ProductFTW #3: Startups vs. Big Companies

Many startups, typically with a single product, only require complex cross-team coordination once they experience substantial growth.

We've observed that many product management newsletters and blogs predominantly feature interviews with product managers and leaders from large corporations such as Google, Facebook, and LinkedIn. The term "startups" is often loosely applied to any tech company. However, we define a startup as an early-stage, high-growth, venture-backed company for this discussion.

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Photo by Alex Kotliarskyi / Unsplash

The size and stage of a company significantly influence the expectations and demands placed on a product manager.

Most of my experience is with early-stage companies. However, I gained insight into large company product management during my tenure at AT&T Interactive ( from 2009 to 2012.

Many startups, typically with a single product, only require complex cross-team coordination once they experience substantial growth. While teams may manage different aspects of the product, such as a web front end, a mobile app, and a backend, these teams often work in unison towards a singular product experience for the end user. Resources such as product design and development operations are frequently shared in smaller companies.

In contrast, larger companies often have more extensive individual product teams, each with dedicated product design, user research, and complete engineering teams. These larger entities also face the challenge of coordinating multiple products, necessitating more service teams.

While at AT&T Interactive, was a top-25 site in the United States and the leading local search site before the rise of Yelp or Google Local. We generated over $1 billion in annual revenue and employed more than 400 engineers. Our structure included separate product teams for web, mobile, advertiser systems, publishing systems, and various services like login, search, analytics, etc.

In many larger organizations, there are typically two types of product managers. Some product managers work directly with a software development team, engaging in standard software development lifecycle (SDLC) processes, such as agile ceremonies and standups. These individuals are technical product managers. Others, known as business product managers, need dedicated engineering teams and focus on implementing product enhancements across all products or with outsourced teams.

My team, responsible for managing $700 million in revenue, fell into the latter category. We oversaw our advertising listings and marketing services. To launch a new ad product, we had to define the product, develop marketing and channel sales strategies, and implement them across services, ad platforms, publisher networks, and all consumer front-end teams, all without dedicated engineering resources.

In contrast, a small startup with 10-20 employees might have just one product manager overseeing all products. In such companies, the PM is often tasked with writing requirements and managing projects, whereas in larger companies, these roles are typically filled by dedicated project managers or scrum masters.

In summary, a key distinction between the experiences of product managers in large versus small companies lies in the level of support and complexity they manage. Product managers in small companies need more extensive support teams found in larger companies but also need more complexity in coordination.

In a small company, the CEO, often the founder and visionary behind the company and its products, typically drives the roadmap and vision, leaving the product manager to focus more on execution. In contrast, in a larger company, the CEO acts more as a general manager, with the Chief Product Officer or VP of Product responsible for defining and executing the vision. As a result, the skill sets required vary significantly between companies of different sizes.


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