Great startups challenge industry norms

After news that Airbnb, Figma, and a few other high-profile tech companies have abolished the product manager role within their organisations, the startup world is awash with stories and takes on whether product managers are still necessary. This topic is an excellent opportunity to explore why startups must challenge industry dogma and take risky bets, even regarding “solved problems” like organisational design.

Every product development team needs to find valuable problems to solve, discover suitable solutions to those problems, and build and deliver these solutions. Whether a small group of developers do this without help depends on the nature of their industry/problem space and the experience/competence of the team.

Suppose you want to build a SaaS solution to solve a problem for software developers. It will be easy for you to recruit developers who understand the problem, can find a solution, and can implement it.

Similarly, some products (like Figma) target product designers. It’s a no-brainer that product designers should lead these teams — the ultimate subject-matter experts for their market.

The same could be true for a startup that targets the general public. Airbnb solves an almost universal problem: most people like (or occasionally need) to travel, and anyone who travels needs accommodation. So, it’s pretty easy for Airbnb to find developers who understand the point-of-view of their customers and can therefore build solutions without help from product managers.

Most B2B SaaS companies, on the other hand, solve niche problems. It’s challenging to recruit software engineers who understand the needs of radiologists, urban planners, or machinists. To target these users, teams need to understand their needs. One of many ways to do this is to recruit a product manager with industry experience or at least one with a great understanding of the principles and frameworks that a team can employ to understand their customers more intimately.

Every company exists somewhere on this spectrum. Some don’t require product managers because it’s easy for a large workforce of engineers to own product strategy. Some teams can learn about their users’ needs but require some guidance. Others operate in complex or niche enough industries that may need a subject matter expert or facilitator on the team.

Leaders hire people to solve business problems. So, what business problems do startups typically hire product managers to solve?

Some possible answers:

Notably, you can solve these problems without hiring a product manager. That’s not to say that hiring a product manager is a bad idea, only that it’s one of many pathways.

If you want your teams to make better decisions, you could hire developers with more relevant experience or a proven ability to work directly with customers to understand their needs and find solutions. You could increase the amount of exposure your team gets to customers. You could weaponise your customer success team to convert anecdotal product feedback into actionable data. Or, you could hire a product manager1.

If you want to improve the success of product launches, you could incentivise your team to deliver measurable outcomes rather than churn through tickets. You could encourage direct collaboration between engineers and product marketing. You could rethink your strategy to ensure your expectations are realistic. Or, you could hire a product manager.

There are many ways to build a great product. But, to win big, you need some contrarian tactics. You can’t make a differentiated business if you don’t do things differently. As a startup leader, you have two choices when you see the entire industry settle on a standardised way.

First, you can adopt the standard. Do what everyone else does. This approach is excellent because it allows you to solve the problem and move on. You don’t need to waste time reinventing the wheel. You can focus on the decisions that matter most.

Your second option is to buck the trend. Do things differently. Find a better way or at least one that works better for you. In the world of business and the business of technology, there are no timeless truths. Every rule expires as new technologies and ideas emerge. Moore’s law is over. Product management, as we know it today, may have peaked. But, as far as I can tell, there will always be problems and solutions to innovate around. Your job is to find the best way for your chosen problems. Your job is to find your edge. It could be hiding anywhere.


  1. Many organisations delegate strategy to product managers. This can deprive engineers and designers of the opportunity to fully engage in the strategic process and exercise their decision-making muscles. Why does this matter? If an individual product manager can easily call the shots, it doesn’t matter. Many companies are driven by a handful of astute, effective, and wise product managers. Many engineers and designers are happy to be led by product and focus on expert execution rather than strategy and tactics. But, if you need teams to make complex decisions that require deep and diverse expertise, you need the people with this expertise to be competent strategists. A product manager can get in the way of this. ↩︎

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