Linda Gorchels blogs

Product managers should think like entrepreneurs

During corporate training sessions, I often ask attendees for their workshop expectations. One product manager wanted to learn how to think like a product manager

To think like a product manager is to think like an entrepreneur.

Neither have complete control

Let’s expand on that a bit. While people may argue that entrepreneurs have more control over everything than do product managers, the reality is just the opposite. It is the rare entrepreneur who is wealthy, with easy access to materials, operations, and labor. Entrepreneurs, like product managers, are hands-on tinkers and testers.

Persuasive investment proposals 

Most entrepreneurs are passionate about their product or service. They have a vision but need resources to actualize the vision. They must craft business plans to solicit money from venture capitalists or banks. That’s not unlike challenges product managers face in developing business cases for new products.

The business case is an investment proposal for time and resources from the firm.  Product managers must be able to articulate the future value of the product being proposed. In fact, some firms expect product managers to convince the management team almost as if they were angel investors. 

Go beyond strategy to execution

After receiving guarantees of funding, entrepreneurs source materials or locate contract manufacturers. To accomplish design, development, and commercialization, they must with independent third parties. Similarly, product managers must accomplish their goals through organizational functions over which they have no direct authority. They must use their skills of persuasion and diplomacy to make things happen.  

Entrepreneurs often need to work with independent reps or channels to reach the intended market. To help these groups succeed entrepreneurs must provide not just product knowledge but also market insights and the best approach to reach these markets. That’s akin to the challenge product managers face when training and motivating the sales force. There is a strong need to empathize with the needs of salespeople to advance the sales process.

Customer knowledge is critical

The common link between the entrepreneurial business plan and the product manager’s business case is clarity of customer need. Strong entrepreneurs and strong product managers know the profile, needs, emotions, and purchase drivers of their customers. Their thinking doesn’t end with product features/benefits, but with how these features/benefits align with customer goals better than competing offerings. They have a strong command of marketing and customer-focused competencies.

Common traits

Entrepreneurs share several common traits that influence the way they think. Entrepreneurs embody traits of risk-taking, passion, focus, product/customer knowledge, and tolerance for failure. Strong product managers share these traits (or elements of these traits) which influence their thoughts and decision-making processes.

Product managers sometimes carry on after entrepreneurs

Let’s carry this analogy one step further. Successful entrepreneurs can grow successful companies. As their companies grow, the passion, focus, and connectedness with the product/customer becomes diffused. That’s where product managers come in. Product managers can restore the passion, focus, and connectedness with the product/customer for their areas of responsibility. 

So, the bottom line is: to think like a product manager requires thinking like an entrepreneur.