Product Management in NYC

April 18th, 2010 § 5 comments

There’s a lot of discussion in New York right now about the lack of experienced Product Managers. Basically, the last few years in NYC have seen a boom in startup culture from developers to investors and almost everything in between. One problem though is that there are very few people in NYC with any experience operating sites past the startup phase. Makes sense considering how few actual startups from the early to mid 2000′s actually survived the fall of Silicon Alley. So, where does that leave this next crop of entrepreneurs?

There are some amazing startups coming out of NY right now with more up and coming every day. Startups like Meetup, Foursquare, Tumblr, Solvate, Hot Potato, MeetMoi, Bit.ly, Chartbeat, PinchMedia (now Flurry), Medialets, Gilt Group, Ideeli, Outside.in, Nabewise, Kidmondo, Market.io, Simple.pr, Drop.io, and the list goes on – for more check out Mike K’s post about the NY tech scene here.

Needless to say New York is energized. The problem is that almost all of these companies are brand new, and with only a handful of experienced tech startups in the city, the pool of resources from which to draw talent has been very small. This is especially the case when it comes to Product Management. Note: some would argue that there’s a shortage of developers and designers in NY as well, but my experience says that this is not the case. New York is a design hub and has been for a long time. There is no place in the U.S. with a stronger UX, IxD, or visual design presence, and there ARE developers here. As an example, my friend Paul Dix has scheduled the inaugural Machine Learning meetup w/ over 300 members and 90 people RSVP’d for next Wednesday’s event. IMHO nothing says “developer” like Machine Learning. I digress.

So, there are a ton of new startups but a shortage of Product Managers in NY. Some folks are trying to do their best to remedy the situation – Charlie O’Donnell recently kicked off the NY Product Managers School, there’s also the Software Product Manager’s Meetup, Zach Klein’s blog series on Product Leadership, and probably a few other interesting resources that I can’t remember off the top of my head right now. These attempts are awesome, and I support them wholeheartedly.

I just want to add some of my thoughts on the matter.

1. Product Management, especially with startups, is NOT babysitting. It’s not all about managing a giant feature list and queuing up the next iteration. Product Management IS about driving a product (Zach hits the nail on the head when he talks about Product Leadership). It means taking ownership, having P&L responsibility, and making decisions about what should be done. Product Management is a leadership role.

2. Good Product Managers are passionate, creative, execution oriented, and metrics driven. I tend to disagree w/ few others who think Product Managers aren’t “building or selling” because, IMHO, nothing gets built or sold w/out a Product Manager making sure it is what SHOULD get built and sold. It’s the Product Manager’s job to predict the future and make it happen.

3. Good PMs won’t balk at the responsibility. Don’t hire a Product Manager who isn’t willing to step up. Balance this by asking them to justify all decisions. Make them earn the trust you’re giving, and make it clear that with great power comes their job if they mess up.

4. If you can’t find someone local, as Charlie O’Donnell advised me in a brief conversation he probably doesn’t remember having – try looking outside of New York. Try to find people who left NY for places like the Bay and convince them to come back. The scene here is viable again and New York has a lot to offer.

5. User Experience is core to Product Management – if you hear a PM talking using words like “GUI” or “UI” w/out the proper respect given to Design – they need to do their homework. Same goes for technology. If your PM can’t tell the difference between Java and javascript – they aren’t right for a startup.

6. A Product Manager’s job doesn’t stop when the feature is launched. This is why it’s important to try to find people who have actually operated products – launching a feature is easy, knowing what to do afterward can be tough.

7. Prioritization is the toughest thing for a PM to do. It can be reminiscent of the story about the hunter who got trapped in a bear trap and had to saw his own arm off to avoid starving to death. Try to find someone with the guts to saw their own arm off to launch a product and respect them for it. “The perfect is the enemy of the good” and “Better to build half a product than a half-assed product” are two quotes that come to mind.

That’s all I have for now. Will try to follow up soon w/ more.

  • http://kidmondo.com hallson

    Good and accurate post, but in my experience there are a lot more product managers than there are product managerial positions, in NY. In fact, I know a lot who are looking and just can't find decent positions. To that point, most people hiring for product managers do not really know what they are looking for. Product managers live in a hybrid role between development, marketing, and design/UI and don't fit in a simple box.

    As one myself, I often had trouble explaining what I do to people outside the biz. My wife, though, came up with the right analogy. A product manager is the architect (we need to take this name back from our engineering friends). Continuing with the 'physical development' analogy, the CEO is the developer, the programers and the engineers/construction workers, UI/Design are the interior decorators and so on. But it is the architect that controls the master plan and vision for the project, working with all parties to make sure it gets done on time and budget. In many startups founders are often hesitant to give up such control.

  • http://www.kungpowthinking.com joshviney

    I've always loved construction analogies, probably because my entire family is in the industry and they're how I've tried to explain what I do to them.

    Few things:
    1. You're absolutely right about founders not knowing how to give up their vision to a Product Manager. I guess maybe it might work to think of the Product Manager role as “founder in training”.
    2. If you know qualified Product Managers who can't find good work, I know of at least a few startups who are desperate to hire. We just need to make sure they can provide “good work”.
    3. I tend to shy away from “on time and on budget” when it comes to Product Management and try to think more in terms of meeting business goals. Of course the separation is only possible when there are Project Managers backing you up.

  • http://www.thisisgoingtobebig.com ceonyc

    Ye of little faith. I remember.

  • elidanziger

    Awesome post Josh. I tend to think of PMs as mini-CEOs, because essentially you're building a company within a company. The difference is that your mini-company has to successfully exist in the context of the major-company ecosystem, rather than the ecosystem of other corporate solutions available to your target users.

    Love #6. Just as a company constantly evolves its products and services to find the right market fit, a good PM is constantly gathering user feedback and looking for ways to improve the feature… it’s really just a microcosm of the parent company’s actions. Which feeds nicely into #7: as long as you’re going to be gathering user feedback and evolving the product based on reaction from the market, it’s illogical to over-develop in search of the perfect feature. Get to market as quickly as possible (and make your investors happy in the process).

  • http://www.kungpowthinking.com joshviney

    Testing comment push.

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