The Difference Between Startup PMs & Big Corporation PMs

While all Product Managers are tasked with providing delightful solutions for customers, there are distinct differences between the work of PMs in startups compared to PMs in larger, more established businesses. The two main differentiating factors within these roles fall under the challenges faced, and the decision making process.

The distinctions between these categories effect how you as a PM must approach your duties within the company you work for. Furthermore, for those who are debating whether to make a career change, recognizing these differences is key for understanding the obstacles you may face.

Startup Challenges

While certain challenges overlap at companies of all sizes, startup PMs have distinct hurdles they’ll inevitably confront. One of these difficulties will be dealing with limited resources.

Early stage businesses obviously don’t have the money, manpower, or infrastructure that an established company has at its disposal. This lack of resources can be problematic for everyone in a startup setting, but especially for PMs.

Let us use an example of lacking proper manpower in a department. You are a PM of a fast-paced startup and you have a large list of tasks to complete in order to deal with stakeholders. Someone raises to your attention that there is an issue with the design of your product. Due to lack of manpower, you have to stop working on your stakeholder tasks, and personally carry out the work that would normally be assigned to a full-time designer. This is just one of many of these examples, but it illustrates how taxing a situation like this can be, as well as how lacking resources can disrupt productivity.

Big Business Challenges

If you are looking to become a PM at a large company, be prepared to deal with some serious internal politics. Now that there are more players in the game, competing visions are a guarantee. Everyone will feel their opinion is the key to a perfect solution, and any pushback can be taken as a personal slight.

As a PM in this scenario, you are tasked with becoming an expert in managing personalities. Since your colleagues are likely to have unique work methods, you as their PM need to create an almost personalized way of collaborating with each one of them. This is a necessary side of being a quality PM, and it can be time consuming and a very delicate process.

Even when you do build this middle ground with all of your employees, organizing them for optimal effectiveness is a separate challenge. Even if you understand everyone’s point of view, implementing all these ideas into a cohesive plan of action requires experience and talent.

Hence it goes without saying that in a large company with diverse departments – even with seemingly unlimeted resources – PMs will find themselves in plenty of difficult situations.

Startup Decisions

Building off the challenge of dealing with limited resources is the predicament of prioritization. With fewer means of accomplishing tasks, you as a PM of a startup have to make quick decisions on what must be done now, what can wait to be done, and what simply can’t be done. At a startup with less capital, the magnitude of prioritization is noticably different.

Since the workforce in startups is smaller than in corporations, there won’t be as much internal bureaucracy. With less red tape to cut through, your plans will move quickly into action; and there will be far fewer opinions to navigate when implementing these ideas. Because of this, startup PMs have to become very comfortable with failure due to the fact that more of your decisions will be initiated and tested at a rapid pace. So for those starting roles as PMs at startups, be prepared to develop a thick skin, as well as a knack for coming up with lots of quick, testable ideas.

Big Business Decisions

While the decision making in a smaller company takes on a more rapid-fire approach, the opposite is true for large-scale companies. With a more expansive workforce, there are numerous levels that must be passed through in order to implement your decision as a PM.

Decision making at this level is directly connected to the challenges mentioned in the previous section. You as a large company PM will have to make decisions that are more heavily based on office politics and the needs of other departments. This, in essence, means you will be making decisions horizontally rather than vertically.

Preparing to manage decisions at this level is not easy. Moving forward with your ideas is slow and often burdened by numerous outside opinions. So make sure you are prepared for long vetting processes and the possibility of being side-tracked by other departments.

The Bridge Between the Two

There is clearly a wide range of differences between PMs in smaller companies compared to PMs in larger companies; much more than just the two main ones listed above. There are, however, useful lessons that can be taken from both types of roles, and applied to PM work at any company.

It is also important to remember that no matter the company or skill level of you as a PM, the customer comes first, and creating solutions for them is your number one goal.

Do you have experience as a PM in a startup or big business? Drop us a line on our twitter @productschool. We want to hear what you have to say!

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