Why Product Managers Wear Sneakers

I gave a talk last night to the Silicon Valley Product Management Association.  It’s a San Francisco Bay Area forum for networking, jobs and education for over 500 Product Management professionals. This is one of the Silicon Valley organizations that remind you why this is a company-town whose main industry is entrepreneurship, (and a great example of an industry cluster.)

The published title of the talk was, “How to Create a $100M Business and Out Innovate your Competition.”  I read that and thought, “If I knew how to do that I would have been a VC.”  So instead I gave a talk I called, “Why Product Managers Need Sneakers.”

The gist of the talk was to observe that:

  1. startups are not smaller versions of large companies
  2. startups search for a business model, large companies execute an existing one
  3. the skills that talented product managers bring to a large company are at best not transferable to a startup (and at worst destructive)
  4. product managers in a startup can either be an asset or an albatross.
  5. They’re an albatross if they perform as they do in a large company, and believe that they “own” customer interaction, feedback to engineering and authoring market requirements documents.
  6. They’re an asset to a startup if they understand that their job is to get the founder outside the building and in front of customers.
  7. They can be the scorekeepers in Customer Discovery and Validation as the company iterates and pivots the business model and refines the minimum feature set.

“Why Product Managers Wear Sneakers” was a reference to the amount of running around outside the building (with the founder) product managers will need to do in a startup. Except they won’t be called Product Managers. In a startup they will be part of the Customer Development team.

If you’ve seen my talks before you can skip forward to slide 19.

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23 Responses

  1. It seems very logical and I’m trying to do the same.

    In the meantime, in southwest VA where my start-up is, the business thinking of a lot of good people seems at least 10 years behind, that is, their notion of a tech start-up remains at the business plan level. How do I move the “mountain”? Or should I simply move to CA or NYC? The latter is too much hassle.


    • Don –
      SW VA? VPI? Go Hokies! Beat Wahoos!

      A point Don made in the talk was as an entrepreneur / founder you MUST get in front of customers. From personal experience that spans from Bleaksburg (yes, I’ve walked the Drill Field) across continents, oceans and organizations from startup to beyond $1B run rate, adaptation and iteration of the business is a MUST. And that come from listening to customers. Plans and ideas are NOT businesses. Sales define the market, customer and product.

      — Bernie

  2. I agree with your perspective on this. I managed large facilities and several startups and agree that the focal points are different. Finding a person who can adapt to either environment can be a challenge but they are out there. The greater challenge however is finding someone who is willing to be the student of the business to work in either environment.

    • Redge,

      Agreed, if anyone needs to be as student of business or life, it is an entrepreneur. Someone executing repeatable strategies or processes and doesn’t need to open to learning is called a franchisee.


  3. Steve,

    I attended your preso @ the SVPMA last night and found it to be both entertaining and enlightening.

    I get that Product Managers at startups must behave differently than those at larger, more mature companies, but I don’t buy the cut-and-dried scenario you identify in items 5 and 6 of your summary. I’d like to believe that PMs at startups are more than just glorified nannies for the founder(s).

    Perhaps it matters whether the founder identifies as being a “product” person or a “business growth” person. If it’s the former, there will likely be a constant struggle between the founder and the PM as they wrestle for control of the product strategy (Note to Product Managers in this scenario: the founder wins 99.5% of the time). If it’s the latter, the founder is likely to want to engage with a Product Manager to offload the product tasks that they find uninteresting or outside their scope of expertise (or don’t have time for).

    For me, the value of the Product Manager at a startup (as you defined it) is as a sounding board and a voice of reason to help guide the founders, who are frequently being pulled in many directions simultaneously. Part of that role is helping everyone get a better understanding of the customer and their needs, but Product Managers also bring both domain and process expertise (including Agile) to organizations that need a bit of each to move forward.

    Ivan Chalif

  4. Steve – the talk last night was excellent! Having done startup incubation in public/large company structures, as well as my own entrepreneurial ventures, every single point was spot on. Thanks so much for posting the deck.

  5. I’m the VP Product at my start-up (pretty much the one and only product manager).

    I always say my main function is to successfully communicate and co-ordinate with engineering what the CEO learns from customers. I’m the glue between the 2. I want to handle all the nitty-gritty details and process management so that the CEO can be completely focused on what he needs to do — get out of the building and learn.

    (yes, your “4 Steps to the Epiphany” is the driving force behind our strategy — so thanks for that!).

  6. Thank you for the post. It gives me much to think about as I plant to start my own business.

  7. Steve, I’m just beginning my education in the business world. I have found your concept and slides very interesting. Thanks for sharing your perspective.

  8. I think that your 1 and 2 are quite uncontroversial (which is not to say that they are not occasionally overlooked …), but I have some feedback to the remaining items. To avoid misunderstandings, I fully understand that “the gist” involves some amount of oversimplification.

