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The Big Company Survival Kit for Startup PM’s

There is so much territory to cover on this topic that this is probably the beginning of another series.  This post focuses on differences and expectation setting between small and big companies, and lessons learned making the leap between the two.

I’ve always considered myself a startup kind of guy, and for the past two years I ran Product Management at a small company called NetStreams.  However, two months ago an opportunity came up that I had to consider, and ultimately took, to help Dell build out their SaaS business.  Over these two months I’ve formed some new opinions about how Product Management is different at a small company vs. a large company.  Now that I’ve bounced between small and large (NetSolve to Cisco to NetStreams to Dell), the contrasts are stark and important – especially if you are considering changing jobs.


Scope is very different between small and large companies – but not how you might think.  My assumption was that coming into a large company, that roles would be very well defined and delineated, and that the scope of your role would be set.  The reality is far from that – I’ve found that there are plenty of opportunity to define what Product Management means.  This may differ depending on the part of the business you are in (legacy/sustaining vs. new/conquest).

In the startup world, very few people know what Product Management is or does.  So there is a lot more education that you need to take on.  Explaining to the Development team for the Nth time about what Product Management does can wear you down.  Butting heads with Executives who believe that their experiences trump the data you’re bringing back from the Market can wear you down.  The excitement from seeing the decisions you make and the products you bring to Market gives you a boost.  The energy/excitement level is much more boom/bust in a startup.  Big companies want a steady hand on the wheel.

Business Opportunity

Who do we want to be (when we grow up)?  In a small company you are constantly asking and answering this question.  Often times, the answer changes and evolves over time.  In a good Market you’re faced with the question of “It’s not what do we need to do to succeed, it’s which of these excellent opportunities are the best?”

In the large company, you are already grown up.  Now your job is to sustain, and not screw up the business.  Even minor risks look much bigger.  Do we want to push the envelope on a product?  Maybe not if it means we’ll end up on the front page of the NY Times for something bad.  “The unknown” takes a much bigger place in planning and you devote a lot of effort to reducing the unknown variables.  The good news is that you have a big team and lots of people to help.  The bad news is that decision making can be infuriatingly slow and involve dozens of people with competing priorities.


When you’re at a startup, you’re all in the same “rowboat in the ocean.”  Everyone must contribute for survival, and it is pretty easy to see who is dead weight.  This fosters tight teams and passionate arguments over everything, but there is always a family feel (or at least there was for me), meaning that everyone is doing what they genuinely believe is best to make the company succeed.  There’s just no room for ulterior motives.

Lots of people talk about the politics inside big companies, and some of that is true.  However, at least in my experiences it isn’t as bad as most people portray.  So much of this has to do with how you carry yourself: are you “above the fray,” and not interesting in having political conversations?  If yes, you can avoid much of the mess.  If you enjoy that kind of thing (why?), those conversations and people will seek you out.

Note that not proactively involving yourself in politics does not mean being politically unaware.  You always need to know your manager’s motivation and your manager’s manager’s motivation, and what drives the team around you, so you can pull those levers at the right time.

Context is very important in a larger company.  For example, big company have lots of semi-overlapping products and projects that are competing for scarce resources.  Is the person you’re talking to someone who owns a competing initiative?  That may not be a bad thing, maybe you can find common ground between your projects and collaborate on requirements – but always keep your market justification for your product at the ready so you can pull it up when called upon.

Someone recently described large companies to me as “tribal.”  If you’re in a company of 50,000 people, all searching for justification for their own jobs and their own products, thought patterns can change to “What’s best for me, What’s best for my group, What’s best for the company.”  In that order; it’s survival.


Small companies meet face to face and in the hallways.  Decisions are made informally and sometimes with little deliberation.  If you’re not careful that can cause lots of flapping in the wind downstream, as individual contributors catch up with the “strategy of the week.”  That problem is compounded because many executives in startups are in their first executive position and were great individual contributors or team leads but possibly poor department heads.  Communication filters down through the organization as fast as Word of Mouth can take it.

