Creative freedom in early stage startups for PMs?

Hi all, recently I participated in a panel with other PMs from early-stage startup. Funny (and sad) thing, most of us faced the same struggles and frustrations because the top management treats the product team as a feature/delivery team. I noticed that early-stage companies with an appointed CPO/Product VP didn’t have these issues.

Unfortunately, at my company we have this issue, the CEO and one of the Directors hold this role, and they have no intention to give it up. They have defined the company vision, around all the products/features they want to see, copy-pasted them into our roadmap, and they go as far as defining which product/feature we should deliver in the next Sprint.

I have never worked in such a place before, and I wasn’t able to find any article online that outlines how to shift and influence stakeholders’ mindset. I have the feeling that this topic is a taboo in the ecosystem.

Did anyone face any similar issues?

Super common challenge. And, at least for very early stage companies (say, pre-B but definitely pre-A)

I have a controversial opinion:
The founder/CEO should own the product vision. In fact, I think the opposite is a warning sign: where the founder that early wants to bring someone on to develop the vision for them. Yikes!

So what does a nominal head of product do?
Well, beyond all the PM-ish things (because you’re likely the only PM for a little while) it’s your chance to communicate the value of a Product perspective and set the stage for empowered teams: decompose the vision into objectives, shift the conversation from features to outcomes, frame every feature as a hypothesis and ensure there is adequate instrumentation/analytics to test and clear success criteria, bring in voice of customer, ensure that product releases are managed more holistically than just code going live.

Use your tools of influence: come to every leadership meeting the most prepared, create a culture of analysis, bring the voice of the customer/market…produce and distribute the best artifacts, build trust through consistency.

(I did a bad job of this after the first few months at my prior company. After a good first 6 months I took my eye off the ball, focused on delivery, and failed to provide product leadership as well as I needed to across the company.)

This stuff is really, really hard. We have your back! Feel free to reach out any time.

I’m in my second role as “first PM at a company” and it is a challenging role. You have to be very willing to push and push and push and push for change in the right direction, even if the leadership team is generally open to change (as mine is). Habits are long-entrenched, previous success with those habits further solidifies them.

I find these challenges to be very rewarding when you do make progress. But you have to be willing to do much less product management and much more influencing up than you would do in a larger, more mature product organization. The role is definitely not for everyone, especially because it often goes no where.
You have to decide: is this the kind of thing I want to work on every single day, do I see real hope that the company will change, and is there good growth potential for the company in the next 3 years? If you’re wavering on either one of those, then 100% get out. You’ll find more frustration there than opportunity. If you’re solid on them all being “yes,” then keep at it. The opportunities can be good.

@ahmadbashir Not a controversial opinion at all. It should be a founder owning product vision at beginning. But building without considering customer needs and no ability to consider them when presented is a sign of a company doomed to failure.

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