Teaching your startup how to work with (not against!) the Product Team

Training a startup to work with (and not against) the product team doesn’t have to be difficult, but it does take time and patience. Here are strategies to develop strong product processes from the beginning in your organization:

1. Communicate early and often

Your team is new, and team members may not fully understand what your team does vs others. As a new function, it is your responsibility to communicate the goals of your department to both leadership and cross-functional teams. The PM is the representative of the product team, so it is helpful for you to meet with other cross-functional team leaders to learn more about their function, what their goals are, and how the product team can help support the wider company goals.

Pledge.to uses OKRs (objectives and key results) to track our quarterly and yearly goals, but even with the visibility of OKRs, it is helpful to meet with cross-functional leaders to really understand their goals and plans for the quarter.

Clearly communicating your own team’s goals, and the intentionality behind these objectives helps align everyone in how the newly formed product function goals will support the company’s wider goals.

2. Lay the groundwork before any major change

Nemawashi (根回し) in Japanese is the “informal process of quietly laying the foundation for some proposed change or project, by talking to the people concerned, gathering support and feedback, and so forth.” In short, say you’re about to present the roadmap to a key group of five internal stakeholders. If you walk into that meeting without anyone having seen it, you’re creating an extremely vulnerable space for you. People want to be involved in roadmap decisions (or any large product decision) so if you present a new change, the easiest way for someone to get involved at this point in the game is to provide critiques and criticism, which frankly, you don’t want.

Instead, meet with or send a message to each stakeholder before the meeting to show a version or part of the plan. Let them know how much you value their ideas and feedback on X area, and see if they have a specific way to improve one element of the plan. Once they provide feedback, incorporate it into the plan. This way, once you meet with the large group, everyone has seen a version of the overall plan, and everyone has already contributed. Now, this is “our” plan, and folks are quickly motivated to agree upon it for execution.

At Pledge.to, we have an extremely collaborative team. It’s wonderful to hear everyone’s opinions and ideas because folks have such diverse backgrounds. Meeting with stakeholders in a smaller setting also helps pull this diverse knowledge out through targeted questions and improves the roadmap overall.

3. Set clear expectations and deadlines

You’re a new or growing department, so don’t assume someone else understands what your job is! Not understanding clear goals and responsibilities can lead to misalignment and frustrations around who is supposed to do what. In addition to clearly communicating what you do, also clearly communicate by when you’ll do it. Your team is responsible for new roadmaps, features, and the direction of your products. If the marketing team is caught by surprise with a launch, that’s your responsibility. Everyone’s ability to do their job well is reliant on the product team, don’t make it harder for them by not communicating well.

At Pledge.to we have a shared Google Calendar and continual check-ins to communicate launch dates and forecasts across departments. The product manager is a critical organizational center point responsible for ensuring clear deadlines across departments, so try out various strategies that resonate with your team to create clear communications.

4. Be willing to learn

Starting product functions within a company is hard. It’s challenging to train people and communicate with others how your team works, what they can expect, and the value you bring to the organization. Speaking with Product Managers at more established companies is an imperative way to see where your organization’s product team can grow, so you can lay the groundwork now for bigger things. Use your network to find great product mentors!

I asked our CEO to introduce me to folks in his network that he admired as product leaders. This communicates a willingness to learn and ensures you’re getting advice from exceptional product managers doing work relevant to your own.

There are also numerous product books, blogs, YouTubers, and leaders you can follow to help inform your practice. Try on different Product methodologies until you find the one (or few) that works best for you & your wider company. It’ll take some time, just treat it like iterating on a product launch :)

5. Just roll with it

Sometimes you have to be willing to scrap half of your roadmap halfway through the quarter for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Sometimes you have to build a specific thing for one specific customer even though your gut tells you not to. That’s OK. Ultimately the product role is slightly nebulous for a reason; it allows for flexibility and change. It’s in your benefit to find the balance between structured processes, and the ability to jump into action and enact quick change.

Working in a newly formed product team is exciting and challenging; things won’t go perfectly the first (or second, or third) time, but that’s the same as a product launch. Learn from it, iterate based on user feedback (in this case, teammates), and continue to grow.

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Anna is the product manager at Pledge.to and is responsible for leading the development of social impact products that delight users.

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Anna Nordstrom

Anna Nordstrom

Anna is the product manager at Pledge.to and is responsible for leading the development of social impact products that delight users.

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