Good Product Manager, Bad Entrepreneur

By Emma Townley-Smith

Product managers often envision themselves as mini-entrepreneurs, building new features and blazing new roadmaps. Aspiring PMs are advised to have side projects to help them understand the end-to-end product creation process.

Ironically, being a PM can make acting like an entrepreneur — starting something new — harder. Many of the skills and mindsets that facilitate progress on existing products are completely wrong for creating something from scratch. Here are a few of the ‘traps’ that PMs can fall into as they embark on their own entrepreneurial adventures:

Whether you subscribe to Design Thinking, Jobs-To-Be-Done, Lean Startup, or some other brand of product development dogma, the core message is the same: the ‘brilliant idea’ that you think up in the shower probably won’t work the first time around. Real, successful products are formed through research with end-users.

But it’s easy to feel like if it’s your new project, you still need an idea. (Not just any idea… a good one worthy of your otherwise free time and attention.)

As a product manager, you’d never ask your company to invest in open-ended user research unless there was an idea (even if it wasn’t the final one) driving the project. Likewise, it’s hard to convince yourself to go through the motions of understanding your user and your problem space before you’ve seen a hint of the thing with potential.

This makes it easy to fall into the classic product management traps: fall in love with an idea, try and find a way to make it work (even when evidence suggests that it won’t)… Working on your own product can amplify your biases, because you’re not just creating something for your team or your company — you’re creating something new in the world that’s a reflection of you. If you feel yourself getting stuck on a new project idea, it may be time to trust the (product development) process and allow user research to guide your next steps.

Embarking on an entrepreneurial venture is distinctly more uncomfortable than developing a new product or feature for an established company.

Hi, I’m doing some research about productivity tools on behalf of Microsoft sounds much more legitimate than Hi, I’m doing some research about productivity tools because I might want to improve some aspect of those. Or maybe I’ll get inspired to do something else.

Talking to customers in the early stages of your work requires you to have conviction that you’ll get somewhere before you’ve gotten somewhere. For product managers accustomed to robust pitches and business cases, this early display of conviction can be difficult and feel dangerously over-confident.

The good news is that conviction doesn’t have to come from an abundance of ego or having the perfect idea in your sketchbook. It can come from working with a talented team (“I’m sure we can make something of this together”) or having deep knowledge of the user and the problem space (“I know there’s something here”).

Effective PMs have to say no constantly — to distractions, to direction changes, to adding features to an MVP, to tracking unnecessary metrics. Really effective PMs find shortcuts to decide yes or no quickly (otherwise, you’d never make it out of the office).

Unfortunately, this hyper-critical, hyper-analytical hat doesn’t work well in early stage product development. When your team is still nurturing an idea and pivoting to find the right MVP, you need to be open and creative. If anything, you need the “yes and” attitude common to design teams to help you build constructively on teammates’ ideas. Saying “no” too early and too often can make ripe opportunity spaces feel small and constrained and can leave your new project team feeling demotivated.

Perhaps selfishly or in wistful thinking, I do believe that product managers can make great entrepreneurs. But we have to remember:

  • The rules are not different for your product and everyone else’s products.
  • You don’t need to start with the idea — but you do need to start somewhere and let user feedback shape your path forward.
  • You need to have conviction for the process and the problem (and you have to be able to share that with others).
  • Sometimes, good product managers say “yes.”