Transitioning to Product Management In a Startup

In many discussions about pivoting to tech, the suggestion to transition internally arises more than a few times. Katherine Chong, Product Manager at Mergeflo, offers excellent tips not only with regard to transitioning internally, but the effects of doing so in a Startup versus a larger company.

Tiwatayo Kunle
December 7, 2022


Initially, Katherine’s role at the Startup she worked was as Director of Content where her main metric was to improve quantity and quality of the content on the site. However, because of the type of company it was, she inadvertently started performing product-adjacent duties such as finding regular contributors to the site and growing the audience from 10 to 100,000.

She hadn’t realized how deeply entrenched she was in the product space till she was offered a Content Manager role at another company and the expectations of her in that role didn’t line up with what she was doing at her current company, which she wanted to keep pursuing.

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It turns out that the role she had been performing in the Startup had, over time, morphed into a Product Manager role and upon realizing that, she decided that she wanted to do it properly so she petitioned the company to allow her transition to Product Management.

The company basically said “Yeah, you can start on Monday” and so she had to hit the ground running. Here’s her advice on how to transition internally, even on short notice.

How to Transition Internally

  1. Build trust in your current role

When you have a track record of delivering on your responsibilities, the company views you as an asset and in many cases, would be glad to have you on regardless of your position. Employers place much value on whether or not an employee can do what they’ve been hired to do. Thus it’s important that you’re already doing your current job very well so that your request to transition is not seized as an opportunity to let go of dead weight. 

Because Katherine was already at the company and had built a lot of relationships before transitioning, it was a lot smoother to transition. She wasn’t fighting an uphill battle where she had to convince them to trust her capabilities while learning the ropes of a new role.

  1.  Let ‘them’ know you’d like to transition

Where ‘them’, in this case refers to your manager, the CEO, HR, whomever makes things happen. You can adopt a gradual process of periodic chats where you let them know your plans and your vision for yourself and how you think Product Management ties in. You should mention what you’ll be bringing to the table and why your move would be in the interest of the company.

If you’re fortunate, you might find that those you’ve spoken to will create opportunities for you by passing along assignments that tie in to your goals, or informing you of gaps that you can fill within or outside the company.

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The Unique Situation of Transitioning Internally within a Startup

Katherine’s company basically saying “You can start as a Product Manager on Monday” paints a pretty accurate picture of transitioning within a Startup.

The pro of transitioning within a Startup is that it’s a greenfield so you have a lot more scope and breadth to explore, than in a more structured type of company, and the con is that it is a greenfield thus it’s less strict about things like structure, making it difficult to figure out exactly what you need to focus on.

In Katherine’s case, she was pretty overwhelmed in her first few months as a Product Manager and she struggled to get her bearings. There were still some things that needed sorting out such as the vacuum that was created when she transitioned, her transition plan, and how she intended to take on the learning of this new role while executing simultaneously.

However, once you have the answers to these questions and you’re settled into the role, you might begin to notice some unique features of Product Management in a Startup as versus bigger, more established companies.

For example, a lot of early stage Product Management in a Startup involves wearing the hat of the founder, specifically with regard to the understanding that the impact of your decisions are heavier than those of a Product Manager elsewhere. Summarily, it’s a smaller company, therefore the stakes are higher.

In her role at the Startup she currently works in, Katherine is responsible for a lot of the problem discovery space. When she initially began as a Product Manager, there wasn’t even a product to manage, thus her first assignment was to figure this out.

What product should the company work on?

If you didn’t already know this, building a product begins with exploratory work, asking a bunch of questions, like these – what is the problem that this product will address? Why is this a problem? Who is the hypothesized customer? Do these customers exist? What are the customer’s pain points and just how painful are they? Then just sit down with these questions until you can form a sufficient strategy.

To settle on what you hope will be a successful product, the Product Manager must challenge assumptions. Whatever you think you know as the Product Manager has to become something that you know with certainty.

Because it’s a Startup and you’re likely one of the first hires, you can go in almost any direction. This is both a blessing and a curse. Katherine advises Product Managers in this situation to avoid mistakes by assessing the risk, issues, decisions and opportunities available to you as you prioritize your tasks.

Biggest Challenge of being a Startup Product Manager

Being a Startup Product Manager means building the world that you’re going to live in and dealing with the repercussions of any decisions made as a team, in a way that’s different from what you might have understood coming from a larger company.

While it is exciting to be able to pick what to or what not to produce, it’s more important to carry the team along on the projects and keep documentation accessible even to those outside of the Product team.

Naturally, the top two biggest challenges of being a Product Manager at a Startup are:

  1. Building the product; and
  2. Product strategy

Where do we go? What are we doing? Simply recall the Risk, Issues, Decisions and Opportunities template mentioned earlier and use that to decide whether a project is worth embarking on. You will definitely fail a couple of times but ultimately, what’s important is to embrace the learning as part of the building process.

What to remember as you pursue a career in Product Management

Closing a role in product is a game of winning trust. The impact of poor decision making is great and the company has to pay the price for poor hires. That’s why landing your first job is a tactful game of making them trust you enough to entrust you with the product.

To mitigate their risk and figure out how trustworthy they should be, companies often use the method of asking “have you done this before?” which leads to the Catch22 situation that Co.Lab seeks to address.

That’s why it’s very important to have some experience to show to companies/recruiters/hiring managers. It’s the simple principle we learn even in elementary math – it’s not only about the answer, but your working. Always, always show your working.

To gain some experience working in a cross-functional team to build a functioning product, register for the Co.Lab Product Management bootcamp here!

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