Another aspect of startups is that most communication is verbal – there aren’t memos, Project Managers doing daily status updates, etc.  If you miss a meeting, you need to seek out someone from that meeting and get a face to face update.

In the large company world, PowerPoint rules.  I recently had to give a presentation to an Executive and I was shocked at the amount of time that my manager and I spent wordsmithing.  The reason is that at a larger company, there are so many people vyying for your time that you get overbooked for meetings, and can’t make all of them.  So you ask people to send you the deck, and PowerPoint becomes a defacto memo.  If you’re used to all of your slides coming with your voiceover, forget it.  Your slides must stand on their own, and deliver your message clearly, concisely, and quickly.  The good news is that it’s good practice to hone your message down to the key points, a skill I obviously need help with as evidenced by the length of my posts.

Another big difference in the big company is that you’re on a campus.  There are multiple buildings and you’re working with people in different areas, cities, timezones and countries.  Meeting face to face just isn’t practical every time.  The result is conference calls.  Lots and lots of conference calls.  It’s a culture shock at first and you need to amp up your active listening skills to make them work.

Execution and Overlap

Small companies don’t have overlap because they can’t afford to.  On the other hand, execution lags because you don’t have the resources to properly develop, QA, document, market, or sell.  That problem is compounded because most startups (not all) don’t wish to set a target market, believing that they really can be all things to all people and are deathly afraid of turning down any business.

Big companies are execution oriented.  They have formal measurement processes and you are judged every six months or every year on your performance.  Measurement is a good thing, but it also fosters a culture of justification – you need to show why you exist and what you’re doing to advance the business.

Normally it is a good thing to have lots of execution minded people running around picking up dropped balls.  The problem is that in a company with 50K employees, sometimes the right hand doesn’t know that the left hand exists, let alone what it is doing.  There have been multiple times at both Cisco and Dell that I’ve been in meetings doing introductions and have given the standard “this is who I am this is what I’m doing” and had people approach me after the meeting saying “wait a minute…I’m working on the exact same thing!  What’s your name again?”  Just finding the right people can be half the battle.


Big companies have lots of resources, but you have to fight to get access to them.  Big companies spend a lot of money on research, customer interviews, focus groups, product testing, etc.  Unlike a small company, there aren’t a lot of long shot bets in a large company.  You need to be able to illustrate ROI and time to payoff, or you’re dead in the water.  If you can, you’ll get access to what you need to make your product successful, and if it’s not…it’s on you.

You also have leverage resources when you’re at a larger company.  You can negotiate better deals, you have multiple companies that want to tap into your sales force and installed base, and you can use these to put together partner solutions that may be superior to other offerings in the Market.


My wife and I recently had a baby girl.  I started at Dell on a Monday, and Addison (at right) came on Wednesday.  One lesson learned is not to start a new job and have a baby in the same week.  However, it enabled us to take advantage of the better benefits that a big company brings to the table.  To cover the family at the startup would be have been just short of $1000/month.  Now I pay less than a fifth of that.  For better coverage.  And 401k matching.

At the startup you get lots and lots of equity.  Will it ever be worth anything?  Part of that has to do with you and the work you put in, there is also luck and timing involved.  I’d advise anyone going to a startup to understand the time frame to a liquidity event very clearly before making the leap.  Are you willing to accept that standard of living for five+ years?  What if your family situation changes?  Something to consider…

Making it Work

Can someone with a small company, entreprenural heart be happy at a big company?  Ask me again in a year.

Changing Jobs in Product Management: Self Evaluation and Farming (Part I of III)

FarmingFirst, I’d like to thank those of you who keep up with Product Beautiful. Many of you I’ve had a chance to meet through networking, ProductCamp, at tradeshows, or we just ran into one another. Something I try to do with Product Beautiful is give Product Managers some helpful strategic thoughts and tactical tips for situations that you face in your job. This series of posts is about the process of changing jobs in Product Management and Product Marketing.

