What Makes Great Product Managers at Expansion Stage Companies?

Choosing the right product management leader might mean success or failure for your startup.


In our portfolio of expansion stage software companies, the product management process is a critical function because it affects how successfully a company can evolve in its rapid trajectory from a startup to an established player in the market.
Throughout this evolution, the company needs to constantly adapt its whole product experience to respond to different customer needs and changing market segments. The ability of the product management organization to guide and execute this process both strategically and operationally plays a large role in the company’s success or failure in the market.

For example, many startups fall into a classic trap after they have saturated the early adopter market with their cool new products. The company has benefited from its understanding of these early adopters, but in order to break into the mainstream segments, the “cool” new product has to be reinvented, “re-purposed”, or repackaged in a very different way from how it was done before.

This responsibility falls mostly on the product managers or product marketers, who will have to perform additional market research and numerous product tests to guide the product’s evolution.

To be sure, in order to build a great product management function, one needs great product managers. In some cases, the product managers are needed to fill the gap in an organization. In others, the product managers are hired when it becomes clear that the chief technical leader (VP of Engineering or CTO) can no longer manage both Product Management and Product Development.

So who would make a great product manager? What essential skills or personal traits would a great product manager possess? Is there a special requirement for product managers in companies with agile product development? I did some online research to see what others have written on these topics and found a number of great articles.

Here are five of them:

  • How to be a great product manager – An early OnProductmanagement.net classic by Saeed Khan. The pointers here are just as relevant as they were 4 years ago
  • Assessing one’s product management skill: Gopal Shenoy provides an excellent self-assessment for product managers, but it can be very useful for expansion stage companies that are assessing product managers they’re considering hiring, too.
  • Judgment – The #1 skill that a Product Manager Needs: I won’t spoil the skill that Dr. Jim Anderson believes all great product managers must have, but his article is a great read.
  • Eleven skills for product managers to win over any situation: Some of the skills that Jaideep Khanduja lists include good business knowledge, technical know-how, leadership, communication, and disaster management, among a handful of others.
  • Seven traits of a successful product manager: Michael Shrivathsan highlights the most important professional characteristics of excellent product managers.

Those links are great resources, forming a really comprehensive set of skills and traits that will help a product manager succeed. However, if we were to look at the product management job as a long term career, then the skills and technical understanding become less important. Rather, I believe that there are some personal characteristics that help an aspiring product manager succeed and continue to succeed for a long time, even as technology and technical requirements of the job change:

Flexibility to adapt to rapidly changing situations and inputs: As we have noted, product management is so important because it drives the company’s evolution. Product managers have to espouse constant improvement with remarkable flexibility. They also need to be ready to accept new circumstances and embrace them, turning adversities into opportunities.

Passion to build something great: Because, after all, “product” is in their title. Without the passion to create something new that is valuable, product managers will not find satisfaction in their work and will not be successful.

People skills to facilitate, negotiate and persuade stakeholders: Product managers sit in the unique nexus of sales, marketing, development and corporate strategy. They have to be effective at building consensus, bringing divergent ideas together, and persuasive enough to convince disparate groups of stakeholders to agree to their product vision.

While technical skills and methodologies can be learned over time, these are three characteristics that are non-technical and non-domain specific and yet, I think are critical to the long term success of a product manager.

Do you agree? What do you think makes for a great product manager and why is their role so important within an expansion stage technology company?

Tien Anh Nguyen
Tien Anh Nguyen
VP of Finance

Tien-Anh joined UserTesting as the VP of Finance after extensive financial and strategic experience at OpenView Venture Partners, where he was an investor and advisor to a global portfolio of fast-growing enterprise SaaS companies. At UserTesting, he leads the finance, business intelligence and legal teams to provide the operations and resources critical to our mission.
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