🚢 PM experiences in large vs small companies, Part 2: External dynamics

Be intentional in your career

In last week’s issue, I describe the PM experiences in large versus small companies, and in particular focus on the dynamics within the company itself. This week I talk about what goes on outside the company, especially when talking with customers.

Scaling a product versus creating a new product

As a PM in a large company, chances are you are working on an existing product. The product has an established customer base already. You may be releasing new features and broad functionality over time, but the core of the product is unlikely to change. In some cases the product may even be in maintenance mode, and you are supporting customers with bug fixes. This may sound like unimportant work. But it may be critical to the continued success of a company, especially if the product you are working on forms the main business of the company itself.

In a related scenario at a large company, you may be tasked to scale the product to more users, even multiple orders of magnitude higher than the existing user base. Or you may be tasked to monetize the existing product to kick-start revenue. In these cases, the product has already resonated with a cohort of initial users, and your job as a PM, is to use growth measures to capture value for more users.

At a large company you may be even asked to work on a new product. But that’s a rare occurrence, and the larger a company is, any “new” products are more likely to be adjacent to the existing products. You aren’t working in a brand new market. It just wouldn’t make sense from a business strategy perspective for a company to do so. (This is why companies often invest in other companies or spin off a separate innovation business if they really want to pursue new ideas.)

In all these cases, while working at larger company, you’re largely working within an existing product paradigm, with established methods to ship new features, and in particular, with fixed ways of interacting with customers. The risk of catastrophic failure and major negative impact to the company is much smaller. There’s a lot of inertia at the company and it its products. So it’s unlikely you would make a mistake in the first place. And even if you do, it would unlikely cause major harm, before it is subsequently fixed.

In a smaller company, you are creating a new product. You may be constantly changing the product, removing features that do not work, and adding new ones, often as part of short experiments. You’re trying to mold and shape the product to get it to stick with customers, to reach that so-called product-market fit milestone. It’s easier in the sense that there are less rules to follow. But it’s harder in the sense that success is not guaranteed. So in that way, each decision you make on a daily basis is weightier in the grand scheme of the company so far, and it’s probably short history so far.

Working with customers

In a large company, there’s a standard way to work with customers. As a PM, you might not even have a lot of flexibility interacting with them. You might have meetings mediated by Customer Support or Account teams instead. You could invite them to your office for user research sessions. But generally there might be a lot of overhead just to have some basic customer interaction. In a small company, you can likely speak with customers directly. You can contact them through email or some other means, and likely you wouldn’t need to coordinate with other colleagues at your workplace to do so.

In large company, it’s generally easier to work with customers in the sense of stability. Your product is likely a mature offering. So it’s already delivering tangible value to customers. A customer may be very demanding. But they will be invested in your product. You can count on that. In a small company, your product is in its early stages. You might not be even be charging for the product itself. So your customers tend to be more fickle. They may be excited on one day, and then disappear and ignore your communications for a few weeks on end. You need a compelling product to get the consistent attention of customers. But if you don’t have consistent attention from customers, it’s hard to build a compelling product! So breaking out of that chicken-and-egg problem is more difficult in a smaller company.

In a small company, user research and customer development is often the most important and high-level activity for a PM. By definition, you don’t have a very established product yet. So the way to learn about customers is by directing interacting with them, either by asking them questions or observing them, such as using rough prototypes. You spend a large proportion of you time focused on customers, and rightly so. In a larger company, you of course still interact with customers, but it’s almost always within the context of your established product. You may be testing out new ideas with customers, but you’ll often do it with the core product functionality in mind, since it’s riskier to invent something brand new, as mentioned earlier. So from that perspective, in a small company, a PM has to be much more attuned to human behavior. You are often solving problems from first principles and basic human psychology. You cannot rely on your existing product as a crutch to drive incremental product changes.

Be intentional in your career

Some people prefer the stability of large companies. Others prefer the thrill of small companies. As a PM, you are very fortunate since your skills are very transferrable, across different fields, and across different sized companies. So be intentional as you plan your career. Consider your long-term goals, and how each position (and even each project) within your company, and each opportunity at a different company, will impact your growth. Your PM career is just like a product. Develop an ambitious vision, and chart a roadmap with incremental steps to get there.

📬 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.