The 5 Product Management Lessons I Learned As An Entrepreneur

Editor’s note: The following was written by a guest blogger. If you would like to contribute to the blog, please contact ellen@productschool.com

I’ve been a product manager for almost a decade now and worked both in small startups and large corporations building data centric and ML products. I thought that I knew everything there is to know about product management (I’m there in the trenches day in and day out) but only after I started my path as an entrepreneur did I truly realized what being a product manager is really about. Being an entrepreneur takes everything you know to extremes and thus the good and the bad quickly surface and accentuate. 

Product Manager thumbs up

Here are 5 core lessons I have learned as an entrepreneur that I think every product manager could benefit from:

 1. Don’t fall in love with your product

As a product manager I was “in love” with my products. They were “The best products ever” and anyone who didn’t see it was wrong. I was their biggest advocate inside and outside the organization and I took any criticism personally as if they were my own children. I felt that this kind of emotional commitment and passion is my biggest strength as a product manager because it gives me the drive to make “My Products” better. However, this meant that everything I did was from the product’s point of view – how does it serve the product? 

As an entrepreneur I painfully came to understand the great importance of “Product Market Fit”. Obviously, I was familiar with this concept but only as a startup founder, responsible for the life or death of my venture, did I truly understand it’s “Make or Break” meaning. The first lesson I learned as an entrepreneur was that it doesn’t matter how great of a product you have (or think you have) if no one needs or wants it. 

At the end of the day, your goal is to create value to your users by solving a problem or fulfilling a need that they have (and do it better than your competitors). So, instead of falling in love with your product I suggest that you fall in-love with your users and what they need and want.

Product Manager holding a heart

2. Get out of the building (You are not the user)

 As a product manager I always found myself required to spend more time in inbound activities rather than outbound. Of course, I talked to users and yes, I did my market research, but I was eventually always pulled into the internal development processes and internal stakeholders’ noise. Sounds familiar? This led to a creation of an echo chamber, where all my ideas, thoughts and plans were reflected back to me from the inside of the organization and I was trapped by my own perception which wasn’t always in line with the real world out there. In my mind, I had the best possible understanding of the users, their challenges and needs. 

As an entrepreneur I quickly realized the critical effect of the outbound on my venture. A staple in the lean startup methodology, the “Get Out of The Building” concept opened me to crucial insights regarding my product that I wouldn’t have gained by myself and my team alone. I quickly adopted the mindset of “whoever is willing to talk to me I will happily go and talk to them” and I literally did the foot work and went wherever I could, to find, engage, talk and observe (mainly) the users in their “Natural Habitat”. This led me to a somewhat frightening realization – “I Am Not the User !!!”.

While I have my own idea of what is right, the users might have a different idea that is derived from their experience and their needs which can be totally different from my own point of view. This forced me to be more open minded to others’ point of view, which as I mentioned earlier wasn’t an easy task at first, because I was in love with my own ideas (product).

Product Manager with a bag

 3. Everything you know is just an assumption (until proven otherwise)

As a product manager whenever I introduced a new product or feature, I felt very confident in the preparation work I did beforehand as a validation for building that product/feature. I talked to users and stakeholders, I did the market research and collected all the data I needed to predict success. I thought I figured everything out, nothing could go wrong, right? The results were more often than none a little different.

While not a total failure, I was frequently somewhat disappointed by the user’s lackluster adoption and usage of my product. How was this possible? I thought I knew everything that was needed to ensure success. I did “know”, but it wasn’t enough.

As an entrepreneur I learned that all the insight I gathered from the validation phase, all the market and user research weren’t enough to get a true representation of my product fit to its aimed market. Although it gave me a starting point and direction, it seemed that at the end it was all assumptions that haven’t been proven yet.

I’ve learned that the best way to really validate my assumptions is to measure actual user behavior in regard to my product. It’s the difference between the user saying he or she will do something and then actually doing it. Are they using the product / feature? and more important are they willing to actually “Pay” for it (with money, time, data etc.)? Again, not just saying that they are “willing to pay for it” but actually doing it. 

This seems a little obvious probably and somewhat of a catch 22 since I can’t validate my assumptions until I have a product and I won’t have a product until I validate my assumptions. This will be resolved in the next section.

