The job of a Product Manager can be challenging at even the most mature companies. But how do you manage growth at a company experiencing rapid success?
When business is booming, new challenges arise for getting features to market faster, scaling quickly, and differentiating your products from competitors. So how do you navigate growth as a Product Manager?
As part of their webinar series, ProductPlan organized an online panel to tackle this exact question. I was very excited to join the webinar, along with ProductPlan co-founder Jim Semick and my friend and mentor Rich Mironov.
I recently interviewed Rich for my IoT Product Leadership podcast, and we had a great chat about Product Strategy. I was excited to talk with him again—this time about growth.
Thank you to Jim and Rich for such an engaging panel. And special thank you to Andre, Ben, and the rest of the ProductPlan team for organizing and running such a smooth event!
How to Navigate Growth – Key Questions
One of the great things about this webinar is that the questions came directly from the audience. After receiving hundreds of questions in advance, it was a challenge to choose between them—but we tried our best!
I had the opportunity to answer many of my favorite questions during the webinar, but for others we ran out of time. Here’s my take on some of those standout or unanswered questions:
What is growth?
When thinking about how to navigate growth, we need to start by defining what we mean by “growth.” This term is often overused, and it usually creates more confusion due to a lack of clarity.
The first step is to define what type of growth we are referring to. Only then will we be able to start talking about goals, strategy, and metrics.
In the webinar, we discuss different areas of growth. Here are some of the most common ones.
- Market expansion
The key is to have a clear understanding of what type of growth you’ll be focusing on next and how to measure your success so you can work with your team on a product strategy to meet your goals.
Whether you are aiming for a 10% or 1000% increase in revenue, the first step is to define that goal, a metric, and a plan to get there.
Hardware and software have different development timelines. What challenges and approaches have you seen IoT vendors come across when experiencing rapid growth?
Managing software and hardware timelines is a very common problem facing IoT companies. The challenge is that you can only be as fast as the slowest item in your value chain, and that’s usually the hardware.
Not only does hardware take longer to design and build, but it also takes longer to manufacture and deploy in the field. Product teams need to plan, so the hardware development lifecycle doesn’t become the bottleneck of the end-to-end product.
Here are two possible approaches to avoid hardware bottlenecks.
Focus on a robust build-vs-buy strategy:
In the early stages of your product, it might be more important to validate your concept with as many customers as possible, than to have a finalized and perfectly polished piece of hardware.
In this scenario, you could benefit from having a solid build-vs-buy strategy so you can launch and test with as much off-the-shelf as possible. Once you find market-fit and start navigating growth, you can switch your focus to building your proprietary hardware to reduce size or cost.
Incorporate hardware features now that you’ll use in the future:
From the start, plan and build additional capabilities in the hardware that you can leverage in the future. That way, you “take the hit” of the hardware just once. Then, when the business is ready to launch any new functionality, you can do that by updating only the software.
You can see an example of this approach in Tesla’s cars. They understood that building the hardware would take the longest and that once the vehicles were in the field, it would be tough to retrofit them with new functionality. They added additional functionality such as auto-pilot capabilities in all their models, even if those features were not yet enabled because the software was not ready.
Related article: 4 Ways to Enable Customization of Your IoT Product
Once their engineering team had a working version of the software, they were able to push it out to the cars using an over-the-air update feature. And since the vehicles (i.e., the hardware) already had all the sensors and computing power necessary to operate in auto-pilot, they were able to retrofit all their cars purely by upgrading the software.
What is the best way to justify the addition of more Product Managers, as product lines grow within a company?
It’s easy for companies to understand that to build more, you need a bigger engineering team, but sometimes it’s harder for them to understand that to support that growth the PM team needs to grow as well.
The best way to justify more PMs is to articulate it in terms that the Executive Team will understand. That means making the business case that the only way to sustain growth is to invest in a PM team that can tackle the additional “product work” needed to keep up with that growth. Otherwise, the Product team will become the bottleneck!
For example, as your product grows, you’ll need support for internal tools, a bigger sales team, a more significant ecosystem of partners and vendors, etc. Not to mention that growth usually comes with expanding to new verticals and geographies, which requires significant product work to be successful.
As Rich mentioned in the webinar, a Scrum team costs the company around $1MM per year. With that level of investment, it makes sense to arm Scrum teams with Product Management support to ensure the development work is grounded in strategy and customer insights.
What is the biggest challenge in driving growth, especially in a startup environment?
The biggest challenge for a startup navigating growth is maintaining focus. As the company works on finding market-fit, it’s very tempting to chase the next shiny object that promises to bring that next level of growth.
As Jim mentioned in the webinar, companies need to maintain focus and keep all teams aligned on the current strategy. If promising opportunities arise and they don’t align with the strategy, then the Product Manager should raise a flag and advocate for not pursuing that path.
This can be hard to do when influential executives (such as the VP of Sales) are adamant about this new opportunity, but this discipline is necessary for companies to navigate growth.
Additional questions we answer in the webinar
- What are some obstacles that Product Managers face when a company starts to grow rapidly?
- What are some challenges that arise between the Product Manager and the Executive Team when growth begins to pick up?
- How should Product Managers balance current user needs with new users during rapid growth?
- What is the best way to balance investments between growth initiatives and keeping the product running?
- How do you balance feedback when you have a wide array of customers and, thus, opinions about where the product should head?
- What are some strategies or tactics you would recommend to a Product Manager navigating growth?
- Does putting a 6-month, 3-year, 5-year, etc. plan together help with scaling in a SaaS organization?
- As you grow, the incremental benefit of new features will have less impact. How do you adapt your prioritization process?
- How do you decide when to build “what customers want” vs. “what is best, but they don’t know”?