Product Bash 2012 – Is there a place for Entrepreneurship in Product Management?

Last night’s excellent Product Bash event featured a panel discussion on the topic of entrepreneurship and product management. The panelists were Mike Cannon-Brookes (Co-founder and CEO, Atlassian), Simon Cariss (Co-founder and SVP Innovation, PageUp People) and Nick Gonios (Founder, SMOOTH & Co), moderated by Nick Coster from Brainmates.

What is an entrepreneur?

The dictionary definitions of the term seem to focus on aspects such as risk and the desire to create economic benefit. However the panel saw things differently. An entrepreneur was defined by them as someone that wants to create something and change the world in some way with that creation, someone that has the blind vision to follow through on that thing you want to create and someone that doesn’t have a ‘nine to five attitude’.

 Mike also made the point that the biggest risk you can take is to risk not learning continually – if you’re in a nine to five job and didn’t learn anything new today then you are taking a big risk.

What is the role of product management in a startup?

A product manager should share a lot of the attributes of an entrepreneur. Product managers seem to be on a spectrum from artists to scientists, either spending their days living in Photoshop or Excel, the ideal is somewhere in the middle.

A difficulty that can arise if a product manager joins later, rather than being there from the beginning, is that as they didn’t build the product they can feel that they need to maintain the status quo and be reluctant to kill products/features.

Entrepreneurs need product managers for the completion of all of the air gaps that they never even see.

What are the fundamental differences between entrepreneurs and product managers?

Being an entrepreneur is a way of life and attitude, product management is a process – they are different dimensions rather than comparing A to B.

Avoiding product scope creep is a big thing entrepreneurs need to learn from the product management approach. 

Product managers don’t think so much about the sales demo. Simon recommended the book ‘Great Demo’ by Peter Cohan, particularly for enterprise software demos (pro tip: demo the best screen first)

If product management was more entrepreneurial, what would the differences be?

The types of features being included in each release should just work like a pie chart or some visual proportional representation eg the % of features that are to secure long term competitive advantage, % bug fixes, and always have a 3% ‘manager’s special’ for the entrepreneur, especially for stuff to demo in sales pitches. 

Most entrepreneurs are good sales people because they have to be, product managers don’t have to be.

An entrepreneur has to build a business, not just a product.

How do you maintain the entrepreneurial approach as the business expands?

In Altassian, they have managed to maintain the entrepreneurial approach by having two founders that are driven to keep building things, are dissatisfied and want to improve things. They also hire people that are smart and have the scrappy attitude, that know how to get shit done. Mike said that it was easier to take a driven CEO with a vision and turn them into an OK manager than to hire in an excellent manager and get them to have that vision and culture.

To maintain an entrepreneurial drive, you need to feel that you have more value to create than value to preserve.

As an investor what combination of entrepreneurial skills and prod mgr skills are you looking for?

Nick Gonios looks for people to game change the market, product guys that respect data, and avoid premature scaling.

What can an entrepreneur learn from product management?

Recognise when to clip scope creep. Entrepreneurs can also learn process and discipline and benefit from experience gained in other markets.

What product or feature failures took a long time to discover?

They are not failures they are learnings.

PageUp People find that delivering quality analytics to our customers is hard and is the area that normally ranks lowest in customer surveys.

The failures in business are normally people-related rather than software eg partnering with the wrong company or the wrong people in the right company.

Product people not knowing when to kill the product.

For every one of our failures, we had a beautiful spreadsheet

– Scott Cook, founder of Intuit

The skills needed change depending on the stage of the business

As a founder, If you aren’t a product person, you won’t get past the early stages. If you’re not a user of your own software/product you are in trouble.

If you are successful as a business, you start to hire other product managers, you have to change your skills more towards the building the business. Year one skills are very similar for a founder and a product manager, however, in year ten they are very different.