Surely a startup can’t justify having a PM

Alex Protogerellis in Team on 08 Dec.

Surely a startup can’t justify having a PM

On the face of it, investing in a project manager for a small, young startup seems like an unforgivable luxury. Not only is this throwing money at a role that isn’t directly creating value but also seems to go against the philosophy of the startup; flat structures and super motivated crack teams surely don’t need managing, right?

Well, despite this here I am, Covve’s PM, feeling not only valuable but actually indispensable. How come? Part of the story is the choice of words. There’s a fine line between project manager, product owner and all round problem solver but all these titles have a common objective “do whatever is necessary to make sure that all parts work well in unison and their sum is much much greater than the parts”. So perhaps, somewhere in this role, true value is being created.

Lets dig deeper and break down the role. This is a role that:

Gets the big and the small picture

There is always one person who must be looking at the big picture, the 3 year plan and the long term vision; and that’s usually the CEO. Then there are many people who are super focused on the minute details of their respective parts of the puzzle be it the engineers, designers or marketers.

The PM may be the only person who sees both the big and the small picture and invests brain space to think of the mid-term. This is important not only for ensuring alignment of the daily activities with the long term masterplan but also for making sure that mid-term goals are given sufficient focus. Overall it’s about understanding how each decision affects (or doesn’t) the company’s KPIs.

Here’s a recent example. The latest Covve app (v4) includes synchronization of contact notes between Covve and the iPhone. A couple of days post release it became apparent that a fraction of contacts of a handful of users have notes that exceed the maximum allowed size. A low level issue right? Well, understanding how this affects the user experience (TL;DR; new users who’re subject to this issue don’t remain users for long) and knowing the economics of user acquisition (cost per user and conversion funnel success) helped bring this seemingly low level issue to the top of the agenda.

Understands the system

The product very quickly gets very complex. This includes the tech, the business domain, the user experience and the myriads of integrations, dependencies and edge cases between them all. The PM (in this case P standing more for “product” than “project”) needs to understand each of these, in detail, and see how moving one piece in one part of one system will affect everything else. Getting the whole picture allows a team to prevent cross-boundary issues and identify cross-boundary opportunities that would otherwise be lost.

Prioritises and focuses effectively

In any company, let alone startup, there’s always many times more work than there is resource. Hard prioritisation decisions are a daily occurrence both at the micro level but also at the company and product level (the “pivots” that start-ups are famous for are essentially the choice of one priority over the other).

The PM should be best placed to make a lot of these calls, understanding the whole picture and seeing both the short and long term objectives and constraints.

A typical battle of priorities for me will be a balance of features creation, optimization of existing product; maintenance and currency of underlying technologies and investment in R&D for the future. It’s usually not an easy choice…

Demolishes roadblocks and boosts productivity

At the top of the PM’s objectives is making sure every person is able to perform at their peak. This includes a mix of hard and soft things and tends to be different from person to person.

At Covve this includes helping people work at the hours and locations that suit them; investing in personal learning budgets for each person; investing in right tools for each job and above all open and continuous communication.

This last point highlights a key aspect of the role, the PM as a conduit for communication, making sure that everyone is fully up to date with all the information and context they require and that the right discussions are taking place at the right time whether its across horizontals (e.g. the iOS guys and the backend guys) or verticals (e.g. customer success and the front end team).

Fills the gaps

Finally the PM comes to pick up all those things that could fall between the cracks. With everyone focused on the task at hand it’s often easy to overlook matters that are not directly related to the every day.

These matters will either be completely missed (to the detriment of the product, the customer or the company) or will be done as an afterthought, seriously deteriorating their value. To fill these gaps I’ve come to wear a high stack of different hats from legal and HR to A/B optimizer, testing chief, head of support and overall content writer.

All in all

So, all in all, a bit like a swiss army knife the PM employs an array of tools to fill a breadth of roles and gaps, ultimately making the whole team deliver better product faster. So perhaps in the value creation equation, the PM acts as a times (x) and not a plus, multiplying the value of the team.