Product Management: Startup vs Big Company
Posted by Tech in Motion
Written by Sara Mauskopf, Director of Product at Postmates
Now that I’ve been at Postmates for almost 8 months, a lot of people have asked me the difference between Product Management at a larger company like Twitter (where I worked from July 2010 to July 2014) or Google (where I worked from 2007 to 2010) and at a startup like Postmates. I wondered this myself too before I decided to join a startup.
So first, let me define Product Management at a larger tech company. As a Product Manager, you’re responsible for defining a roadmap for your area and ensuring that roadmap will yield the goals or objectives you set forth for your team (and these team goals should clearly map to the goals of the company). You’re responsible for ensuring the items on the roadmap are prioritized, and that there are clear product specifications for those items. Finally you work closely with the team to build, launch, collect data/feedback, and iterate. Through all phases, including planning, you’re working closely with engineering, design, and other key stakeholders across the company. And because everyone looks to you as a leader for your product area, it’s important you’re inspiring those around you to do their greatest work by setting the right context, establishing a sense of urgency, and working collaboratively.
As it turns out, all those fundamentals remain the same at a startup. In fact, the fundamentals are so important that having experience at a larger company as a Product Manager is one of the best forms of training for startup Product Management. But on top of all that, at a startup you have responsibilities and challenges that don’t exist at a larger company. If you’re thinking of making the transition from big company PM to startup PM, here are some things you’ll want to know.
1. You’ll often have to do things you’ve never done before and probably suck at.
Working at a startup you quickly discover where your personal weaknesses are because on a daily basis you need to do something you’ve never done before and probably aren’t good at yet. The main way this manifests is through needing to do something that larger companies have a person or team dedicated to doing. For example, at a startup you will most certainly not have a user research team that helps you assess how your feature will be received in the market. If you want user research or early feedback on a prototype, you’ll have to find and interview users yourself. Although it can be scary to roll up your sleeves and try something you’ve never done before, it’s also the fastest way to learn how to do it. If you’re lucky, you may discover a talent you didn’t know you had!
2. You’ll need gymnast levels of flexibility.
Imagine any company has 5 “fire drills” a quarter. In other words, an average company has 5 times per quarter when they need to react quickly to something in the market, change a plan due to unexpected data or user feedback, or get in a war room and really focus on a hard problem that hasn’t been given enough attention. At a larger company, those 5 times are spread out between a lot of people and teams so you probably experience yourself at most one per quarter. At a startup, any fire drill usually involves most of the product, design, and engineering team because the team is so small. It’s important at a startup that you can quickly tackle these fire drills, not get too thrown off course, and reprioritize your roadmap when needed. Most importantly, you need to mentally be able to deal with plans changing more frequently. It’s ok!
3. You’ll do less talking the talk, more walking the walk.
At a startup, there’s nowhere to hide. People who can step up to the plate and tackle the challenges will shine and get even more responsibility. Underperformers who can’t cut it will quickly make their way out. In addition to not needing to worry much about whether your individual performance will be recognized, if you ask any good PM at a larger company they’ll tell you they spend some percentage of their time carving out territory for their team, evangelizing the great results of their team, and other activities generally thought of as “managing up”. It’s not because large companies are full of evil political people, it’s just because when you have so many people working somewhere it’s easy to get lost in the noise if you aren’t making it clear what your team works on and the results they’ve achieved.
You don’t have to worry about that much at a startup. Now, I spend my time working and moving the company forward rather than evangelizing my team internally. With fewer people to communicate with, you can spend more time doing the work, which is great because there’s a lot of work to do.
About the Author
Sara Mauskopf joined on-demand delivery company Postmates in July to build and run its Product Management team. Postmates is transforming the way local goods move around a city by connecting customers with local couriers who purchase and deliver goods from any restaurant or store in a city in minutes. Prior to Postmates, Sara was a Group Product Manager at Twitter, having joined the company in 2010. She started her career at YouTube and Google as a Partner Technology Manager (a role that's a mix of partnerships and engineering). Sara graduated with a bachelors degree in Computer Science from MIT.