Photo by Igal Ness on Unsplash

8 Ways “Startup Product Leadership” is different from “Mainstream Product Management”:

1/ Healthy “Growth Paranoia” – Growth isn’t about simply hitting earnings targets, it’s existential. VC math only works with 2-3x annual revenue growth. Growth is quite literally, life-or-death.

2/ Entrepreneurial Pragmatism – Founders are PhDs in ‘what-works-in-the-real-world.’ Theory and philosophy are entertained, but with healthy skepticism. You must speak the language of results.

3/ ‘Skin in the Game’ Asymmetry – You’re working for founders who’ve bet ‘everything’ on this business. They’re not simply working for the next corporate promotion, this is their ‘life’s work’. This requires sensitivity, tact, and (real) empathy.

4 / You’re building the Product Org (and the Product) – You spend as much time building the product org (process, operating rhythms, structures) as you do the product itself. You’re not jumping into an existing product org, you’re building it ground-up.

5/ You define (and re-define) the role – Startup roles are fluid and often vague (due to lack of precedent). You’re constantly defining and re-defining the role with the founding team. This starts in the interview process, but continues throughout your time at the company.

6/ The “IC Executive” paradox – Many startup product leaders enter as individual contributor Heads of Product and build teams from the ground up. Seasoned leaders write JIRA tickets one day and meet with board members the next. It’s a strange dynamic, but part of the job.

7/ Level-up or Layer – Leadership roles evolve quickly as the company scales. This forces leaders to level-up or get layered. Short tours-of-duty are not uncommon as different leaders cycle in to play key stage-specific roles. It’s a startup law-of-nature. You can’t ignore it.

8/ The Joy of Impact – You see how your work impacts your team and customers every day. And this, ultimately, is the true joy and privilege of startup product leadership.

What else separates “Startup Product Leadership” from “Mainstream Product Management”?


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