I'll be the first PM in a startup, and this would be my first job as well

So I had my own business for the past few years, and decided it’s time to move on to a product focused role since my own business wasn’t sustainable.

After interviewing and prepping for PM role for 4 months, an early stage startup with a small team gave me an opportunity and hired me as their first PM.

I would really appreciate any tips, recommendations, strategies, anything at all that will help me be a helpful addition and not come as completely clueless or a burden. Any structure or methodologies that will absolutely come in handy?

Imposter syndrome is at it’s peak in my case right now.

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I am in the exact same situation, but for about 1.5 years now. My biggest learnings have been that

  1. It takes more time than I expected to set up a PM process or environment in a new company, and you’ll probably face resistance to it
  2. Startups run differently than larger companies , and “traditional“ PM frameworks/strategies/etc. will need to be adapted to accommodate the realities of an early stage startup. You probably have a great handle on this if you had your own company :slightly_smiling_face: I wish I’d come into my situation with more experience in influencing decisions, that would have made the largest difference in how things are going for me.
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I’ll add on - Read continuous discovery habits for practical advice that works at a startup level.

You’ll feel overwhelmed with all your stakeholders who have (rightfully) extreme interest in your decisions.

If you want to increase influence focus first on developing great working relationships with your engineers and designers. DONT neglect your operations/marketing/sales. The best thing you can do at a young startup is starting to be a bridge between the departments. You want people to CHOOSE to come to you for information to understand each other.

Second know the customer better than anyone. You don’t actually have to, hopefully someone knows them very well, but the fastest way for you to contribute value for product decisions is if you can validate with actual customer knowledge.

Be ready to do post-mortem reviews often to grow as a team. Praise good work often and get the most out of your team.

I hope these things feel actionable and relevant to your work. I know they did for me and I got them from a mentor who did the exact same. He became their CPO 3-4 years later. I’m on track to be VP in the next year and all credit goes to what I learned at the startup. You’ve got a great opportunity, learn as much as you can.

I’ll add that one thing I learned was to be what the company needs, not necessarily my job description. You’ll wear all sorts of hats and cover many roles anywhere you work, but especially at a startup. The more you’re willing to identify opportunities to provide business and customer value the faster you’ll overcome imposter syndrome. Good luck!

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I am in a similar situation and unfortunately it is not going well. What I have learned is that at this phase of a startup the PM role has been a “committee” and the longest standing members have been the most influential. The founder was really the first PM and they will likely have many ideas that they are trying to offload to you and have you run with. Additionally, there may be other long standing “committee members” who see this as an opportunity to take a larger share of the influence understanding that the founder has given up some of their clout to the new PM.

In the worst case scenario, the founder is still hoping to assert the same influence as they did before you joined, and have you serve as the PO, in the best case scenario you will have the opportunity to influence and gain a larger share over time. The reality is that the first 6-12 months of work has probably already been identified and you just need to execute and communicate the trade offs.

Your time to shine will come around the 6 month mark. In that first 6 months make your priority to become the product expert to the most detailed level of functionality. If necessary, confirm how technical (such a loaded term) they expect you to be.

Who are you reporting into?

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Most probably the CEO. I am getting a feeling that it is going to be similar for me as well.

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That’s good. I report into engineering and it’s tough prioritizing as the subordinate.

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Find a mentor. I consult, and I see the benefit of having a mentor outside the company (“the system in which I do my work thing everyday”) both to bring perspective and to help work through barriers to being effective/growing in your role/growing professionally.

Because it is your first run at this, it is particularly useful to have a mentor since you are figuring out the profession and your own guardrails.

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Agree @Natasha, Reach out and get a mentor. I can’t recommend this enough. Go on linkedin and keep pinging people in your area. Go to meetups, ask people in your teams network, etc. When I interview PMs with a year or two of experience and it’s their first PM role with no one to train them, the pass rate on phone screens is extremely low. The foundation has huge gaps. Can you fake it and make it in an org? Absolutely. Our interviews weed those candidates out because we need people that we can trust to own a product and they need a sound foundation to figure out how to navigate through the unknown without randomly building things. Books only get you so far as it’s high level and when you dive into the details you can see that the candidates don’t really understand how it works. Your first PM role is about building up your toolkit and trying to avoid learning bad habits. If no one in your org can provide that then it’s best to try and supplement it elsewhere.

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Your founder background gives you an edge at an early-stage startup. Stay close to your manager on expectations. Absorb as much context you can. Look out for small places where you can be valuable. Ideally secure a quick win within your first 60 days.

Here’s an onboarding plan designed for PMs at startups.

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Assess the pain points and gather ideal outcomes from stakeholders. Once you have these research different methodologies, strategies, and processes that solve/drive these.

Always be selling. Use this mentality to promote the solutions you’ve come up with to solve the pain points and drive outcomes.

Outcome over output. Define metrics not on deliverables but whether your hypothesis produce the results your stakeholders are striving for.

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Assess the pain points and gather ideal outcomes from stakeholders. Once you have these research different methodologies, strategies, and processes that solve/drive these.

Always be selling. Use this mentality to promote the solutions you’ve come up with to solve the pain points and drive outcomes.

Outcome over output. Define metrics not on deliverables but whether your hypothesis produce the results your stakeholders are striving for.

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@DaveKim, I disagree with methodologies struggling at startups. Past 10 years I’ve been working in 0-1 startups where I’m brought in to help take a concept and make it reality. I work on software and hardware. It’s actually harder to survive in the earlier stages like seed and series a without good processes implemented as chaos can run wild without it. It’s not easy but it’s all in how a process is implemented in stages and how to get leadership buy in. You have to know how the process will benefit each part of a unique organization and be able to customize it. Where I see PMs struggle is trying to take text book examples and not understanding how to translate it to their current org, ability to look at the org at a higher level and then get buy-in on how to execute it.

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@Carlos, That’s interesting. I have basically the exact experience you have and see it completely differently.

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Interesting topic. If I were you, I would do the following in the first place:

  • Validate the concept (what makes Customers to give their credit card to charge them?)
  • Know your Customers (as well as their resources and needs)
  • Know the company goals and pricing strategy
  • Be close to your team, understand work habits and culture.

You can visualize everything with business model canvas - it will give you a general picture.

Then, if you feel handy, proceed with:

  1. Make a plan for your first 90 days and commit to it.
  2. Create/review backlog and suggest prioritization.
  3. Come up with a marketing plan.
  4. Confirm company’s value proposition. Fast.