From Startup to Corp: The differences and how to adapt to the change

The term Product Manager is in many ways still a relatively new one. The first time I’d heard it was when a head-hunter approached me back in 2008 for a role at a national broadcaster. At the time, I was a Producer working at the Discovery Channel and was told “it’s kinda the same as being a Producer, but you get more exposure to the technical side and have some more creative freedom”.

In many ways that was true, but really (as in many roles), it depends on the size of the organisation that you work in and the other roles that compliment it. Also, as time has passed, it has become more apparent that the size of the organisation deeply affects how you operate as a Product Manager each day.

As someone who has recently moved from working for large corporations to the small business world, you can see how the subject of this Product Tank Brighton event called out to me. It also helped that my ex-colleague (and good friend) Rose Tighe was speaking for the first time ever at Product Tank (and did an excellent job by the way).

The Speakers

  • Rob Crook used to work at start-up ‘Foodit’ and now works at ‘Travelex’
  • Rose Tighe works at Sky (managing Sky Q mobile and console apps)
  • and Tim Johns used to work at ‘British Gas’ (looking after ‘Hive’) and now works for ‘Graphite’, a Brighton-based agency.

Although all the speakers have different experiences, there were many themes running throughout the evening which apply to Product Management – regardless of the size of the company you work for, in my mind, there were five key takeaways…

1. Agile Process

This can vary wildly between corporations and start-ups. I could write for hours on the different definitions of Agile that people believe are ‘true’ and how they’re implemented (but I won’t). One of the key highlights at the meet up was the challenge of working as an Agile team within a large organisation that essentially works Waterfall. For Sky, this means working with Marketing teams who are planning large campaigns. They obviously won’t accept “It’s done when it’s done” so Rose talks about essentially agreeing to an MVP with that team, which they can promote and sell to customers. Anything over and above that is an added value feature.

2. Decision Making

Both types of organisation can learn lessons from each other. However, one of the things that was highlighted during the talks was the way that decisions are made. Tim talked about how quickly decisions are made at his agency. He sits right opposite the founder and CEO of the company. This means he can get decisions made super-quick… but with that comes the additional ‘noise’. Although Tim can get feedback on the direction of his product, he also gets all the other possible ideas. Some of which are concrete plans, some of which are “wouldn’t it be nice” ideas. Conversely, ideas coming down the chain in large organisations are (usually) completely formed and planned… but getting decisions made by communicating upwards can often be a much harder slog.

One of the key highlights at the meet up was the challenge of working as an Agile team within a large organisation that essentially works Waterfall...

3. Communication

I pride myself on being a good communicator. However, last week I learnt a new acronym… BLUF… Bottom Line Up Front. It turns out I do this, but didn’t know it had a name. Essentially this is a way of cutting through the noise and helping to focus people on what the real issues are that need addressing (especially when an email chain has been going on for days). So you put the key info at the top in simple bullet points and make sure you’re clear on what needs to happen next. Busy execs will only thank you for doing this. Also, my top tip is ‘Options’. As a Product Manager, you often need a design or functional requirement clarified. So my advice is to avoid “What do you want it to do?” and instead use “Which of the following three options cover what you need?”… and include a ‘Pro and Con’ list for each option. You’ll generally get a quicker response.

4. Customer is King

This is a tough one (although it seems easy). Every business should be putting the customer first. This is true of large companies as well as small ones who create any type of product. The problem can arise with ‘department priorities’ and this is where the detachment can occur. In a smaller company where there are fewer separate departments, it is much easier to employ an ‘everyone working together to satisfy the customer’ approach. In large corporations, the focus can often (but not always) be around department objectives… and bonuses! This can cloud the priorities and often the short-term objectives distance the individuals from the customer needs.

Large organisations can struggle with the decision making process. Getting decisions made by communicating upwards can be a much harder slog than for smaller companies where there's often direct access to the CEO...

5. Ships vs. Bikes

This is my analogy really, but it relates to the theme expressed at the meet up. Large corporations often operate like ships. Strong, sturdy but taking days (or weeks) to steer in a new direction. Bikes are quick, agile and can change direction quickly…much like small organisations. Both have their costs and benefits and it depends on how you personally like to work. I used to find the slow moving ‘ship’ organisations frustrating. You’re often working within an agile team but you’re hamstrung into an old-school waterfall framework because of the way the wider business operates. This means you’re powering through quick development of amazing features that sit, waiting for months to be released to your customers. Companies using the ‘Bike’ methodology are fast-paced and require quick thinking and often a lot of context switching. That said, you get to release the fruits of your labour quickly, and iterate often.

In summary, Corporates and Start-ups can both learn many things from each other. As with your implementation of an Agile process, it’s about picking the elements that work for your organisation and the combination of people within it. There is no definitive set of rules. The only thing left to say is that every organisation (big or small) must review their processes and ways of working regularly… never assume you got it right first time.

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