When do I need a product manager?

We often get asked the question “When do I need a product manager?”.  Before answering the question we respond with “What do you expect a product manager to do for you?”.  The confusing thing about the role of [tag]product managers[/tags] is that those that have the title seem to do a broad range of things within their companies, often unrelated to the classic understanding of the role.  Larger companies further break them down by titles such as “Business Product Manager” or “Technical Product Manager”.  It seems like everyone at Microsoft has the product manager title, for example.

A product manager provides the critical role that bridges the gap between product development and the market.  The things you should expect a product manager to do include:

  • Market research - identify target markets, market needs and size
  • Develop market requirements - the deliverable is a Market Requirements Document (MRD for short) that describes the problem and the solution, competition, pricing, positioning,  packaging and methods of distribution (sales)
  • Develop the business case - the reasons for developing the product and the financial rewards
  • Develop the product roadmap - capabilities that will be in each release or version
  • Evangelize - be the biggest champion for the product
  • Facilitate the sales training - in particular the target market background, competitive landscape and the product
  • Understand the lifecycle of the product - every product has a lifecycle and knowing when to push hard and when to call it quits is important

A good product manager has a business-oriented, market focus with an understanding of the underlying technology that is in the product.  The mis-step that many early stage companies make when filling their first product manager position is to take someone from development and move them into the role. 

Developers may not fully understand the role of a product manager and not have the business skills needed to be successful.  As a consequence they will retreat to their comfort zone and be product focused rather than market focused.  When faced with the challenge of why a product isn’t selling, the natural response from a product-focused product manager is that more features are needed.  Don’t get me wrong.  I have been one of those developers that have successfully transitioned from developer to product manager.  I credit being a sales engineer for several years as a key transition phase.  It forced me to learn better public speaking and presentation skills, understand the role (and challenges) of selling, and how to listen to the market.

The role of a product manager is needed from the beginning.  It may not be a full-time position initially, but you still need access to the skills of an experienced product manager.

In smaller companies the product manager will also take on the role of product marketing manager.  We will go into the details of the role of product marketing manager in another article, but for now think about the product marketing manager as the bridge between the product manager and sales.  The product marketing manager will typically be responsible for sales tools, sales training, and other taks that affect revenue.

If you are thinking of promoting someone from within your organization to the role of product manager, I recommend enrolling them in one of the excellent product management courses taught by either:

David Daniels

David Daniels


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