The biggest challenge that all startups face is a lack of resources. Every decision about hiring new resources or carrying out transactions has to be carefully planned out. However, for a new business with a product or two, investing in a product manager is a fairly safe bet.
Startup PMs, also known as “first product managers,” are responsible for setting up the very foundations of product management at a newly established company. Since they’re a crucial part of their company’s foundational team, there’s a lot of pressure involved. That being said, the job comes with many attractive intrinsic and financial perks.
But what exactly does a startup product manager do? If you’re a startup founder or a product management professional considering a new opportunity, keep reading.
In this article, we’ll sketch out a detailed picture of what a startup PM’s job entails.
Let’s get started.
Table of Contents
Do Startups Need Product Managers?
The short answer: Yes, most startups do need product managers. This is especially true for startups that have grown beyond the pre-seed stage and are moving fast towards creating and launching something tangible, all while wanting to scale.
However, keep in mind that startups at the pre-seed stage can also benefit from hiring PMs.
Here are a few reasons why:
- A startup product manager can take a major chunk of PM workload off the founder's shoulders.
- They can serve as the bridge that aligns all business teams and removes organizational silos
- Using their years of experience, they can set a clear roadmap for the startup product
At the end of the day, the decision to hire a startup PM completely depends on its founders, since they know where they stand better than anyone else.
What Does a Startup Product Manager Do?
For the most part, a startup product manager has the exact same responsibilities as a typical PM working at a well-established company. They’re responsible for creating and owning product strategies, rallying internal teams towards a common goal, managing people, and leading discussions and initiatives to move things forward.
The only difference is that a PM at a startup needs to apply a more hands-on approach and work closely with the founders.
Here are a few, core responsibilities that every startup PM has to take care of:
Owning the Product Strategy and Roadmap
Before anything else, a startup PM has to collaborate with the founders of the company to develop, own, and implement a full-fledged product strategy and a game plan (product roadmap) for it.
This is the most crucial part of a startup PM’s role. If you look up JDs on Glassdoor and Indeed, you’ll see that it’s usually the very first thing that recruiters mention.
This entails specifying:
- What the startup wants to accomplish with its products.
- The specific business goals they want to
- List of steps and initiatives required to get to the product vision (plan of action).
- The resources required to stick to the product roadmap.
After creating a product strategy and roadmap with the founder(s), a startup PM would then have to communicate and implement this strategy to the startup.
The PM acts as the main point of contact for any queries about the product roadmap (for example, how far have the teams progressed?).
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Aligning Internal Teams Towards the Vision
The second biggest responsibility of a startup product manager is to align the internal team (regardless of how few members there may be) towards a common company-wide agenda – the product vision.
Aligning or rallying product teams in startups is relatively easier than it is in larger companies. That’s mainly because in a typical startup, there aren’t many team members to begin with. Each product team usually only has a handful of people (and in some cases, certain departments, such as marketing, are one-person-armies).
Whatever the case, a startup PM has to make sure that all the stakeholders, product leaders, marketing, and product development teams are on the same page.
For this purpose, the product manager may hold one-on-one meetings, in addition to stand-ups, to keep everyone in the loop.
Again, since the internal teams aren’t that large, the PM has the privilege to take a more personal approach.
Be an Individual Contributor for Every Major Business Function
Another thing that separates the job of a startup product manager from a regular product management role is the amount of individual contributions they have to make.
A typical startup doesn’t have much resources to spend. As a result, the product manager there is expected to wear many hats and directly execute some of the product strategies themselves (in addition to managing team members).
In other words, they have to assume the role of a generalist.
For that reason, a great product manager should have sufficient know-how of:
- Product marketing (product life cycles, market/user research, GTM, etc.)
- Business in general (finances, strategy, etc.)
- Product development (user stories, design, engineering, etc.)
Hence, startup product managers are expected to do everything – from influencing decision-making to taking initiatives that result from those decisions.
Considering all that, if you’re interested in building a career on the individual contributor (IC) track, working as a startup product manager can prepare you for the quick-thinking approach it requires.
