A YC Founder’s Guide to Product Management

A YC Founder’s Guide to Product Management

Last week I had conversations with a handful of founder friends who are all working on defining their product teams. They asked for good blog posts or other materials on what product leaders and product managers do and I struggled to point them to something really concise. I ultimately recommended two books (linked at the end of this post), but as a founder I know they don’t have time to read stuff designed for aspiring product leaders. So to fill this gap, here’s my short guide to product management for founders.

The role of a Product Manager

At a high level, the job of a product manager is to set a vision for the product, communicate the vision to the team, and then work to build and execute on an actionable plan that will incrementally improve the product until it meets the vision.

A PM first researches their market, customer, and the customer’s problem. They synthesize all this info to come up with a vision for their product that makes sense given their company vision. This requires empathy, creativity, and great product thinking. Earlier stage startups may have PMs doing this work, collaborating directly with the CEO or founders.

In larger companies the role of a PM changes. As a company grows, they start to build a product team and eventually bring onboard a product leader. The product leader then articulates the product vision and product strategy (see below). The PM instead focuses more on defining the product based on the vision, the market, and the customer needs and works with the development team and stakeholders on execution.

After the vision is articulated, the PM needs to get the team excited about it. To do this effectively, PMs need to be inspirational, great communicators, and have the humility to understand that when the team doesn't get the vision it’s because it wasn’t communicated clearly or frequently enough (rather than folks not paying attention).

A PM also needs to work with the team to translate the vision into a roadmap that iteratively gets the product closer to the vision. This means working closely with the team to understand what’s feasible and get the team thinking about how to best build the product.

PMs work closely with the development team and other stakeholders to execute on the roadmap. A good PM thinks about the full product experience, including how the product is described and sold even if those parts of the experience are ultimately owned by marketing, sales, and other teams. For each product iteration that gets shipped, PMs spend time listening to customers to see if the product solved their needs and what additional gaps need to be filled.

Notably, PMs do all this orchestration without direct authority over the development team and the stakeholders who work together to deliver on the product vision. They need to be really good at influencing these people without authority.

PM vs. Product leader

Unlike PMs, product leaders have direct authority over some people, i.e. the members of the product team. The actual title of the product leader can vary depending on the company, but common ones include Chief Product Officer, VP of Product, and Head of Product. Similarly, the size of the product team can vary greatly depending on the size and type of the company. Great product leaders usually measure their success in terms of product impact (or ability to deliver on the company vision), rather than their number of headcount.

Broadly speaking, product leaders are tasked with the product strategy. Driving the product strategy includes translating the company vision into product execution, hiring and training PMs and other members of the product team, and establishing appropriate processes and communication for effective execution. 

At a startup, the founders or the CEO will set the general direction for the company by articulating a company vision. At early stage startups, the CEO will usually also act as both the product leader and the PM, while also fundraising, hiring for every possible role, doing marketing, and whatever else needs to be done 😅

But once a startup is mature enough to bring onboard a separate product leader, the product leader is responsible for translating the company vision into product vision(s) and establishing product goals. Those goals ultimately guide PM’s research, product roadmaps, and execution. Personally, I like structuring product teams around goals, where each PM is responsible for a goal rather than a product so that they can think broadly about how to best achieve the goals rather than just optimizing a product or feature. This and other details of how product leaders develop their strategy and goals depends on the company, its products, and the setup of the product team.

In the early days, a product vision and a company vision may be the same. Ideally, a company vision is a fairly broad statement that can mostly survive product pivots. A product vision can be more specific. Generally, a product vision articulates how the world would be different if the product is successful. Multi-product companies can have multiple product visions. 

Hopefully this post gives you an overview of what to think about when hiring your first PM or product leader. If you’re ready to start hiring a Head of Product, I recommend checking out the Hiring Product Leadership chapter in Product Leadership. You can also check out Product Roadmaps Relaunched to get a sense of what to expect from the roadmaps that your PMs/product leader craft.

Thanks to Amelia Lin, Zach Waterfield, Laure Cast, Peter Welinder, Noga Leviner, and James Fong for reading drafts of this and providing feedback.

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