Being the first product manager at a startup

Tableau / Productmeetme@📊
Mar 4 14 Comments

I’m leaving my cushy medium-sized corporate world to join a startup. I’ll be the first product manager there, at a company of about 25 people.

I’ve only ever done product management here at Tableau, where it is a world of neverending status giving with the occasionally product decision to make. I’m very excited to be at a place where I report directly to the CTO and get to put the practices in place myself. But also, mildly terrified.

Has anyone here gone from a more regimented corporate world to a startup as a product manager? Any advice on where I should start or what I should avoid?

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TOP 14 Comments
  • Facebook pndubs
    I’ve worked at large companies, medium sized companies (similar in size to Tableau), and small startups. I haven’t been the first product hire, but have been one of just a few PMs in a small startup.

    One thing to be conscious of in a startup situation is, “That’s not my job,” is never an option. Everything is your job. Especially in product. When staffing is lean, it’s likely that at some point you will be the product manager, and the engineering manager, and the product designer, and the data analyst, and the user researcher, and the product marketer. You are responsible not just for setting the norms of what a functional product org should be, but also in many situations will be the person executing to make sure you achieve it, whatever it takes.

    And establishing what you think of as product norms may not be a given with your coworkers. What you think of as product management may not be what they think of as product management, so arriving at a shared understanding of that is part education, part persuasion, part negotiation.

    You will work on problems so broad that in most situations you won’t know the answer to them, and sometimes you might not be even sure how to find the answers to them. But it is your job to figure it out. Which can be both empowering and anxiety inducing.
    Mar 41
    • Tableau / Productmeetme@📊
      OP
      This is all great! Thank you so much!
      Mar 4
  • Market Track pmnote
    Can i have your old job?
    Mar 43
    • Market Track pmnote
      But to answer your question, my advice would be to always listen to the voice of the customer, and watch for what's happening or not happening inside your company to deliver the right value. Both startup and corporate worlds have a lot of noise and it's too easy to get caught up in it. Have clarity on your goals, and the patience to nudge people to line up with them.
      Mar 4
    • Tableau / Productmeetme@📊
      OP
      Do you like documenting the same information in 5 different formats because various middle management types all want to see if different ways?

      Do you want to make decisions on how people should be analyzing data but have virtually no data on your end to support those decisions or measure their success?

      Could you deliver products in an Agile fashion, only for them to be called “incomplete” and kept from shipping or take several quarters working on something fully featured only to have it shut down a year and a half in because “it’s taking too long and our business priorities have changed”

      If yes, then you are hired!
      Mar 4
    • Market Track pmnote
      Ouch, sounds like you're making a good move finding a new role! Thanks for being candid, i was actually considering applying to Tableau :/
      Mar 6
  • Capital One / ProductMrProduct
    I agree with "pndubs". I'm a PM that worked at a startup some years ago as their first PM. Definitely the most important thing to prepare yourself for mentally is being responsible for ..

    1.) Creating product norms and socializing them (keep in mind that showing why things should be done a certain way is very important. If you can get your manager to help push changes to norms, that will also help you).

    2.) Almost every decision being made about the product will require your input and that means you absolutely need to understand the business your product is in fully and have your finger on the pulse. Data is king. Know the data metrics that are critical for your product and have them updated and available for reference daily. Why? As the first PM you'll be doing alot of defending. Founders and other leaders already have "great" ideas for the product. It's your job (in part) to talk them off a ledge if the ideas are terrible. Diplomacy will become your second language. You'll also need to use your data and insights to justify your thoughts and build credibility. Once they trust you more, you will have less defending to do but hopefully the habit of leveraging data will stick around regardless. These things can sometimes be less important in larger companies, but in a smaller company, you are the expert and only you will be responsible for any successes or failures from a product user experience perspective.

    3.) Working longer hours (in most cases) or wearing multiple hats. This will not likely be a 9-to-5 job. Expect to get phone calls from leadership at odd times of the evening or weekends (depending on the company). This is not necessarily a bad thing if you are on top of your game. It gives you an opportunity to build strong upward relationships, earn more respect, and be rewarded for it overtime.

    Lastly, it takes alot of guts to leave the large company for a small one, but if you are passionate about the product you'll be managing, you'll find that it's a very fulfilling experience because truly everything the customer sees and touches will be because you lead your team in making that happen!
    Mar 50
  • Microsoft job seeker
    How many yoe you got?

    Also, how did you figure out it's not a dubious startup but a real one?

    Make sure to leave on a good note so that you can come back... All the best.
    Mar 42
    • Tableau / Productmeetme@📊
      OP
      3 as a PM, 3 in product marketing before those. 10 years working in data in general, which will be relevant to this new place.

      The founders of this startup have already successfully started and sold a startup in the same industry. They were pretty forthcoming with the business model and the plan on how/when/to whom to sell the company to when the time comes. I’ve had friends work for their previous company and had nothing but good things to say about the founders.
      Mar 4
    • Microsoft job seeker
      Alright bruh you got this covered. Good luck!
      Mar 4
  • You’re not the first Product Manager. The founder is. Ask them where the bodies are buried so you can remediate and start adding value.

    Sounds exciting
    Mar 40
  • Twitter WvHc42
    I made a similar leap myself after PMing at Twitter (went to a 20 person startup as the first PM). Feel free to message me if you'd like to chat.
    Mar 41
    • Twitter WvHc42
      I would summarize it being the best career decision I made, as well as the toughest
      Mar 4
  • New KBh
    One thing to keep into consideration going to a startup and working for the founders is that you don’t necessarily control the roadmap and most likely they do. They are so invested in the idea that their gut feeling sort of takes over unless you have lots of data. Where you would be very helpful early on is on the execution side and making sure that things are moving along smoothly
    Mar 40

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