Managing Expectations – Product Management at Startups

One of our universal truths in product is that the nature of the job varies greatly between organizations. Yet there’s a specific role — the Startup Product Manager — the uniqueness of which calls for a deeper dive to fully equip and prepare professionals to manage themselves, and their employers, in a budding product group.

What Makes a Startup Product Unique

The role of a Product Manager was historically developed in large organizations — those with the cash to bring extra hands-on board and operate as generalists, supporting wherever necessary.

However, we’ve recently seen a massive uptick where every company of every size wants a dedicated product person. Doing so creates some unique value propositions for the role. In small organizations, teams aren’t made up of hundreds of engineers, and products aren’t “swing-for-the-fences game-changers”. The biggest difference? Executive leadership is aware of the product and tracking its performance.

At a startup, the product you own may likely be the only product in the portfolio, which raises the stakes of its success (and failure). It also might be the CEO’s brainchild, born from decades of thought before finally trying to create it. It’s a high-potential product in its infancy which has been through sufficient proof-of-concept for a small company to hinge on its continued success. However, it has minimal business-side theory behind its design, market fit, and execution. The product may introduce with it some wildly challenging dynamics.

Manage the People, Then the Product

Your CEO’s uniquely high investment in this product will be reflected in their equally high level of involvement in it. The discourse around the direction of the product is commonly shut down, justified by a mentality of “I built this product and this company, I already have a vision and we’re going in this direction.”

There’s a unique attachment between a startup founder and their novel product. It can consequently be challenging for a Product Manager to establish what their role is, what expectations the company has of them, and what they can do to help drive the product forward.

Having worked with startups and small businesses extensively throughout my career, I’ve found difficult conversations often arise when a product person tries to address an issue from their customer-centric perspective to a CEO that initially seems reluctant to hear it.

It’s important to come to these conversations from a position of understanding and with a high level of emotional intelligence.

They’ve staked their livelihood on this company and this product, invested their time and money, their retirement accounts, they’ve taken out a second mortgage, and they’ve invested who knows what else into it. We, as the product people in the room, must understand their perspective of direct oversight and ownership. Doing so could enact meaningful, positive change in the direction of the product.

Once we understand where they’re coming from and demonstrate that we’re not here to demonize their product vision — but instead to bring data-driven strategy to it — we can start to guide executive leadership’s expectations toward a clearer, mutually understood idea of why the Product Manager is there and what value they can bring.

Setting Expectations

Now that we have understood the leadership’s perspective, we can encourage them to see their creation from an objective product perspective. As product professionals, we often struggle to see through our blinders to view our work objectively. Just like everyone’s kid is “the cutest kid”, it can be hard to see the faults in our products.

Setting expectations often starts during the interview process. Most of us are comfortable with the idea that individuals are interviewing the company just as much as the company is interviewing the individual. It’s especially important to have that mindset going into a young product organization.

Ask pointed questions about the CEO’s opinion of the product, pry (respectfully) about their candid expectations. I’ve seen cases where the C-Suite wasn’t sure what Product Managers’ general responsibilities were. Instead, they were looking for more of a Project Manager or a logistics person. Acknowledging something like this early on helps us make a wise career move into a potentially tense role. It also encourages better conversation up-front and helps us gain alignment.

Product Management is as much about emotional intelligence as it is practical, data-driven insights, a dichotomy that contributes so much to our value. Establish early on that you’re not trying to destroy their life’s work that they’ve invested so much into. Emphasize that your role is to take their existing product and optimize it for the greater market. Use your data to demonstrate the existing market being captured and the potential market with your proposed changes. The goal is to get leadership to take an objective perspective on their product, and to respect what we, as product managers, are there to do.

How, Practically, to Establish Healthy Influence

As mentioned above, our first step is emotional intelligence. We’re not taking over the company or the product, we’re here to support the organizational vision. Our CEO does have a point. They built this themselves, and they likely have a great degree of insight as a result. We’re not here to refute them because “we’re product people,” but to learn, encourage, and mould an improved product future.

With that in mind, our first step is to listen. Ask probing questions, just like we did in our interview, to understand as much as we can. Ask questions not just about the product itself but questions about the market. Learn about the decisions made before we showed up. Understand the stages the product has been through already and why the cards fell where they have.

This inquisitive start helps to establish a Product Manager in their new role in a few important ways:

  • Demonstrates that we’re here to learn and help craft solutions for the future, not to take over and shut the CEO out of their idea.
  • Helps us gain knowledge that probably wasn’t included in our Product Orientation class.
  • Instils a sense of curiosity — critical for senior leadership in technology today. Seeing a PM’s curiosity-driven approach may help executives start asking more questions, challenging their status quo, and encouraging acceptance of outside ideas and perspectives.

Once you’ve established a mutually understood expectation of your role and demonstrated your curiosity toward finding the best solution rather than dictating your solution, make your influence actionable by being data-driven. This concept is everywhere today, not only in product, but it’s especially critical in startups where so much of the prior decision making might have been based on gut feeling and intuition. We want to shift the way our group thinks about product development, and to do so we need to rely heavily on our best-known practices. As the first product professional in a startup, you’re often directing not only the product itself, but also heavily impacting organizational growth. Lean heavily on the merits of Product Management to ensure the group is moving in a healthy, sustainable direction.

Executing on Startup Product Management

We’ve likely all internalized Deep Nishar’s famous quote:

A great product manager has the brain of an engineer, the heart of a designer, and the speech of a diplomat.

There is so much truth to each aspect of it, but I would encourage those of you working in your first true startup position to consider working emotional intelligence into your mantra. Inquire, listen, and learn before attempting to influence. Any creator has a strong bond with their creation, and you need to establish yourself as a faithful deputy if you’re ever to enact significant change.


Originally published on, 12 April, 2021.