Product Managers as Future Founders

A photo of Bob Tinker

February Event Review: “Product Manager as Future Founders” with Bob Tinker, Founder and ex-CEO, MobileIron

By Steven Xiao

Can product managers transition to being startup founders?  The answer is “it depends.”  In his inspiring talk, Bob Tinker, a humble founder who stepped down as CEO of MobileIron after ten years of leading the mobile security company from a three-man startup to a public company, revealed three critical areas through which an entrepreneur can lead a metamorphosis from survival to thrival.

  • Unlocking Growth

Building a business is different from building a product.  Product-Market Fit (PMF) is a major milestone for startups, yet not sufficient to unlock growth.  The missing link is Go-To-Market Fit (GTM), which is how to stitch together product, marketing, sales, and the customers to drive growth.  PMF and GTM run in parallel, slightly offset in time.  There are three core parts of GTM. 1) Sales model.  Just pick one as there is no right or wrong.  2) Repeatable sales and marketing playbook.  It must answer two questions: how do you find and win customers?  And what is the wow that gets customers across the line?  3) Problem wave.  To drive the wave, we must figure out who cares and why now.

The indicator of doing these three things right is business momentum and growth.   However, GTM strains a company as target numbers impose pressure to everyone, cash burns fast, and culture shifts from a product-led culture to one balanced by sales and market traction.  In addition, before hiring a VP of sales, one should first hire a “trailblazer” who can find an initial path to sales through trial and error.

  • Unlearning Your Way to Success: Successful startups change as they grow.

 Once your company gets the momentum, you need to prepare for “the CEO success irony,” meaning as the company grows, the CEO’s job changes, and then you have to change.  It is like rewiring a plane while you are flying it.  Bob described three different CEO jobs that he needed to take on as his company grew.  The first CEO job is like Captain America, who leads a troop throwing punches in the woods, getting dirty with everybody else.  The second CEO job is more like leading the Avengers, a band of superheroes that all have their special superpower.  The CEO has to unite them together and keeps all moving in the same direction.  In the third phase, the CEO becomes Professor Xavier in the X-Men: a dean of a university for warriors and the next generation of heroes.  These two transitions force a significant rewiring inside.  The trickiest part is that the very things that made you successful from A to B can hold you back or kill you from B to C.  And the biggest and most difficult change is transitioning from letting the fear of short term turbulence (how to survive) guide decisions, to doing the right long-term things (how to thrive).

To rewire from inside to outside, the CEO need to discover his or her souls.  1) Self-awareness: To listen to feedback, hear the tough information, and take that account.  2) Schizophrenia.  On one hand, a CEO has to be the most optimistic leader; on the other hand, he or she need to be completely paranoid pessimist looking for what could go wrong.  3) Ability to close.  The job includes how to attract talents to join your team, how to convince investors to bet on your business, and how to build partnerships with your customers.

  • Startup Culture.

For a startup, the product is the “muscle,” the team is the “brain’, and the culture is the “soul.”  When the team is at 20 people, the founder is a culture anchor and the team is a culture set.  Proactive culture is designed and driven by a founder in a specific direction, whereas organic culture evolves by itself.  Both approaches are effective, but a founder should pick one deliberately.

Steven Xiao is an MBA graduate from Brigham Young University and is working for a start-up in San Francisco. He can be reached at