The title of ‘Product Manager’ can mean many different things, depending on the product you’re managing and the team you’re working with. Product management as a practice can be incredibly different from one project to the next, and almost every business has its own version of the role.
For newcomers to the world of product management, this can be a confusing situation. To help you understand what to expect, we’re going to look at how the role of product manager tends to differ within start-ups vs mid-size businesses vs established enterprises.
If you’re looking to become a product manager at a start-up or small business, you need to be prepared to go above and beyond what you think the role requires.
Start-ups and smaller businesses are often ‘lean’, requiring employees to roll up their sleeves and get stuck in with tasks that wouldn’t necessarily fall into the job spec at other, bigger (and maybe better-funded) organizations. A start-up product manager will likely need to dive in and get their hands dirty.
We’re not saying you’ll need to know how to code and develop the product yourself, but you will probably be responsible for other behind-the-scenes activities. This could include assisting with marketing efforts, direct sales, business growth, and so on.
Despite the increased workload, start-ups are a great way to get started on your product manager journey. There are few, if any, processes already in place. This means you’re open to trying different ways of working. Decision making is faster and less structured than at more established businesses, allowing you to run projects without dealing with all the red tape of a larger organization.
It’s unlikely that there will be a product manager and a product owner at a small startup. Instead, each PM will own entire product areas and/or business lines. This means PMs will need to look at the product as a whole and prioritize the strategy end-to-end. It’s also safe to assume you will be the only product manager at the company — this can be both hugely empowering, allowing for greater autonomy and faster self-development, and still be isolating at times.
Those looking to join a start-up as a product manager will have a higher level of agency compared to a larger company. With a lack of established processes, everyone is pushing themselves to go above and beyond to make sure the product is delivered with maximum value.
Start-up product manager summarized:
Responsibilities spanning product management and other (sort of) related activities
Greater agency and autonomy: you’ll likely be the only product lead
Loosely defined workflows and processes (you might have to define them yourself!)
A mid-size organization can offer a more predictable experience for product managers. You’re able to work alongside other PMs and roles are much more defined. This means you’ll be working on fewer extra-curricular activities, though there will still be times you need to work outside of your comfort zone.
Mid-size companies tend to have a good range of processes in place, so you know that your team can already work well together. These processes are well-defined and will be running smoothly, though they may still be a little lean.
As a company grows, the ownership of products and features changes. Product managers in a mid-size business will typically own significant portions of an established project, or they will be responsible for getting a new initiative off the ground.
As the team grows, the need for agency is reduced. Decision-making will be performed as a team to ensure cohesion and alignment throughout the project.
Something worth keeping in mind is that the bigger the company, the larger the audience. With a start-up, you’ll be doing a lot of work for a small number of users. This can be similar with mid-size businesses, as the teams are bigger, but the user base may still be small.
Mid-sized product manager summarized:
Working in collaboration with other PMs
Good degree of agency and autonomy within the scope of the job
Will be provided with existing processes (although is welcome to challenge them!)
Stakeholder management becomes more important and decisions will be made as a team.
The larger the company you work for is, the more successful you can feel. If you’re working at one of the giants, you’re going to have a strong sense of pride in your work — feeling like you’ve “made it”.
But while large enterprises are the goal for those dreaming of success, there is a lot about being a product manager at this level you may not be expecting.
One of the biggest considerations for product managers at large companies is that the scope of the role is dramatically narrowed. At the most extreme end of the scale, product managers are purely responsible for prioritization. You’ll simply focus on deciding what should be built next and who it should be built for.
Although your scope is smaller, the impact your work will have is greatly increased vs smaller businesses. As we mentioned earlier, the larger the company is, the larger the audience will be. This means your work will be seen and experienced by far more users than at a start-up.
The overall product will come together through the work of multiple teams and you will be responsible for a specific feature set, or a specific part of the product. This is perfect for product managers who love to collaborate with other PMs to get the job done, while focusing intently on the aspect(s) they are responsible for.
Large companies tend to be low-agency environments. There is a much stricter structure and set of processes that will be well established and leave little wiggle room. This is to ensure consistency across the entire organization and easier people management.
Unfortunately, these rigid processes mean it can be slower to actually get things done. There’s a lot of red tape to get through and more stakeholders involved in getting anything off the ground. Product proposals will go through multiple formal reviews before being signed off (or in some cases, rejected altogether). That being said, it provides a valuable learning ground for newcomers to product management. They can follow the established processes and get help from others, instead of fending for themselves.
Large/enterprise product manager summarized:
Least amount of agency
Highly collaborative; many stakeholders and peers
Benefits PMs who love focused, narrow work
May get frustrated at the speed with which change can happen.
As we have seen, product management can look very different depending on the size of the business you work for. However, one thing that all product managers have in common is that their roles can be made so much simpler with a helping hand from airfocus.