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What are the differences between being a Start-Up PM Versus a Big Company PM?

The differences between being a Start-Up PM Versus a Big Company PM.


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Luke Calton

3 years ago | 6 min read

This month I celebrated 1 year working for a start-up. I joined after working for a big company in product management for 4 and a half years. I’d always been fascinated about the idea of working for a start-up and learning to not just scale a product, but help scale a company. I’ve observed some interesting differences between being one of 1000s of PMs at a big company, to being the only PM at a series A backed start-up.

My experience is unique to me since no big company or start-up is the same. But here are the high level differences I’ve observed in the last year.

Shipping to learn as quickly as possible

In general, the only way you truly learn is to ship something to the actual users of your product. This is the starkest difference between start-up product management and big company product management in my experience. A relentlessness to ship fast and often. With the processes in place to enable that. A start-up is still striving to find product market fit, tweaking with messaging, feature-set and their overall value proposition. The cheapest way to continuously evolve this is to continuously ship to accrue validated learning.

In a start-up, the underlying principle that nothing ships done is stronger than that of a big company. Personally, this was my most valuable lesson. Every single product idea is broken down to the smallest and therefore cheapest thing we can build and ship to learn from. The additional benefit of this is that it makes the software development release schedule far more predictable and reliable. I’ve experienced in the past at a big company, projects that have been significantly late, because the product vision and overall scope wasn’t broken down well enough and it was therefore hard for the engineering team to estimate how long it would take to build.

Of course, a big company strives to also learn about their users before building things. But they also have a far higher quality bar before something can actually be put in front of customers. They have a reputation and their users generally expect more from them and expect them to get it right, quicker. There are other methodologies to reduce risk before a product ships e.g. design thinking practices, frequent and ongoing user research. But you simply can’t gain certainty without shipping the real thing to your real users and monitoring the outcome.

Culture

A lot is spoken about in terms of start-up culture. Many big companies go through company wide transformations in order to function more like a start-up. But what is it that start-ups do, that big companies aren’t great at? I remember a senior leader at the big company I worked for previously, telling a group of thousands of employees about the Frog Pot theory. I won’t dive into this, but the notion is that failure is often a series of slow, unnoticeable but compounding mistakes that eventually end up cooking you alive.

Big companies are terrified that a start-up will slowly and quietly slice up their business verticals without them noticing. That start-ups, with less to lose, will be bolder, quicker and more disruptive in how they go to market. This is even more relevant when considering that the average life span of a big company has been decreasing over the years. So they introduce transformation programmes to combat this. Innovation days. Internal start-up accelerator programmes. What’s missing? It’s pretty simple actually:

The very real pressure of working for a start-up.

The opportunity cost of poor decisions can’t be replicated within the safety net of a big company. The refusal to accept doing things that don’t offer tangible business value that can sometimes dominate large amounts of your time at a big company. It’s hard to replicate a culture where anyone feels comfortable to question the CEO on company strategy or product prioritisation decisions. And not just create a culture where you feel comfortable to challenge, but providing more opportunities and greater accessibility to do this. There is therefore a greater understanding of the context behind decisions that helps everyone do their best work and feel more involved.

I also think this is what big companies find hard to achieve. People want to feel like they are involved in something bigger than just their individual job. That they are not just the “engineer” who codes, or the customer success representative who “just deals with customers”. They want to feel like they have a real stake (at times, financial stake) and influence in the overall direction of the business. That their thoughts and experience are valuable. And if they have a great idea for the business, it will be heard by someone who can make it a reality.

(On a side note: Netflix is great example of a company who have transitioned from a start-up to a big company and tried really hard to keep the culture that made them successful. What they learnt is in this book, if you fancy a really interesting read).

Prioritisation

It’s well known that the art of good product strategy means saying no. Yet, nothing quite prepares you for how often you need to say no at a start-up vs working for a big company. The opportunity cost of having the only engineering team at your organisation working on the wrong thing is huge. At a big company, it’s also good practice to keep focus — but by the very nature of there being more people and more development resource, it’s easier to lose focus as you try and tackle more than one problem. A key difference that sharpens your product thinking and prioritisation skills at a start-up. I’ve been taught the phrase, “what happens if we just do nothing” i.e. “the do nothing approach” and I use this as the first question to myself to help me understand what’s actually important, rather than what just feels important at the time.

Product Strategy

Another key difference between start-up vs big company product management is the overall company strategy and how this translates to the individual product strategies. At a big company, the CEO creates the company vision and strategy, which trickles down into each business units strategy. A product manager is tasked with being the expert of their product and deriving a product strategy that fits in with the overall company strategy, and so forth.

Big company PMs own a a wide scope of their product, but within a narrow scope of the overall company. Without entering the debate, you’re more like the mini CEO of your product at a big company than at a start-up. Since, you know the product, the market and competitive landscape better than anyone else in the company. And to be honest, that can be really fun and can serve as a great learning opportunity.

Whereas as a start-up, which sometimes only has one product, you own a more narrow scope, but with much larger scale. Depending on the size of the start-up, there are also far less differences between the overall company strategy and the product strategy. They are intertwined. You are involved and contribute to all areas of the strategy, but there are also experts in their own areas who specialise on scaling the sales or operational side of the business. And they’re not generalists who have 100s of other priorities competing for their attention. They are optimising for exactly the same end goal as you. A friction that exists far more at a big company where different areas of the business can sometimes be optimising for different things.

As a product manager at a start-up, you are not the mini-CEO. There is an actual CEO for that. And a founding team who has thought about the overall problem you are solving for years longer than you have. And it’s useful to still know the products intricacies, but you won’t be the only one with the cohesive overview if there are less products to learn about.

Your value comes through ensuring that all the relevant dots are connecting together. The orchestra is playing eloquently. And there is sufficient customer insight and data driving the prioritisation process. That of all the problems you could be focusing on, you’re confident that you’re focusing on the right one. And you’re learning the right things about your users and that this is informing future product decisions, and not the internal opinions and biases we all naturally have.

In summary..

Would I recommend working for a start-up? Absolutely. But it depends on your resilience. 90% of them fail. So if you are energised by trying to be in that 10%, or you want to learn and potentially progress fast, then you’re probably perfect for a start-up environment. And if you’re not, then it’s probably not for you.

And that’s ok. Because working for a big company can also be incredibly rewarding and comes with many interesting opportunities to learn and grow. The most important thing I gained was learning how to learn. And I know from experience how much intrapreneurship is valued at a big company. I don’t buy into the idea that you can’t make an impact at a big company. I think with high agency, you can make an impact just about anywhere. But it’s definitely harder at a big company and the process will take longer. And this in itself is a valuable learning opportunity. Let’s not forget, a big company is generally very successful and has found product-market fit sometimes 1000s of times. Start-ups want the success that big companies have. And big companies want the culture and attitude that start-ups have. I’ve always loved the irony of that.

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