The product management cheat sheet for tech CEOs

Justus Brown, chief product officer at Founders Factory, shares his top advice for tech CEOs in a bid to help them become good product managers.

Congratulations! You and your team have defied the critics, sketched out a revolutionary business plan, and are on the way to winning tasty Seed funding. What’s next? It’s probably time to start building that product, right? There’s just one small problem: you’re all from a technical or business background. Nobody on the team has really developed a product from scratch before. How can you find product market fit?

If you believe CB Insights, most of the reasons startups fail are related to product. It’s no coincidence that fixing these things is the job of a product manager. But fear not; this guide will help you benefit from “product thinking,” even if you can’t quite afford (or find?!) a product manager yet.

What is product management?

In one sentence, your job is to ship the right product to your users, in order to secure the success of the business. Remember this!

To succeed, a product manager needs not only to know what the right product to build is, but also to be an all-rounder, constantly juggling the needs of the team, business, investors, your users, and the product itself. Without product management, all of these stakeholders are left in silos. A good product manager represents whoever is not in the room.

Though understanding the technology behind your product is paramount, even more important is a deep understanding of your users and the problem(s) you are solving for them. Everything you ask your team to deliver needs to be linked back to these users and problems.

Even better is to locate your product offering in the competitive landscape; knowing your competitors’ products better than they do, and how you are different, will always serve you well.

Process from chaos

Next up, a product manager has to plan how to deliver, given the resources available. You need to create a way to ship product to customers, by implementing a process that is:

  • iterative
  • delivering in usable increments
  • measurable
  • transparent
  • communicative
  • continuously integrated
  • introspective

That’s a lot of points, but each of them will help you in your quest to find a working rhythm. By getting the product into your users’ hands and listening to what they say, you can constantly deepen your understanding of their needs. Your customers’ needs, and their alternatives in the market, are constantly evolving – don’t miss the window of opportunity because you never ship! Doing this in a repeatable way is the core of product management.

Be a communicator

The next most important “job to be done” as a product manager is to communicate. Proactively. Profusely. Continuously.

Be a storyteller and an interpreter, telling design, engineering, quality, and delivery teams what and why in words that they understand.

In one direction, product management takes that chaos of building a business and turns it into a constant function for the product team, eliminating uncertainty and change over the short term, letting your team focus.

In the other, it takes the ground truth and communicates the essence to management and stakeholders. It’s all about saying: “Given this team, this is what we are going to deliver in this timeline” — and knowing why. Believe in your team and your process to deliver!

Some don’ts

A few things you should avoid. First, don’t promise things without the involvement of the team. It’s not project management! Team resources, features, quality, and timeline are inextricably linked — and any “manager” who tells a team to change one without affecting the others will lose credibility. Let your team help you by giving them control over timeline for a specified deliverable. If you don’t like the timeline, change the scope. This will help you get ownership and accountability from the team.

A product manager shouldn’t pretend to be a CEO. They are not in charge of budget, the company strategy, or sales. But a CEO can take on the qualities of a successful product manager by sticking to these principles.

It should now be clear why product management is an integral part of any startup. Without it, I’ve seen incredible individuals give up on a project. But I’ve also seen some incredible talent grow, by following these principles, often starting in completely different roles. Product managers can become some of the most valuable people in any technology company.

Software development is at the heart of startups that scale, and we’ve seen first hand how valuable it can be for CEO’s to apply these processes to their startup. Remember: coordinate, communicate, and most importantly — ship it.