What makes Great Product Managers at Expansion Stage Companies?

Choosing the right product management leader might mean success or failure for your startup. How to find great ones?

by Tien Anh Nguyen, Senior Associate at OpenView Venture Partners, an expansion-stage venture capital fund in Boston

In our portfolio companies of expansion stage software companies, the product management process is a critical function because it affects how successfully a company can evolve in its rapid trajectory from a startup to an established player in the market. Along this evolution, the company has to be constantly evolving its whole product experience to adapt to changing customer needs and to the changing market segments. The ability of the product management organization to guide and execute this process both strategically and operationally plays a large role in the company’s success or failure in the market.

For example, many startups fall into the classic trap (or chasm) after they have saturated the early adopter market with their cool new products. The company has benefited from its understanding of these early adopters. However, in order to break into the mainstream segments, the “cool” new product has to be reinvented, repurposed, or repackaged in a very different way from how it was done before. This responsibility falls mostly on the product managers or product marketers, who will have to perform additional market research and numerous product tests to guide the product’s evolution.

To be sure, in order to build a great product management function, one needs great product managers. In some cases, the product managers are needed to fill the gap in an organization; in other cases, the product managers are hired when it becomes clear that the chief technical leader (VP of Engineering or CTO) can no longer manage both Product Management and Product Development.

So who would make a great product manager? What essential skills or personal traits would a great product manager possess? Is there a special requirement for product managers in companies with agile product development?

I did some online research to see what others have written on these topics and found a number of great articles. They are, just to list a few:

1. Assessing one’s product management skill http://productmanagementtips.com/2010/05/23/product-management-career/

2. Judgment – #1 skill that a Product Manager Needs http://blog.openviewpartners.com/keyword/product-management-process/

3. What to look for in a product manager http://productmanagementtips.com/2007/07/26/what-to-look-for-in-a-product-manager/

4. Eleven skills for product managers to win over any situation http://itknowledgeexchange.techtarget.com/quality-assurance/eleven-skills-for-product-manager-to-win-over-any-situation/

5. Seven traits of a successful product manager http://michael.hightechproductmanagement.com/2006/12/seven_traits_of_successful_pro.html

These are great resources, and they form a really comprehensive set of skills and traits that will help a product manager succeed. However, if I were to really narrow down 3 things that matter the most from my own personal experience, I would list the following:

Flexibility to adapt to rapidly changing situations and inputs: As we have noted, product management is so important because it drives the company’s evolution. Product managers have to espouse constant improvement with remarkable flexibility. They also need to be ready to accept new circumstances and embrace them, turning adversities into opportunities.

Passion to build something great: because “product” is in their title. Without the passion to create something new that is valuable, product managers will not find satisfaction in their work, and will not be successful.

People skills to facilitate, negotiate and persuade stakeholders: Product managers sit in the unique nexus of sales, marketing, development and corporate strategy. They have to be effective at building consensus, bringing divergent ideas together, and be persuasive enough to convince disparate groups of stakeholders to agree to their product vision.

While technical skills and methodologies can be learned over time, these are three characteristics that are non-technical, non-domain specific, and yet are the most important in the success of a product manager. Do you agree?

Tien Anh Nguyen is a Senior Associate at OpenView Venture Partners and leads the Research and Analytics team at OpenView Labs. He focuses on market and product strategy engagements in areas such as target segmentation, marketing operations management and Go to Market strategy development with portfolio companies and investment prospects.