How to Excel as a Product Manager at an Early-Stage Startup

“The thing that product people often fail to appreciate is how hard it is to go from an idea to having even a couple hundred thousand dollars of revenue.” – Josh Tong

Product managers regularly navigate murky waters at startup companies. They strive to take the product in exciting and scalable directions but, too often, a poorly defined role and the fear of stepping on the founders’ toes keeps their innovative ideas trapped at certain depths. And those strategies that do get off the ground usually grow and expand too quickly.

So, how can a product manager get their ideas to the surface?

We spoke with Josh Tong, startup Product Manager about the numerous responsibilities of product managers at early-stage startup companies. With over a decade of experience of building out product teams at Series A startups, Josh provides essential guidance for product managers interested in implementing reliable product strategies while respecting the visions of their startups’ founders.

In this interview, we cover:


The conversation below has been edited for length and content.

1. How Tong entered the startup space

When I got out of college, I had two paths ahead of me: either I could go into a big corporate company or I could jump into a startup. At the time, I decided to jump headlong into the startup world and have never looked back. Since then, my career has involved coming in as a product manager at early-stage companies around the time they’re raising Series A funding and their teams are growing from 10 employees to 30 or 50. I’ve ultimately been a part of five great, VC-backed companies and have really enjoyed the whole process.


2. The role of a product manager at an early stage startup

It’s funny; as you’re going through the interview process, you want to make sure you and the founders have the same definition of what the role is. I’ve often found myself helping founders understand what product management is and isn’t and asking myself, “Am I the right fit for what you guys are trying to do?”

There are a couple of things that are most important in those roles:

Helping to streamline the process

Much of the product community deemphasizes product delivery; however during the Series A stage achieving predictable product delivery is crucial for product managers to undertake during the early phases of the company’s life cycle.

Introducing a scalable product strategy

In the beginning, what gets you Series A funding is being hyper responsive to the needs of your early customers and directly building a product for them. However, that strategy won’t scale. As your company grows, you need to identify your ideal customer and begin making strategy-based investments in the product.

Product managers can be invaluable to their organizations in this regard. They help facilitate a collaborative product strategy process that gets everybody on the same page and clarifies what trade-offs are necessary to effectively grow and scale your product.


3. What product managers often neglect when stepping into a startup for the first time

An often-overlooked aspect of early-stage product management is that different people come in and add value at certain stages. Knowing where you play best is important.

For example, I typically come in at that late seed or early Series A stage, and I’ll stick with the company through Series B. After that, it really depends.

As the company grows and changes, its needs change. As a result, the product management role is going to grow and change as well. Series A product leaders generally have different responsibilities than Series C product leaders.

Therefore, it’s maybe not as interesting or in your wheelhouse to move to that next stage. A lot of product managers decide that they want to adapt with the company and transition into a different role. Others may realize that they like working with startups at a particular stage.

You want to have the openness to serve for as long as you’re useful and recognizing that there’s nothing wrong with moving on to the next thing and passing the baton to someone else to take the company to the next level.


4. How product managers can make positive contributions during the early stages

There are two main ways that product managers can be valuable to their organizations:

Bring more empathy for founders into your daily work.

The thing that product people often fail to appreciate is how hard it is to go from an idea to having even a couple hundred thousand dollars of revenue. It’s a skillset that product people rarely have themselves.

Product people are much better at figuring out how to build and scale something that’s already working.

Therefore, when you come into a Series A company, it’s important to recognize that the founders have accomplished something that few people ever do. That empathy ultimately enables you to have conversations with the founders around pivoting and adapting existing product strategies to help prepare for the next stage of growth and make the company successful. But that level of respect and understanding must always be brought with you; otherwise, you’re just going to set yourself up to fail.


Change things incrementally.

Startups don’t evolve overnight from a seed stage company to a mature Series A or Series B company; thus, early-stage product managers should focus on choosing their battles and making the adjustments that they believe are going to bring the greatest impact. This also helps you build credibility and rapport with the founders.

A good analogy for this is scuba diving; if you’re down deep and want to come back to the surface, you can’t just swim up right away. You’ve got to sit at certain depths to allow your body to acclimate. It’s the same within an organization: if you rush and try to change everything at once, then it’s not going to work well. Instead, you need to slowly and incrementally lay the foundations needed to enable growth.

Author: Jonas Fryer

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