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Today, startup companies make up a large portion of the workforce; however, the success rate isn’t always as high.  With that, many entrepreneurs are focusing on building the right internal structure to help their startup take off successfully. 

Entrepreneurs that are starting a business or have successfully launched a business that is in its infancy expect product managers to reach significant goals and put them at an advantage.  These advantages may require assistance in setting up business objectives, analyzing target markets and consumer audiences, and developing and delivering products and services to the appropriate markets/audiences.  This month, we’re going to answer the following questions: what is Product Management in startups, and why is it important?


A key function of startup PMs is innovation.  As a product manager, you would either take on an existing product and nurture it further or bring about a whole new product into existence.  With a combination of data and your intuition, you as the product manager are constantly trying to remain ahead of the competition. The blueprint of what the product must evolve to is maintained via a roadmap. 

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Based on my experience as a PM in startups, the thing that keeps the startup machinery well oiled and moving along is innovation.  There is a need to constantly innovate, stay ahead of the curve, speed to market and look at the overall strategy. Product Manager Bridget McMullan explains that often, PM positions don’t open up until late in the game, when innovation has already begun.  As McMullan writes, “this means that product managers are thrust into developing a product or service concept they had no part in creating.”  Considering that PMs are the embodiment of a product, the biggest advocates for a company’s offerings, it’s important that PMs do have roles from the first brainstorm.  Knowledge of this developmental history is going to make a PM much more effective.

Jacks—and Masters—of All Trades

The title of “Product Manager” is fairly unassuming—two words, five syllables.  However, a successful PM takes on a plethora of roles, particularly in startups that have not yet found their footing.  While a PM can serve as a product’s proud parent, chaperoning it to usability testing and presentations, a PM is equally responsible for rallying employees and creating an environment that will let the product flourish. 

In many companies, from small startups to Fortune 500s, hiring managers often seek PMs with technical skills and backgrounds.  A PM with these skills can communicate effectively with a company’s engineers and more technical employees, whose work directly impacts the success of software or other digital products.  Particularly in startups, PMs can serve as impromptu translators between departments and public advocates for products. They aren’t hired to do all these jobs in startups, but with plenty of expertise, PMs can often throw themselves into whatever odd job comes their way.  Any successful PM needs to be organized enough to juggle vast and varying amounts of work, while at the same time balancing interpersonal interactions with independent efforts. After all, while teams often complete a wide range of tasks, it is up to HR managers and PMs to study the big picture and understand every working part.

A skilled PM can work laterally or longitudinally within a company to develop a product. Startups, in particular, go through phases of adolescence as they reach maturity. Kaktus Lab Founder and CEO Matthias Wagner names six of these phases: 

  • Ideation 
  • Concept 
  • Commitment 
  • Validation
  • Scaling 
  • Establishing

In each phase, the key role of a PM differs. For instance, the ideation phase requires a PM to have unabashed “entrepreneurial spirit,” the disposition that leads to exhaustive brainstorming and research, all of which funnels into early feedback. Another example is the scaling phase’s need for a “growth wizard,” meaning the PM should be knowledgable of collecting and interpreting data, driving online traffic, and various technical skills. While a PM should balance all types of skills every day, the stage of a startup’s development determines the categories of skills that will make a PM most helpful.

Dedication to a Product

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As I mentioned previously, a PM often becomes their product’s greatest cheerleader.  This means a PM is the one who obsesses over lines of code and design elements, stressing the quality of the product above all else.  While data analysts at a startup can evaluate feedback from usability testing and surveys, it is the PM who understands what the suggestions, compliments, and complaints mean for the product as a whole.  PMs, in a sense, become omniscient beings at a startup, wholly focused on the product and able to examine work with not one, but ten fine-toothed combs.

If a product generates monetary value for a startup, the product manager generates internal value.  Just as a writer’s success is defined by their novel, a product manager’s success is defined by their product.  We as product managers must personify our products and dedicate every iota of effort towards their success.  

Competitive Advantage 

With startups being on the rise in various industries, it creates an inevitable challenge: competition.  Competition for startups is fierce, and having a PM within your foundation is one of the greatest ways to potentially combat it.  Similar to conducting research on the target market and audience, a PM will also use that opportunity to evaluate the potential competition within the market and how strong it is.  Knowing the competition well will assist a PM with building a stable product strategy, understanding key factors such as competitive products and services, offerings, and pricing. With a solid understanding of this, a PM will build a product strategy and roadmap that is reflective of the competitive information, thus improving tasks such as prototyping and product development.  

Shaping the Future

In line with seeking opportunities for competitive advantage, PMs also have the industry know-how to spot opportunities for growth in general. Such opportunities include finding ways to monetize and derive new funding, encouraging inter-departmental communication, and building alliances with industry or trade partners.  But aren’t PMs supposed to be solely focused on their product? In a way, yes. But it is through this focus, this dedication to perfecting a product as well as the environment that surrounds it, that can lead to changes in the operation of a malleable startup.

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What all can PMs do to positively influence the future of a startup?  To make a long story short, PMs apply external research and knowledge to the internal workings of a startup.  Startups often fall victim to growing pains as they experience exponential growth and development. Experienced PMs can spot monetary and product issues from a mile away simply because they know what works and what doesn’t for a product or industry.  While many startups wonder if a PM is worth it, particularly if they’re struggling financially, consider PMs to be an investment. We stick around and scan the company like anti-virus software, polishing products and smoothing operations.