Manage the GTM Strategy
If the startup doesn’t have a product marketing manager (or anyone else overseeing the marketing function), the startup PM is expected to create and execute the go-to-market (GTM) strategy.
- Determining a Pricing Strategy – the startup PM works with the founder (or a finance specialist, if there is one) to opt for a pricing strategy that aligns with the business goals.
- Determining a Distribution Strategy – another critical component of a GTM strategy is determining a strategy to reach the end-customers.
Behind every successful product, there’s a high-level GTM strategy that helps bring it to the world. For that reason, the startup PM has a lot of pressure to get it right.
Provide Feedback and Get Updates
At an early-stage in startups (and those in later stages), where the company has already launched a minimal viable product (MVP), a startup product manager has to work closely with the internal teams to analyze and act on customer feedback.
Again, this requires a hands-on approach. A product manager has to create a process that enables the sharing of this feedback instantly with the relevant teams. Furthermore, the process should also describe the way those problems are addressed and resolved.
For instance, if feedback reveals certain gaps in the product (a glitch or potential improvements), the engineering team should be involved. On top of that, the PM has to create and implement a plan of action that resolves the problem and helps fill the gaps.
Measure Results and Optimize
Last but not least, the startup product manager is responsible for collecting, evaluating, and sharing product-related data.
For this purpose, they track certain product metrics to make sure that the startup is on a trajectory that hits the business goals.
Additionally, after analyzing this data, the startup product manager is also expected to lead the corrective/improvement measures through internal discussions.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Below, we’ve answered some of the most frequently asked questions related to the startup product management role:
How Much Do Startups Pay Product Managers?
According to ZipRecruiter, startup product managers in the US earn $85,168 per year (or $41 per hour). Just because you won’t get to work at a large enterprise as a product manager, doesn’t mean you won’t get paid as much. In fact, some startups pay their product managers higher salaries than other well-established businesses.
The highest salary reported for a startup product manager is a whopping $161,500 per year.
Furthermore, the highest paying city for this role is Sunnyvale, CA, with an average annual salary of $101,675.
How much you get paid depends on different factors (mainly the cost of living in the state/city you’re in).
How Do I Become a First Product Manager?
Becoming a first product manager requires a certain skill set (especially interpersonal, communication, and leadership skills) and some level of hands-on product management experience. Once you do that, build a solid resume, and apply for open positions.
Here’s a quick roadmap that anyone can take to land a role as the first PM at a startup:
- Invest in Building Your Credentials – first and foremost, you need to build a list of credentials that validate your skills. A bachelor’s degree isn’t necessary, but can give you a significant competitive edge. Instead, focus on investing in different product certifications.
- Invest in the Right Skill Sets – work on your soft skills. In addition, building business development, management, and marketing skills can also go a long way in helping you stand out from your peers.
- Gain Ample Experience – unless you’re aiming for an internship, if you're completely fresh, you shouldn’t apply as a first product manager at a startup. Build relevant work experience first by working someplace else, under the tutelage of other experienced product managers.
Finally, after building ample product management experience, actively start applying for open positions at startups.
When Should a Startup Hire a Product Manager?
While a startup could benefit from hiring a product manager at any time, it doesn’t mean that there’s always a need for one. The best time for a startup to hire a product manager is when it’s having trouble scaling, and the founder(s) need to delegate some of the product management-related tasks to an expert.
At the end of the day, there aren’t any hard and fast rules for when this should happen. If you’re the founder of a startup, you know when it’s time to take things up a notch and get additional help to scale your efforts.
How Much Do Product Managers Get Paid?
According to Glassdoor, product managers in the US get paid about $112,029 per year on average. This is based on more than 30,000 salary reports collected from real product managers working in different companies across the US.
The highest salary reported is $173,000 per year (PMs can get paid more).
Like every other position, your salary will depend mainly on the cost of living in the city you’re in. For instance, you’re more likely to get paid more in major hubs like San Francisco, New York, and Las Vegas, as compared to other cities.
All in all, startup PMs not only help move things forward across the board through individual contributions, but they also set the very foundations for project management in their company.
If you enjoy working in high-velocity environments and want to make an impact at the foundational level, you should definitely consider becoming a startup product manager.