🚢 PM experiences in large vs small companies, Part 1: Internal dynamics

Neither is better. Both are important!

Should I work at a large company, or a small company?

At some point in your PM career, you’ll be fortunate enough to choose between working in a larger company versus a smaller one. So folks commonly ask, which one should I pick? There’s no universal answer, or even a particular decision-tree algorithm. You should consider multiple factors, and take time to weigh the different options. In particular, gaining a diversity of experience is a good thing as you grow in your PM career. So in this and the next newsletter issue, I describe the different experiences you typically would gain in a large company versus a small one. In this issue, I focus on company-internal dynamics, and in the next, I talk about company-external (especially actual product development) pieces. And a final caveat: Companies are not binary. A small startup does not one day suddenly become a large company, even with events like an IPO. It’s a gradual process. So for the sake of brevity and clarity, I use many simplifying extremes in these two issues. But do know that in the real world, you’ll likely see many shades of grey.

Experienced product leaders arrive later

PMs, product roles, and product expertise more generally, typically appear later in the lifecycle of a company. In particular, more senior roles arrive later. For example, a VP of Product may be hired to manage an existing team of 5 PMs, and they would then hire product leads or product directors. So chances are, you’re more likely to encounter more experienced product leaders in a larger company. And so there’s more opportunity for theoretical learning and even mentorship if you’re in a larger company that’s had a chance to grow out its product team. You can read books, attend conferences, and even be mentored by folks outside of your company. But there’s simply no replacement for having an experienced product leader guide you and work with you together, day-to-day, and week-to-week on hard product problems.

Well-defined vs free-flowing non-product roles

In a larger company, there are more well-defined roles and departments. You get a chance to interact and learn from disciplines very different from PM. It could be something as far away as legal, acquisitions, or even something as esoteric as events planning. In a smaller company, these dedicated roles don’t exist. And even if their functions are being performed, they are likely being done by folks that have very little experience in those particular areas.

PMs work most closely with engineers and designers on a daily basis. Even in a smaller company, there may be experienced folks in these two disciplines, and there’s a lot you can learn from them. But as with other departments, larger companies will have folks in these departments that have both deep domain expertise, as well as people management experience. For example, if you get to watch an engineering director establish and execute the technical architecture vision across multiple teams, and see how that interfaces with customer needs, that is invaluable experience in your career. By contrast, in a smaller company, you may find yourself picking up the slack of design tasks. Often designers appear shortly after the first PMs do (with engineers being hired first in a typical startup that innovates on, our with software). So you might forced to learn on the fly, creating wireframes and visual mockups for example.

Rigid process vs focusing on outcomes

In a larger company, there’s unsurprisingly more rigid structure and process. Some may call this red tape, emphasizing the negative connotation. And in many circumstances the criticism is warranted, especially with older companies with ossifying business models. But as a PM, there’s nevertheless a lot to learn in larger companies. Heavyweight processes ultimately serve to mitigate uncertainty, and there’s often lots to lose in a big company. So if you are in such a situation, seek to learn what those risks are, and what the processes are designed to protect. For example, it could be legal risk, such as government regulation. So that’s why you may have a lot of lawyers reviewing even small project initiatives or a security team reviewing data compliance for vendors. Or maybe the product and customer support teams release new features very slowly, after prolonged periods of testing with beta users. This could be because product changes impact thousands of paying customers. Any so any mistake could be disastrous to the company. Grow to appreciate the rigid structure and process in a large company. (But you don’t necessarily have to accept them intellectually!)

In a smaller company, structure and process are typically minimal. In the extreme case of an early stage startup, you may not even have a company in the next quarter, so spending energy on establishing and maintaining process may not make sense. Often teams are simply focused on achieving specific outcomes through continuous experimentation in the product and business model. If a particular experiment yields good results, a subsequent task is then reproducing that success consistently. That’s when inventing process becomes important. I.e. you want to maximize the chance of generating the same outcome. So develop a process to do so.

Concluding remarks

If you’ve chosen PM as your career, know that it is a generalist discipline fundamentally. You should have a wide range of skills to thrive in different circumstances, working with different people. And the most direct way to develop those skills is through direct experience. Be intentional in your career growth, and consider how you can achieve breadth in your experiences.

In the next issue, I talk about company-external dynamics in large versus small companies.

Mentorship in your inbox: Subscribe to Product Management 101

Product Management 101 covers practical tips and basic skills for aspiring and new product managers.

I’m Victor Wu, Head of Product at Tilt Dev. I’ve been creating digital products for over 15 years, and mentoring folks for much of that time. Subscribe, and reply to email updates with questions you’d ask in a real-life mentoring session. I’ll answer them in future issues.