Product Manager with question marks

4. The importance of the MVP (the meaning of Minimal in MVP)

As a product manager I often found myself bound by the requirement to constantly deliver new features and products and with always a lack of resources (usually time). The way we tackled this was to define for each new feature / product what is the minimum required deliverables scope that will satisfy the customers enough where we could move on to the next feature / product on the roadmap. We called it – MVP.

As an entrepreneur I was exposed to the “Magical” world of an entrepreneur’s MVP in Eric Reis’s startup bible “The Lean Startup”. I’ve learned that the only purpose of an MVP is to “Start the process of learning” and (and this is where the magic lives) that although the P in MVP refers to “Product” it doesn’t have to be a real working product in order to achieve its purpose (of learning)…. What??? Mind blown! This is so different from what I was used to as a product manager in a larger organization. 

“Start the process of learning” is all about validating your assumptions and as I mentioned in the previous section, validation through actual user behavior is key. This is where the MVP comes in to facilitate actual user behavior.

“Doesn’t have to be a real product” is about the Minimal part of MVP. what is the absolute bare minimum of a deliverable required to facilitate the user behavior? I won’t go through all the different examples (there are plenty in “The Lean Startup” and other sources) but leave you with this – a simple landing page with a credit card details form that goes nowhere can be an MVP that indicates a real intent to pay.

Product Manager with telescope

5. There is no perfect (the art of good enough)

 As a product manager I always strived to make sure that the products / features that were delivered were perfect. From the design through development and QA I was always looking for potential bugs that will create a less than perfect experience. After all, my products were a reflection of me (as I mentioned before I was in love with my products) and if the products were not perfect, what does it say about me?

Adding to this are all the stakeholders which expected nothing short of perfection and I would be getting all the heat if anything would slightly diverge from this expectation, not to mention all the “Good Souls” that were just waiting for a reason to be a** holes. 

The pursuit for perfection took a lot of effort and I still believe that in many cases it was justified since in different maturity stages of a product it is rightly required to deliver a perfect product / feature. The problem though was that there were many instances (especially in early stage of the product/features) where perfection wasn’t really required, and it actually hurt the product development process.

As an entrepreneur I quickly realized that time is not a luxury I have. I was operating in very short time increments in order to get to the next stage or to be first in the market. This meant that we needed to go through all the steps I have mentioned in the previous sections in the shortest time frame possible. We needed to make the (inevitable) mistakes as soon as possible so we can fix them as soon as possible. We needed to validate our product market fit quickly.

In the Time-Money-Quality relation triangle, if being quick (Time) is essential and you don’t have enough resources (money) then consequently the quality suffers. Since my goal was to validate the product market fit as soon as possible and to do that I needed customer feedback yesterday, I had to fight the instinct of producing perfect deliverables in favor of producing quick deliverables, even if they are not perfect and have issues.

This of course required a careful customer management to ensure satisfaction despite issues in the product/feature. The value of getting the insight quickly outweighed the potential damage from a dissatisfied customer/user.

Product Manager roadworks

Conclusion

 These lessons were eye openers for me and helped me achieve a deeper and more meaningful understanding of my role as a Product Manager. They are not easy to implement lessons and I still have to work to overcome my own preconceptions, habits and instincts but the effort is worth it, and the payoff is great. 

In this article I tried to bring the essence of each lesson in a short and concise way to serve as a starting point and a teaser for your personal exploration. There is much more to elaborate and each one of these lessons can hold its own full article. I encourage you to dive in deeper. One last piece of advice, since these lessons came from my experience in the entrepreneurship world, I highly recommend searching for further insights in entrepreneurship related resources or better yet try to experience this world for yourselves.

Product Manager with a flag

Meet the Author

Assaf Malovany

Assaf Malovany is a product executive and a co-founder of two impact ventures aimed at solving 21st century challenges. Assaf is passionate about building products that make a positive impact on his users lives and create real value.

While being a Product Manager for a decade now Assaf continuously researches for new ways and approaches to improve the product management process and mindset.

Assaf holds a BA degree in Business Management, majoring in Information Technologies from the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya and an MBA degree in the “Technology, Entrepreneurship & Innovation” program from the Tel Aviv University

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