Editor’s note: This post is adapted from a presentation by Brandon Chu, General Manager and VP of Product at Shopify. It was delivered at the Elevate SaaS Masterclass in September 2018.
As the founder or CEO of a tech company, you probably have a strong vision of what you want your product to be. Over time, as you hire a team of builders, engineers, and designers to help you create that product, you’ve got to communicate your vision to others. And while that’s easy enough at small businesses, as your organization scales, the amount of time and energy you’ll need to devote to communicating your vision to, and ensuring alignment among, your team will grow exponentially.
That’s why product management is so important. It allows you to distill your vision to a few trusted people who can then relay it to everyone else on your behalf. Think of product management as a way of adding leverage to your team of builders. It’s like a tax that you pay as your company scales that enables you to achieve better project execution, greater alignment across your teams, and better strategy, direction, and leadership.
Let’s take a look at the product management function and how it should evolve at different stages of company growth.
Less than 20 employees: No product management function needed
If you have 20 or fewer people in your company, don’t hire a product manager. At this stage, the team is small enough that you can still juggle things as needed yourself. Plus, the layer of abstraction is a net negative. You’ll get more leverage from an additional engineer or designer than you would from adding a product manager, so hold off on this hire for now.
21 to 100 employees: Product management as an execution function
Once your organization starts getting a bit bigger, you’ll be feeling enough pain that hiring your first product manager makes sense. This person should serve an execution function and be responsible for tasks like managing the backlog, running sprints, and listening to your customers to help you iterate and grow your product. Basically, this person should be filling in the gaps and doing whatever’s necessary to help the team and should report to the CEO or to whomever leads your R&D function.
As the founder or CEO of a company this size, you’re accountable for leadership, vision, and strategy, as well as ensuring alignment between your product managers. Meanwhile your product managers should be focused on ensuring the quality of the product that ships, as well as ensuring efficient execution and overall product team growth. The profile of an effective product manager at this stage is someone who can do basic builder things (SQL, use Github, write docs / blog posts, lightweight coding / wireframing), work with customers, and who is also scrappy and has a growth mindset.
100-500 employees: Product management as an alignment function
By the time your company has grown to this size, you need product management to drive alignment. Having product managers who can manage dependencies between product teams, ensure consistency and coherence, and serve as your internal source of truth is all essential.
As a founder or CEO at this stage, you’re responsible for overall vision and strategy. But it’s time to hire a director who’s accountable for aligning all of your product managers with that strategy. Meanwhile, individual product managers should be held accountable for the quality of the product that ships, as well as ensuring efficient execution and overall product team growth. As you consider candidates for an alignment product manager role, look for someone who’s an excellent written and oral communicator, very well organized, a systems thinker, and highly analytical.
500 to 2,000 employees: Product management as a strategic function
When a company really starts getting big, product management needs to play a strategic role, taking on the autonomy necessary to make important decisions that will impact the business. That includes setting the product roadmap for the coming year and determining new product areas to meet the needs of the market. As a founder or CEO of a company this big, you won’t necessarily know what the number one problem is that needs to be solved in every product area. You’ve got to entrust this responsibility to your product management team.
When filling this role, look for product managers who are high-level thinkers, have strong product taste, are systems thinkers, and who have a strong sense for business.
More than 2,000 employees: Product management as a leadership function
Finally, once you have more than 2,000 employees, the way that product management creates value is by leading teams in certain directions, coordinating with other people, and finding win-win scenarios wherever possible. Since that’s generally a good recipe for leaders, consider making product management a path to leadership across the company. At this stage, look for people who are company builders, can develop and sustain culture, and who have the breadth and depth of a CEO.
The right approach to product management at every stage of growth
Project management is a critical function for any tech business. But you want to make sure that your product managers are doing the right work given where your business is in its evolution. Follow the advice outlined in this post to ensure that you’ve always got the right mix of product management talent to meet the needs of your business.