This is a recap of our discussion with Nikhyl Singhal, VP of Product at Facebook, former CPO at Credit Karma, and former Director of Product Management at Google.
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Product management can be an elusive topic, especially as its definition changes as the company grows. Early on, product management is focused on helping the company get to product market fit. Once the company achieves it, product management can change dramatically depending on the type of product or service, the organizational structure, and the company’s priorities. We brought Nikhyl Singhal to demystify the product management process and share insights on when, how and why to add product management into your company.
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In the “Drunken Walk” Phase, Product Managers Should Really Be Project Managers
While employees at early stage companies may have Product Manager as their title, they should really be owning project management and execution.
Product management, or the goal of helping that company get to product market fit, should be owned by the founders.
It’s partially an incentive problem. Founders, as Singhal notes, are usually the executives with a larger share of ownership.
“They’re the ones that the investors have really placed money in and the extended team in some ways just aren’t at the same level in scale as the founders,” Singhal says.
However, execution and distribution are team responsibilities–and Singhal considers them much more of a utility than a strategic function. Understanding the allocation of responsibilities in founders versus product managers in early stage companies can be crucial to success.
“I actually embrace this and I [would] suggest, “Look, there’s no shame in saying that we need to bring in product managers to really own a lot of the execution.”
For Founders Working on Product Market Fit, Maintain Healthy Naivete
For early stage founders, Singhal says not to discount naivete. He recounts from his own experience that while others had insider perspectives or felt jaded, his own beliefs helped propel him through company building, ultimately helping him found three companies in online commerce, SAAS, and voice services.
“I think that the lesson, if I were to pick one, is that healthy naivete is a critical element to finding product fit and actually fortitude around some of those ideas that are, ‘Hey, the world should work this way,’” Singhal reflects. “‘I don’t quite understand the industry, but I want to focus on that user, that business problem, and go forward on it.’”
If You’re Not a Product Person, Find a Co-Founder Who Can Own Product Market Fit
“The speed to be able to go through product fit is so essential for being able to efficiently get to the destination in the final course of action for the company,” Singhal says.
Thus, while it’s possible for founders to take other roles early on, purely outsourcing product fit to the rest of the team is still not a wise decision.
“If you’re not the person who’s owning product fit and you agree that product fit is sort of job number one, what I would say is—find a co-founder who can be essentially the owner of product fit. The reason why I use the term co-founder is for the economics to work.”
Introduce Product Management When Founders Shift Priorities
One issue founders often face with product management is determining when to introduce it. Introducing it too early may lead to conflicts internally, while introducing it too late means the company may have missed out on the prime time for strengthening execution.
Again, product management is dependent on the founders’ backgrounds. For founders who have backgrounds in product, as long as there is clarity and predictability around what will happen, the company may proceed without product managers. The most common case for introducing product management, however, is when founder priorities need to shift from product fit to scaling the organization.
“This could be establishing new functions,” Singhal notes, “Or fundraising or thinking through acquisition. Marketing is also an important area, or thinking through company culture if the company starts to scale. At this point, if you fail to bring in product management, you’ll see dramatic reductions in efficiency.”
Look for Product Managers Who Can Scale with the Organization
For early product manager hires, companies should consider both the growth curve of the company and the growth point of the individual. Especially for companies that may be in hypergrowth, it’s important to have a mindset that “what’s gotten us here isn’t what gets us there.” This means the product management team must be adaptable.
Being aware of how product management interacts with other functions is also crucial.
“Product tends to essentially sit between the power functions of the organization as it deals with scale and growth,” Singhal says. It could be between marketing analytics and product engineering, or sales and product, depending on what the company’s business model is.
Lastly, founders need to examine their own career trajectories in transitioning product power to teammates. It can be a tough emotional decision, Singhal acknowledges, but this question should be asked early on.
“I think that it’s almost a psychological question around: what is the person’s career ambition as a founder? Do they see themselves as moving into a traditional executive role? Shall I call it CEO or head of sales or head of product? If the goal of the person is to expand beyond product, then I think that the question really deserves quite a bit of weight,” Singhal says.