6 Qualities of a Great Product Manager

greatproductleaderI was recently talking to a co-founder of a leading social network and he asked what in my view are the qualities of a great product manager.  I could think of three right away but I believe there are three more that are equally important. Since this is a question every person either responsible for hiring a product manager or works with a product manager wonders about, I thought I should share them with you. Here are the six qualities that make a great product manager:

Strategic Thinker

A product manager is a mini-CEO of sorts. He needs to understand the current product strategy and how it aligns with the overall company strategy. He needs to know the product vision, how it will generate customer value and what is the differentiating advantage over its competitors. Once a product manager gets this and is able to clearly articulate it, you would be surprised how the rest of the firm will rally behind it in order to build a winning product. For the product to be a long term success, he needs to envision how the product, industry and competition is going to evolve and develop a long term roadmap.

Passion for products

Product managers should love products. They should be able to recognize and respect great products. They should look at products and be able to tell what is good, what is inspiring and what can be improved. If the product manager is truly passionate about the product, it rubs of the entire team and leads to the development of great products.

Keep Score

In addition to knowing what the game is, a product manager should be able to keep score. Keeping score means identifying the right metrics and knowing when you have won. Winning means identifying the current baseline for the metrics and the goal the team would be shooting for in the next release. Once a product manager is able to accomplish this, everybody in the team will have clear understanding as to how the game is won. The team is rightfully aligned, motivated, inspired and innovative.

Ability to Prioritize

One of the key attributes of a product manager is to be able to prioritize the backlog. Once the product manager and the entire company knows what game is been played and how the score is kept and won, prioritizing becomes an easy task.  The product manager needs to map the product strategy down to the individual features, and prioritize them in the right order across phases so as to maximize the winnings. If a product manager is able to do this well, all stakeholders within the company will buy into the prioritized backlog even though their pet features have not made the cut.

Collaborative leader

Building a product is a collaborative process and its take a product manager with collaborative nature to pull it off. Even though a product manager is the leader of the product, most of the people development team does not report to him. Moreover, product requirements come from various functional groups and customers and they all are considered important by those contributing them. In such an environment, a product manager cannot be dictatorial. He needs to be able to inspire others to follow him. He needs to be able to negotiate while prioritizing the backlog and appease all stakeholders. He needs to clearly communicate why a particular feature was chosen over an other one for the current release. At the same time he needs to be confident, assertive and at times lay down the law since the buck stops with the product leader.

Execution

Product managers need to be biased for action. They need to get things done. In order for a product to be shipped there are hundreds of things to get done and a product manager should be able to get down and dirty to get them done. He needs to QA, write marketing copies, edit HTMLs, mock up wireframes, and even do PR. A product manager needs to do anything needed to make the product a success.

At the end of the day, product manager need to make things happen. They should have the ability and qualities to rally the troops, sell them on the vision and march them to victory.

Are their qualities I have missed? Would love to hear your thoughts.

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Women leaders in IT/Startups

Vivek Wadhwa has started yet another interesting conversation on startups – this time on the dearth of female leaders in the IT space. I left a comment on Brad Feld’s blog in response to his response… and here is my response to Brad’s response and the original article. I guess it’s my response2.

The original point is summed up by Vivek as: women make great entrepreneurs but represent a tiny % of leaders at technology startup companies. (That’s not a direct quote, that is me summarizing in a 7th grade book report style.) As usual, Vivek has done a real study and has numbers to back up his conclusion.

Brad nicely hits the point: This is “about innovation, competitiveness, and entrepreneurship.” (That is a direct quote.)

This whole point is something that my wife and I talk about a lot. She is at a tech startup; as am I. (We have some fascinating dinner conversations around HTML and the SalesForce Force.com API.) My comment on Brad’s blog pretty much explains where we are coming out on this issue:

Brad, I think a large part of the problem is pretty easy to understand. My wife and I both work at different startups; last night we were both at work pretty late. She didn’t finish up until around 10:30; I got done an hour or so before her but kept working for a while. We don’t have kids, but this lifestyle is not going to be possible when we do. Our highest performing women tend to marry high performing men (in my case I got lucky with my wife…). Since the burden of taking care of kids tends to fall on the woman, and since our best and brightest women are marrying men who have similar hard working lifestyles, something has to give. And it is usually the women’s careers.

There has got to be a business model taking top tier women with kids and getting them back into the workforce part time. That may be my next startup, but I’d be happy if someone else beat me to it.

This is a real issue. A couple of points that I see as “proof” that our best and brightest women are leaving the workforce: 1) A very high percent of female MBAs drop out of the workforce and become full time moms, much more than other professional female grad schoolers and 2) At the venture firms where I’ve worked, not a single one of the male partners’ wives worked. This is dozens of women, many with advanced degrees and who had very solid careers prior to doing the whole mommy thing.

I know that a lot of these women love being moms, but would also like to participate in the workforce. They are people who added a ton to the places they worked, but who don’t have the 70+ hours a week to commit now. There has to be a way to get them to find fulfilment both as a mom and as a startup exec.

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Do entrepreneurs need elevator pitches?

Should startup founders spend time creating a crisp elevator pitch? Yes! Let me explain what got me thinking about this…

I recently received an email from a student in Texas who is thinking of starting a business. He stated, “I’m 23, I have my eyes on an idea with IP that’s protected, I’m piecing together a business model, and I’m doing all in my power to make this happen. The problem is that I’m so young I don’t have many industry contacts and, even though I’ve yet to try, I think it would be difficult to get a VC to sit down in the room with me and listen to my proposal because I’m so young. I think because of my youth they may not take me seriously even though the idea is solid, potentially very profitable, and has IP security. ”

My advice to him was that if his idea was good, and if he could articulate it well, then he could make smart people interested in helping him. First he should get together a smart elevator pitch and then approach potential advisers who could help him evaluate his idea’s probability of success, firm up the business plan and then introduce him to capital sources and team members. I really think a crisp elevator pitch will be critical in getting experienced people to lend him a hand. (I guess I just articulated it better here that I did in my emails to him! Sorry Steve!)

