So you are not the CEO …

Not the designer. Not even a coder. And yet you get excited every time there is a product related discussion. You are curious how the product will look like, how we are going to develop it and what stack we will be using. You feel more than ready to chip in every time there is a talk about customer behavior and understanding. You tend to keep a close look at the market. You worry that lack of focus might kill your product. You are spending your nights obsessing over these questions and writing detailed strategies to counter them. You are not the CFO but you work hard on the business model. You understand that lack of business will kill your product more than anything else. You don’t understand how to generate leads for sales but you care about the product messaging. If all these seem familiar than you are a product manager.

I have hated the term manager for the most part of my professional life—for the right reasons. The word manager has all sorts of bad stigmas attached to it. The one who has no idea what engineering team is doing and yet he wants to dictate their schedule. The one who has no sense of good design. And perhaps the most disturbingly, the one who does not even have a clear understanding of a company’s vision. Management for the sake of management is a bad idea. While most of your job is to oversee all aspects of a product you are managing, you can only do so if you understand and contribute some. You need to understand good design without necessarily having working proficiency of Photoshop. You need to understand code without being a master of shell scripting or Python. You need to have an understanding of your customer even though you don’t work in customer support. And you should know how your product will be sold without being the salesman.

Ben Horowitz puts it brilliantly in the Hard Thing about Hard Things.

Good product managers know the market, the product, the product line and the competition extremely well and operate from a strong basis of knowledge and confidence. A good product manager is the CEO of the product.

That entails everything. Just like being the CEO of your company means you are responsible for everything. The same is also true for a product manager. You are responsible for the product. Listen to Steve Jobs from 12:00 to 12:15 in the video below.

You are responsible for the whole package. You need to emphasize things which are important and let go of things which are not. You need to prioritize. You need to decide features that are going to be in the next version and the ones that will never be part of the product. To make these decisions you have to have knowledge of every facet of the product i.e. design, engineering, marketing, and customer.

Do startups need Product Managers? Yes. Ideally, one member of the founding team should take this responsibility. The title is not important because it’s an assumed responsibility not a designed one. There are two distinct challenges most startups face:

1. Most founding teams are young so they don’t understand all aspects of the business. Which is critical for product management role. Reading becomes instrumental if you can’t hire one.

2. Normally startup founders are either coders or designers. Or in worst, yet rare, case business people. If you are smart enough you will probably find a way to answer questions outside of Photoshop or Xcode. But it’s hard because unlike coding and designing it’s not a well-defined role. Business backgrounds are normally the worst because of way too much focus on the market than what makes a startup unique.

P.S. I liked the fact that Square uses Editors rather Managers as titles. The difference is profound.