Dammit, Why Won’t You People Hire Product Managers?

Hypothetical situation for all you Startup CEOs:

Your son has just reached the age when he’s able to read, and it’s time to start thinking about what sort of education he should have. There are lots of options (at least, in most western countries). You could enroll him in your local government school. You could submit an application to a private school or parochial institution. You could hire a private tutor to visit him throughout the week.

But, no. You’re busy. You’re already spending all your time earning loads of cash for his college enrollment, which is just about 10 years from now. There’s no time to lose, and you’re preoccupied with a mortgage, job commitments, travel, lifestyle debts, and of course time with your spouse. And, anyway, your son is really smart. He’d run rings around any government school teacher! So, instead of wasting all that time, effort and money, you decide on your way home from work one night, to simply stop at the local library and get a library card.

Next morning, you chat with your son at the breakfast table.

“Junior, you’re a bright boy, and I really want you to do well in life. You deserve the best, and I know you’ll do well. So, this is for you.”

You hand him the little card with a picture of the library building on it. He looks back at you, puzzled and a little dazed.

“This is your education! Go and get it!” You exclaim.

He stares back at you blankly. Obviously, he’s not quite getting it.

“You’re a precocious boy! You’ll know what to do! Go to the library and start reading! You’ve no time to lose!”

Now, he’s a little anxious. His brow furrows. He hesitates a moment, and then blurts out, “But… who will TEACH me!?”…

Does this scenario seem laughably ridiculous to you? Or perhaps even horrifying?

If it does, then why are you so willing to do it to your own fledgling product portfolio?

Before I go any further, I feel like I should remind readers: I am not a product manager. I’m not even entirely sure what goes into the role. But I’ve worked with – and without – enough of them, to know what kind of an impact they can have on the development process, the maturation of the product line, and indeed, on the overall success of a small (and often struggling) software company.

A very, very good one can be like giving your son unlimited access to an expertly skilled, broadly experienced, and extremely psychologically aware private tutor. The tutor will help your child to channel his energies in the most productive ways, will push him when he most needs it, will coach him to relax when he most needs it, and in the end, will chisel out of him things even you never dreamed possible for your child.

A product line without a product manager, then, is like a child with nothing more than a library card and a mandate: please grow up.

Sure, if your product is excellent at the start, it will attract much attention, like a precocious child in a public library. And at first, this will be very exciting. He will make alot of amazing progress initially, in some very unexpected ways.

But this seduces us into a very toxic illusion: he’s so smart, he doesn’t need a teacher. He can figure things out for himself. But sooner or later he will hit a wall he cannot scale, or run out of bread crumbs to follow, or loose heart in a pursuit, and he will stall. And there will be no one there to point the way forward for him.

Likewise, the product without a product manager may see several seductively significant initial gains. And like that precocious child, we may start thinking the product doesn’t really need guidance because it “guides itself”. As long as we just keep “refining” it, everything will be OK.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

At this point, some of you will exclaim, “Ah, but I know what’s best for MY son! I will home-school him myself! He will be the best, because I am the best!”

But this is also a self-delusion. Setting aside the fact that none of us has all the necessary materials available to us to cover every subject your son will need to know as he grows, the fact is, you’re too close to him to be able to see his potential objectively. You will read into his behaviors, things you wish were true of you. You will project on to him motivations and preferences that are yours, not his.

And this is what makes an excellent product manager an essential necessity in any startup. He is the expert steward that will shepherd your blossoming product portfolio into a thriving adulthood. His job is not to hide the products from you, but to give them the nurturing and the freedom they need to reach their full potential, in spite of you.

Fundamentally, your responsibility is to make your company great. If you take that responsibility seriously, hire an excellent product manager. He will make your product great. And you can go on focusing on fund-raising, media communications, networking, and all the great things that great CEOs do, and stop wasting your time doing everything else poorly.

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