What is an elevator pitch?

Venturehacks has a great post on how to prepare an elevator pitch for an investor and says, “the major components of the pitch are traction, product, and team.” If you are preparing to raise venture capital you must read their take on the elevator pitch.

But I think that an elevator pitch has an importance greater than just impressing investors. If you are a startup, no one has ever heard of you. No one knows what you are doing. No one knows how or why they should lend you a hand or buy your product or make an introduction to someone who could join your team. You need to be able to let people know what you are up to quickly, and interest them enough to get them thinking about how they can help you build your business.

An elevator pitch is a short description that will help the entrepreneur quickly explain the purpose of their startup to someone who has not heard of the company before. I think you should have a single elevator pitch (that you occasionally tailor to a specific audience, such a customer or investor or potential team member). You will need to have practiced this pitch to the point where you can recite it in your sleep, because you never know when you’ll be in front of the CTO of a potential customer or find the VP of Sales that you’ve been dreaming of for months. Make that first impression a solid one.

Here is my take on how to get a good elevator pitch put together:

  1. Problem definition
  2. Size/magnitude of problem
  3. Your solution, including why it is better
  4. Your company’s traction
  5. Who you are

I don’t think your elevator pitch should be more than 30 to 45 seconds long. (And you probably don’t want to talk at light speed, unless you are pitching a speed speaking product – lame joke.) If the listener is interested then they will ask you questions and you can elaborate on the points that interest them.

I’m not convinced that my formula for a good elevator pitch is perfect, nor is it the only way to create an effective pitch. I’d love to hear other people’s ideas on elevator pitches that have worked for them.

Having spent some time over at TechStars, it is pretty clear that the TechStars founders take the elevator pitch very seriously. The teams are forced to play with their elevator pitch over and over –  practice, modify, get feedback on and practice. These pitches are not focused for particular audiences – rather they are generic pitches that would be interesting to customers, investors and people who might want to pitch in with their time or introductions. My experience at TechStars has really re-inforced the impression that an articulate elevator pitch is very important for pretty much any entrepreneur. After all, you never know when you’ll bump into the person who will somehow help your startup take over the world!

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Repeat entrepreneurs are more likely to succeed – So get one on your team!

I was recently turned onto an academic post on the the “Success of Persistent Entrepreneurs.” Two HBS professors have recently concluded that repeat entrepreneurs who have been successful in the past are substantially more likely to have success in their second venture than novice or previously failed entrepreneurs. This study centered around entrepreneurs whose first startup raised venture capital: 

“Successful entrepreneurs in the study had a 34 percent chance of succeeding in their next venture-backed firm, compared with 23 percent for those who previously failed and 22 percent for first-timers.”

This is something that venture capital firms have been acting on since … well, since I know about! (Of course, I haven’t been doing this long enough to really know when it started, but I’m pretty sure VCs have always preferred to work with previously successful entrepreneurs.) Given a choice between two equally affable, competent seeming, well regarded founders with similar business plans, VC’s will pick the previously successful entrepreneur to back every time. 

So what can you do if this is your first time as a startup founder and you are looking to raise venture capital funding? (Or I guess if you’ve failed at your first?) Attract a successful entrepreneur to your team! VCs LOVE LOVE LOVE getting involved with successful entrepreneurs’ projects, so go get yourself a successful entrepreneur! While it would be best if you can get them to join your management team – and by best I mean what the VC would like best, maybe not what you would like best – you can still get some of this successful entrepreneur pixie dust by having this person join your board or by having them as an active advisor to the business.

How do you meet a successful entrepreneur? Hopefully you can easily network to one in or around your particular industry. Conferences, industry networking groups or trade associations, or even lawyers can help you. Some of the young startup founders I’ve spent time with have literally cold called successful entrepreneurs and gotten them to become advisers of their startup. If your idea is good enough, and if you can explain it well enough, you should be able to attract the right people to your side.

I came across this HBS blog post from Darmesh Shah’s twitter feed (OnStartups) – I’d suggest you follow him, as he comes across some pretty interesting stuff.

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Pretend you are on the board of a startup. Unfortunately, this startup is not living up to its potential, and is failing to get sales traction as you and the team hoped. Why are sales not materializing? I had a brief, but insightful, conversation with one of my partners today. This partner (like most venture capitalists) is on several startup boards. Most of these startups are growing quite well; however, one of them is not.

The question is why? From a board level, it is quite difficult for a venture capitalist to determine the cause of the startup’s sales slippage. Is it the sales team? Or is it a market/product issue?

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Stealth startups: To blog or not to blog?

To blog or not to blogShould a startup blog even before they are ready to tell the world about their idea? By blogging will you be giving away your idea? Is there a real benefit to creating a blog and updating it on a regular basis? These are questions I asked myself when we founded Pixily and in the ensuing months when we were in stealth mode.

Reflecting back on these questions, we at Pixily wish we started blogging within the first couple of months of founding Pixily. It would have helped us in a number of ways including acquiring customers, being perceived as an authority in the market and in recruiting employees. In this post, I will cover the benefits and in a following post I will talk about blogging strategies that a stealth mode startup can employ.

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