expensive, and dilutive (in the additional co-founder scenario). Ken Norton, Partner at GV, perhaps summarizes this viewpoint best: “I discourage founders from hiring [a product manager] until they’ve found product-market fit.”
2. Complement a team with a Product Management Coach
Often, a pragmatic option for an early-stage team is to hire a Product Management Coach. A coach works with a team in a hands-on capacity to identify specific challenges, resolve conflicts, encourage course corrections, and enable individual contributors through knowledge transfer so that they successfully close the Gap together. (disclosure: this is a service my company provides.)
As a venture matures, and can allocate the resources to build out its growth-stage management team, it should prioritize hiring a full-time product manager. A good coach will also be an active participant in helping the company through their transition.
3. Add a product-focused Advisory Board member
Strategic advisors are helpful contributors of subject matter expertise and catalysts for networking opportunities, but they are typically motivated to be low-touch due to their the small equity-based compensation structure. The right advisor can completely close the Gap in the scenario where an individual with a pre-existing product management skill-set in a different vertical could benefit from some additional mentorship.
4. Adopt simple product management frameworks
At a bare-minimum, every startup team should instill in its culture some of the basic strategic hygiene common to popular product management frameworks.
Two favorites of mine are the RICE model (a simple objective model used to rank product initiatives), and the OKR goal-setting framework (a powerful vision-alignment tool).
Harlan Milkove is a product-minded software engineer and veteran startup founder. He has led initiatives across several ventures to launch flagship products via individual contribution and by forming high caliber teams. His most notable venture, Reonomy, is a commercial real estate analytics platform that has secured over $69M in funding.
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