I’ve worked at a lot of different companies, some startups, some not. It’s been awhile since I worked at a company small and young enough for me to interact with the CEO everyday--of these, Riparian Data is the smallest company I’ve ever worked for. It's awesome and exactly what I hoped for, but it's definitely unique.
How is a startup different than an established company, even a young established company?
To start, let me set the stage. I was the 10th employee and we have zero customers which means we have zero revenue. We're also bootstrapped by our founder. To connect the dots, that means there’s a lot of pressure... and stress. As I say to friends, this is “up or out.” It’s either succeed or start looking for a job (and you get to tell the recruiter you’re looking because your last company failed, yikes!) Let’s just say the motivation to succeed is strong.
As a product manager, one of the first things you do when you start a new job is to talk to customers, or at least listen while other people do. So, what do you do when you don’t have any? You talk to people on your waitlist, of course, and also you network! You call friends that could be customers, you call old co-workers, you contact people on LinkedIn you sort of know, and you ask the guy you see on the golf course occasionally. I even asked my sister in law (she was great by the way).
When you work at a company with sales people, customer support, and of course... customers, it’s never very hard to talk to customers. In fact there are often more opportunities than you have time for, but time management as a product manager is another topic for another time.
Testing is such a big deal today, which is great, as it helps us build better products. Every day I think about where I will find people with whom to test my product, my beta customers, and of course actual customers. It’s such a concern, trying to find user testers, I worry whether I’m wasting opportunities and if the time is really right? Should I wait until the app is in a little better shape? Don’t discount this--it's a big deal.
The other big difference between working for a startup vs. an established company, and a much more fun difference, at least for me, is that I get to wear a lot of hats. I’ve always prefered the product management jobs where you are doing more than working with development, and also working with marketing and sales, you know... owning product marketing and product management. It’s just more fun to be more involved. Well at this small of a company we don’t have a lot of the traditional roles that you find in a more established company, so you know who gets to do them, don’t you?
I’ve always said one of the roles of a product manager is to act as a plugger, as in the person that is always plugging holes, doing whatever has to be done to get the job done and make the product successful. There are a lot of holes in a small company.
The other day the founder said I should come up with a short list of PR agencies for our big launch. PR? Well after I Googled what that meant-- kidding, I emailed a bunch of people and asked them to recommend PR agencies they’ve worked with. That worked out really well. For starters my boss thought I was smart and good PR agencies are busy so a referral makes you look more desirable, plus startups don’t tend to spend big on retainers. Having an intro from someone they’ve worked with definitely gets you more attention. While on this search I came across a PR agency I liked that I worked with at a previous company, and by networking at an unrelated fundraiser, I met another agency that seemed to be a great fit.
There are other fun hats I get to wear like UX tester, business development, and I know there will be even more down the road. I’m sure I’ll be involved in press briefings, sales and not just conducting demos, but probably calling people up and trying to set up meetings. Then there will be VC briefings, customers to support, and other marketing requirements. I don’t think anyone is going to ask me to code which is probably for the best...
I’ve talked a little bit about two situations that have come up in my first two months here and it’s funny: in both situations I did the same thing--I reached out to my network. Having a strong network is key, but when you are in a resource-constrained startup, your network is invaluable. That is one of the benefits of VCs--well, besides the money--- they know everybody. Don’t be afraid to ask your network for help. People love being asked for help, it shows you trust and respect them, plus people love to be involved with startups! Everyday you need to make the effort to expand your network- make LinkedIn your home page-- it certainly helps keep it top of mind.
Well I’ve got to go change hats. Until next time.