With Asia’s startup scene having skyrocketed over the last five years, the one role that has perhaps piqued the most interest is that of the product manager.

Despite this trend, the role of a product manager is often not well understood by young ventures. This leads to situations where product managers are constantly underutilized. Most of the confusion surrounding product management arises due to thefact that the discipline does not fit a particular mould.

Let’s consider a sample of three (very real) statements from product management job descriptions for three different startups.

  1. Prioritise, support and translate customer requirements into elegant solutions ready for development. Track and monitor product progress on the roadmaps and project management software.
  2. Provide thought leadership in using data to solve business problems and in arriving at innovative statistical solutions.
  3. Work in development of product positioning, go-to-market strategies, and pre/post sales activities related to product functionality.

The distinction in each instance is quite apparent.

So what’s the conclusion? Product management is a unique discipline in that the responsibilities it entails vary with the type of company, type of product, stage of growth, and the competitive environment.

This is perhaps the single most important point to note for startup founders when they are considering hiring a product manager. Understanding your own business, your existing (or intended) product, and the current market and trends would directly inform you why you need a product manager, and what nature of tasks he/she would undertake.

Having this awareness would enable you to effectively usher successful products into the world.

What next?

Once you have clearly recognized what your product manager can help you accomplish, how do you take advantage of the skills he/she brings to the table? Here are three suggestions:

  • Empower them to make market-visible decisions – I have often observed startups hire product managers, only to have them work as  ‘project managers’ by focusing purely on resource allocation and timeline management decisions. Product leaders, regardless of the type of company or product, must be empowered to determine and work on features utilized by actual end-users, potentially contributing to ‘moving the needle’ for the company as a whole. Enable them to contribute in determining the short and long-term vision of your company.
  • Expose them to the industry – Foster an ‘outward-facing’ attitude in your product team. In my experience, one effective method of doing so is enabling them to attend and even organize industry conferences and mixers. This is an excellent avenue to ensure that your product managers remain ahead of the curve when it comes to industry trends and standards.
  • Learn to accept ‘NO’ (with some reservations!) – Good product managers MUST be comfortable saying ‘NO’, but several stakeholders find this rather disconcerting. Whether you are the CEO of the company, managing customer service, or perhaps planning the next major marketing campaign, be willing to have your requests turned down by the product team (though you must ensure that you do so with good reason). Seed-stage startups, where the founder has immense influence over everyday operations, are especially prone to falling into this trap. Product folks are often unwittingly coerced to follow the founder’s suggestions (with little to no evidence), and are reduced to yes-men. Before you know it, the team loses complete sense of structure in terms of product execution.

To put it all in perspective, product managers are a powerful means of recognizing your company’s vision. Doing so, however, requires the senior management team to foster a carefully balanced environment at work.

Marc Andreesen rightly remarked that software is eating the world. Therefore, I have no doubt that product management will continue to be a pivotal discipline that would determine the rise (and perhaps fall) of several ventures. Understanding this art and empowering your product team is, therefore, of paramount importance.

Better get cracking!

Thanks for reading The Low Down (TLD), the blog by the team at Momentum Works. Got a different perspective or have a burning opinion to share? Let us know at hello@mworks.asia.