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The Next Act for an Entrepreneur With Breadth, Not Depth – Am I A Product Manager?

I know -- my PowerPoint skills are amazing...
Right after making the decision to zombify Body Boss, I met with a local entrepreneur about my Next Act. Except, I didn’t have one, yet. Instead, I talked to him about what was learned, what I may do next, and I asked him what he thought the best role for me would be in a startup.

Not sure if I was so big-headed (figuratively, in addition “physical” – I know I have one… takes a while to find a helmet or hat that fits well), but I was envisioning the scene in my head going, “Daryl, you should continue building. Your best role would be CEO of a startup… your own, preferably.” (I’m now shaking my head muttering, “stupid titles… who cares?!”) Well, those weren’t the words he used. Instead, he said, “I think you’d be a great Product Manager.”

Admittedly, I didn’t know anything about Product Management, at least, not from a formal sense, so I was a bit… (naively) disappointed. I had to think about it this.
I was in this mode of “there were two roles in startups – Builders or Sellers,” and “Product Manager” seemed a bit “back-office” to where the action was. Except in an early-stage startup, especially, Product Management is deep in the action as the company strives to reach product-market fit.

For Body Boss, I played a role largely on the Sell side leading the sales, marketing, biz dev efforts, but I was also heavy in Product Management along with our developers and designer.

As I look back at my Body Boss experience, other startups like Beachscape and 1Q, and even my prior life as a consultant, Product Management perhaps is, indeed, my bread and butter. I never really had the corporate sales role which many startups seem to like, but I’ve had a lot of experience in the other initialism of “PM”, Project Management. In many ways, effective Product Managers and Project Managers share many qualities.

TheNextWeb.com (TNW) featured an article “Product Managers: Who are these ‘mini-CEOs’ and what do they do?” by Ken Yeung back in October of 2013, and more recently, David Cummings (DC) wrote a piece “The Product Manager”. I found both articles to be insightful, and wanted to share some great sound bites and commonalities.
  • In a way, it’s almost like they’re the mini-CEO, complete with the influence, but no authority — they aren’t the direct supervisors of the engineer or designer and can’t fire anyone for not following through, and focused on the success of the product’s mission. [TNW] This couldn’t ring more true for Body Boss where the four of us co-founders had no “hierarchy” and equal equity. We formed a four-headed Product Manager. This can be incredibly challenging when everyone has a different vision, though, as wheels spin and development halts.
  • [Josh] Elman wrote a post entitled A Product Manager’s Job and in it, he says that a core part of it involves having a good feel “for what seems right or wrong, and are also good at listening to early feedback from testers and others who try it.” [TNW] It’s rare there’s a dedicated Product Manager in a startup. In reality the CEO and the lead engineer (and designer) take on the role together. However, the take-away here is the importance of involving feedback from testers and partners early and often in the development of the product. This mitigates risk of building an unwanted product or non-essential/ useful features.
  • True empathy for the customer is a must-have (we’ve all used products that didn’t feel like they had the customer in mind). [DC] Going hand-in-hand with the preceding point, building a product with the customer in mind is critical. Like at Body Boss, none of us were professional strength coaches, and yet, we were selling to them. We didn’t have true empathy, though, and thus, we missed some of the big pain-points early. This was hard moving forward from the start. Note the little nugget in what I just said, too: none of us were professional strength coaches. Having experience in your market/ industry can go a long way in developing empathy and leveraging your network for traction growth.
  •  […] PMs need to have an appreciation for leading while also understanding that it’s about solving the holistic problem. Being a PM can teach you a lot about leadership and also about yourself […] it’s not about using your power to accomplish something — he sees this action as a sign of weakness. It’s all about inspiration, vision, and analysis while keeping in mind that it’s a team sport so you’re not going at things alone. [TNW] and Attention to detail and planning skills are crucial due to all the moving parts. [DC] Product Managers are connectors. They have great communication skills and enough know-how of the business, sales and marketing, design, and technical know-how to empathize with the right touch points of the product. Just as you move higher up the ladder in a corporate setting, a leader’s duties shift to more strategic initiatives and people influences… much of what a Product Manager does.
  • [Joanna] Wright says that managers need to be aware of three things: knowing the product and its users, having tenacity by picking up ideas and following through even though no one may believe in it, and being able to collaborate and working with others to have a strong vibe together. [TNW] Joanna’s points here highlight every critical aspect of an effective Product Manager… they are multi-faceted and view the product holistically… they are leaders – inspiring, team-oriented, collaborative… they persevere with the vision believing in the long-run benefits than short-term challenges… they are internally and externally people-focused as people are what drive the product either consumption or creation... they don’t just drive execution, but they motivate execution.
Hmm, it’s a no wonder TNW’s Yeung and Cummings view effective Product Managers as difficult roles to fill.

I can’t say whether or not being a Product Manager explicitly is “my thing”, though. Product management is definitely a part of what I do and what I want to continue to do. In fact, it perhaps fits me best as an explicit role as it embraces my interest in breadth rather than depth. However, I love early-stage startups because of its necessity for product management in addition to the external-facing role of business development.

So if my Next Act is to join an existing team, perhaps Product Manager is a great role for me. If I’m going to start another startup, then playing Product Manager will likely just be part of my greater role anyways.

How does a Product Manager role sound for you? What are your thoughts about being a Product Manager or Product Management vs. a role in one of the other “specialties” where perhaps you’d be the responsible party a PM would work with?

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