I am currently in the job change process, leaving NetStreams and moving to much larger company in a different industry. Going through the process has made me reflect and think about what people mean when they say “He left the right way.” To be successful in business and in life you need to build more bridges than you burn, so it is important to know the unspoken rules about entering and leaving jobs, because while people may say “it’s just business;” it is personal, relationships matter, and telling your boss that you’re leaving can be a sensitive conversation.

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Using New Media for Product Marketing

Last week, I had the opportunity to participate in a Marketing roundtable hosted by Austin Ventures. Marketing leaders from several AV portfolio companies came together to talk about prescient topics. The topic was “What’s Working in New Media” (paraphrased). It was almost like a mini-ProductCamp, because everyone brought a single slide to talk about their online strategies and what was or was not working well.

Sam Decker, CMO of Bazaarvoice gave an interesting talk about how they are using their blog Bazaarblog to as both a new form of communications, and relationship marketing. It was refreshing to see a company actually have a blog strategy more defined than “let’s give the CEO a TypePad account.” Bazaarvoice targets specific bloggers in their space and treats them like royalty, and does smart things like proactively linking to them and farming their sites for content to create multi-blog conversations. They get it.

Online, everyone looks equal. I can go out and buy a URL and put up a WordPress blog, and in less than an hour have a turnkey site that looks just as good if not better than yours. At first glance, how is a potential customer ever going to know a credible from a non-credible source? You can’t control the blogs (so don’t try). As a Product Marketer, you can increase positive coverage through good relationships and demonstrating that you’re responsive to complaints over time. See The New Rules of Marketing and PR for a good book about this general topic.

One of the initiatives I’ve spearheaded at NetStreams is building a community site for our dealers, who are notoriously fickle. Sometimes they complain publicly on our forums and get other dealers riled up, which then spreads to our sales team, the VP of Sales, and the CEO. When we started the forums, I had all of the above people come to me the first time we had a negative thread demanding that we “take down that negative feedback.” That’s one of the worst actions you can take!

Marcomm looks at negative feedback from customers as they would a poor review in a magazine. It’s meant to be depositioned, explained away, and spun. Look at it from the customer’s perspective: they are telling you that you aren’t solving their problem, and worse, you’re not listening to them. Marcomm and PR speak…but don’t listen (unless they’re paying an analyst and then they have to pretend to listen). I love negative feedback, because those are the best opportunities to both get great product feedback and to demonstrate your responsiveness as a company.

When a negative thread or blog post shows up, acknowledge it. Reply to the post stating that:

  • They’re right; this is a problem, and we recognize that
  • We’re sorry that they had this problem and that we caused it (even if you didn’t cause it)
  • That we’re going to do everything we can to make it right

Doing just those 3 things will turn around 99% of problem customers. In my case, just the basic acknowledgment of their problem was like finding as oasis in the desert to these customers, because we had done a poor job of responding to issues in the past.

Is your company doing anything new and interesting with blogs or other new media to influence your product plans or change your marketing strategies? Reply in comments.

Announcing ProductCamp Austin!

ProductCamp AustinI’m happy to announce that we are going to be running Austin’s first ProductCamp. Much like BarCamp, ProductCamp is a collaborative, user run event, except where BarCamp is often focused around topics interesting to Developers, ProductCamp will be focused Product Management and Marketing topics.

ProductCamp Austin will happen on Saturday June 14th. Right now we are lining up sponsors and venues, and are focused on planning and execution. We need your help. No ProductCamp or BarCamp can be planned by one person. Thankfully I already have several people who have raised their hands as willing to step in and help shoulder the load, like John Milburn, Roger Cauvin and Rob Grady. If you’re interested in being on the planning team, please sign up for the Google Group. Developing…

Updated: ProductCamp is proud to be sponsored by: Austin Ventures, Pragmatic Marketing, NetStreams, St. Edwards University Professional Education Center, and the Association of International Product Marketing and Management.