Start Ups vs Big Company: Top 5 things Product Managers should know


It has been a few months since the move from a large company with a very established set of products to a very different product world (Scale-out Storage startup with 1 product and just delivered 1.0 version) and I have come to appreciate and very happily embrace my new world of product management.

Here at Coho we are delivering a scale out storage product for VMware into the Enterprise customer, hence many similarities to my old job but clearly a couple of differences worth reading about if you are considering a similar move…

1. Decisions are made faster and you are held accountable

The reality is that in a large company, accountability is diluted, this is one of the first big changes in a startup. You make decisions, you take responsibility for it. Sounds simple but for some, this particular change can be unnerving. Personally I found it really refreshing and as a PM, the concept of being a mini-GM really comes true. My PM responsibilities are many (owner of product strategy, use cases & requirements, technical product definitions, hardware strategy, customer validation, pricing…to mention a few), because the responsibility is so wide, I feel I am able to make better decisions.

2. Don’t overdo the process

Process is important, my PGM (program management) friends often live by it, however it is easy to get caught up into the process and stop thinking out-of-the-box. I constantly felt restricted in my old job and we kept kicking of various projects to, for example, innovate more but I now don’t think we were solving the right problem. We were so wrapped up in various processes that we couldn’t even identify the right problem! The restrictions we had put in place (by the way, the restrictions were often created by “ourselves” over the years) prevented us from thinking differently.

3. Focus

The process we follow here is best classified as agile and therefore there is no MRD/PRD document, however we also don’t willy-nilly develop stuff. Before development starts on a release we get together and agree on the list of requirements and ensure that the priority is aligned with the strategy. The entire team participates and contributes, there are no hard lines between teams, only the focus on what needs to get done.

The process (if I may call it that) ensures that all teams participate and a full agreement is met, no hidden agendas, all disagreements are heard and discussed in an open and respectful way. We also keep an open mind to change along the way, if the requirement changes, the process to affect that change is short and quick, mostly a meeting and we update the requirement. It is quick and painless – in my experience this can be particularly painful and expensive in a large company.

4. I miss “the field”

One of the most challenging aspects for PM is answer the question from engineering: “How do I know a customer will use this if I write the code?”. In a large company, especially with an established customer base in the multi-thousands scale, running various studies and talking to customers is relatively easy, there are so many customers to get feedback from at any point in time. In a startup, especially a storage startup, getting time from the right set of customers can be very challenging and we don’t have the time or money to run expensive 3rd party studies.

How do we get the answer?  Truth to be told, this is where we take a leap of faith and put the trust into who we have hired and rely on their experience. While I feel a big company enables this to be repeatable and easier, there is one angle that is hard to quantify and processify and that is the “gut feel” from the boots on the ground. I firmly believe that the gut-feel is the difference between good and great.

5. sed ‘/*/PM/’

The reality in a startup is that everyone is doing PM…the product is so early in its life cycle and everyone is super focused on their area that PM is somewhat less about writing requirements and more about prioritization and – dare I say it – filtering. It is really important not to come in with a large ego and a belief that the way it was done last time worked and hence it must be done the same way again.

An open mind is a must, especially for the PM role as everyone (engineering, marketing, sales, operations….) will be crossing over to “PM land” and essentially acting as micro PMs.

This brings one question to my mind, is the product management function in a startup a unique experience or could a large company benefit from the same kind of rich PM role?

Share your thoughts in the comments section on how PM compares or your experience working with PM!

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