    3. This may be partially true, but is overly generalizing. Consider e.g. skills like being able to correctly grasp a user’s needs and intentions. (While often missing even in the product managers of established companies.)

    4. Applies irrespective of the size of the company.

    5. “Ownership” can be a very bad thing even in established companies.

    6. It can be disputed whether this is the job of the product managers, whether it is enough of a job, and whether it is always necessary. (The latter being dependent on the size of the start-up, the role of the founder, and what type of product and customers are involved.)

    7. Even as a former business analyst (admittedly in Germany), I have trouble understanding what you say here.

    BTW: Please add a checkbox for notification on comments. These are vital to knowing which pages need to be revisited as time goes by.

  9. Was there, great talk. I learned more in 90 minutes than all but maybe a handful of my MBA courses.

    Bottom line: Customer Discovery/Lean Startup a process that demonstrates that a startup’s founders are fertile ground for innovation. Doesn’t guarantee success but is a strategy for finding success.

  10. Having worked with a couple startups I can tell you how true it is, especially referring to the asset/albatross point. What works in an big company doesn’t work in a startup and vice-versa.

  11. […] Why Product Managers Wear Sneakers I gave a talk last night to the Silicon Valley Product Management Association.  It’s a San Francisco Bay […] […]

  12. @Bernie Maloney,

    Bernie, you’re 100% correct, I’m trying to get in front of customers, yes, including VT… and doing product optimization with some of the very best of the best of the nation’s college students, some are Presidential Scholars…

    And according to web stats, of total visitors, 22% of them lands directly at download page, which indicates that it’s been recommended by someone since we didn’t throw out the download page anywhere else… encouraging stuff…

    Thank you.


  13. As a product manager at a startup, I think I’ve got some perspective on this, and I think you are missing the point.

    The point is not about building MRDs or ensuring the backlog has enough story points. The point is doing systematic validation of what the company is trying to do.

    Product managers are experienced at using objective methods and data to make good decisions. Founders will often use subjective gut-feel to make decisions. The goal is to get those to align. As you do so, you build a solid company.

  14. Steve, brilliant. I love product managers. I really love product managers who can make the transition to a start up.

    The point you made that resonated with me the most was for the PM to get the founder out in front of customers. I was recently helping the CEO of an exciting startup. (I provide a few hours of advice per week.) On our third meeting, I was flabbergasted to learn that she had met only one or two of the startup’s early customers! I insisted that the next week we go out and spend our few hours with some customers. We both learned a ton.

    Thanks for a helpful post

  15. Howdy Steve and community of friends,
    Appreciate the consistent and constant reminder to get out of the building (away from the keyboard) and get first hand feedback on our web application design.

    I channeled a little SteveBlankness with an App Value Model dedicated to web applications for startups/open source/nonprofits. It’s near impossible to fit the diversity of creative web apps into a framework, but I feel for the good of our nascent startup it must be done. At Victus Media we have limited resources, but indomitable spirits in no small part due to the generosity of startup veterans like Steve, Mark Suster, Jason Cohen, and Fred Wilson. But we needed a framework to interpret feedback from users of GarageDollar and translate that into healthy development direction. By tracing back TPV (total perceived value or overall visitor satisfaction) to features through network efficiency, we have dials to tune to perfect our application design.

    ps: Steve have you considered adding Disqus to your blog here? As a long time commenter it would allow me to keep track of all my comments in one place and would surely bring joy to Daniel Ha and team. They’re an awesome support centric startup. In addition Disqus promotes community development very naturally through seeing the same faces regularly.

  16. I was involved in a startup that went through the transition into a large company (a cult of 20 people when I joined, 1800 drone employees when I finally left) and I was at first very excited to be part of the introduction of formalized product management. Unfortunately this was a painful transition as new product management hires coming from large companies installed large corporate policies and procedures, causing a jerky leap rather than a smooth transition from startup to large company.

    As I grow my new startup, I’m always looking for advice on smoothing out this transition in product management to avoid experiencing the bad side effects caused from moving from a PM facilitating the founder’s intimate customer relationship to a PM owning the “voice of the customer”.

  17. Always enjoy your posts. Given all there is to do, you have to fight for time in front of customers (clients in my business). If you don’t, it won’t be long before you have lots of time on your hands.

  18. […] allows you to optimize your development strategy and might even bring in some initial revenue. Steve Blank and Eric Ries have turned this approach into a science of sorts, so I won’t belabour the […]

  19. […] not from Steve’s book, but from a 2010 Silicon Valley Product Management presentation. See http://steveblank.com/2010/09/02/why-product-managers-wear-sneakers/.  Steve made the point that founders will never believe product managers who bring back contrary […]

  20. […] not from Steve’s book, but from a 2010 Silicon Valley Product Management presentation. See http://steveblank.com/2010/09/02/why-product-managers-wear-sneakers/.  Steve made the point that founders will never believe product managers who bring back contrary […]

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