In the world of high-growth technology startups, many people have weighed in on the ideal functional backgrounds for founders. Common models are:
- Hipster, Hacker, Hustler – The trio of designer, developer, and sales person.
- Technical Founders – Think Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates. Founders get extra credibility for dropping out of college.
- Design Founders – The success of Apple and Airbnb show the potential world-changing impact of design thinking.
Strangely, product managers (PMs) almost never show up on this list. In my view, PMs are severely underrated in early stage startups – as Skilljar grows, I’m increasingly finding my personal background in product management to be a critical foundation for success. Read on for the 3 reasons why product managers make the ideal founders.
1. Product managers are capable of covering virtually every business function.
Product management is a highly cross-functional discipline by nature. In my PM roles at Amazon, I sold deals, negotiated contracts, developed market requirements, ran customer surveys, collaborated with UX designers and user researchers, scoped tasks with engineers, ran QA tests, chased down legal, tax, accounting, and customer service issues to resolution, while also synthesizing product roadmaps and communicating these upwards and sideways to executives and internal teams.
If this sounds chaotic, it’s very similar to what startup founders need to do in the early days of a company. In addition, many product managers have enough technical knowledge to build MVPs and prototypes, enough to get a startup idea off the ground.
While some may consider product managers as being exposed to all business functions but masters of none, having cross-functional skills are insanely valuable in early stage startups where needs are constantly shifting and there aren’t enough resources or work to justify full-time roles.
2. Product managers know how to get stuff done.
Product managers are accountable for delivering results. Yet they have no formal reporting authority over underlying teams, and rarely have sufficient resources to accomplish the task in a reasonable time frame. As a result, PMs are experts at ruthless prioritization, elegant simplifications, gaining stakeholder buy-in, and finding creative alternatives to constraints.
At the end of the day, startups are about delivering results with limited resources, which is exactly what product managers need to do too.
3. Product managers combine strategic vision with tactical execution.
Because product management touches the customer lifecycle from sales through support, PMs are able to see every aspect of the business, understand market dynamics, and develop strategic vision on how the environment is evolving and what customers need in the future. At the same time, PMs are able to balance this vision with the realities of getting stuff done and tactical execution. The combination of thinking big and delivering results is critical for startup founders as well.
While technical, design, and sales founders can bring strong functional expertise to tech startups, product management provides unique cross-functional skills that can carry early-stage startups a long way. I’m convinced that my personal background in product management has enabled me to cover many business functions within Skilljar to get us to the next milestone, when we are able to hire experts who can do each role 10x better than me alone. Think you’re one of them? We’re hiring!