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Business Advice: Speaking Out From the Product Team to Solve Company Problems

Posted by Janna Bastow
November 19, 2020

In a recent roadmap clinic, I spoke to a product person in dire straits. He was a mid-level PM, and was sensing that things weren’t right at the company, but wasn’t sure how to broach the subject.

What he described to me sounded like the business was walking that fine line between being a product company yet playing the agency card; as in, wanting to be product-led but also make money by taking on and building a bunch of feature requests in the hope that it still fits with the long term product vision. There are a couple of big problems with this plan which I’ve seen arise for businesses all over the world. You often risk being a feature factory, with this rush for money coming in for features you don’t yet offer. You also risk losing sight of your product vision and neglecting long term revenue to a company that’s quietly been solving the same problem as you without going down the rabbit holes you fell into when chasing quick revenue boosts. In this particular instance, the delivery-focused work also meant there was less time for discovery, and pre-existing relationships with VCs meant that they were expected to be scaling like a product company, not just making ends meet month-to-month.

This is a dangerous situation for companies, and often a slippery slope. After all, it’s easy and tempting to follow the scent of client invoices, even though they lead you away from solving the bigger, juicier problems that will launch your product considerably further. Oftentimes, companies, and the people running them, don’t even realize how dangerous this route is, until it’s too late. I know, as I’ve worked for one before.  

It’s always hard to tell how self-aware a company is from a conversation with just one person in the team, but it was clear that these conversations about the problems in the business model weren’t being discussed openly. Our PM here was just expected to shut up and deliver on the promises being made to clients, rather than being brought in on the bigger picture as to how the company planned on getting itself out of this pickle. 

He was facing a real “emperor has no clothes” moment.

My advice was to hold it up to the business, and make sure the execs within the organization saw and understood the full picture. The best time to have the tough conversation is now, when you sense something is wrong. Worst case scenario, you get laughed out or sneered out of the room, and you realize it’s actually a toxic company with deep seated problems… but at least you know early on, and can start thinking about how you get yourself out.

A more realistic case is that you end up raising an alarm, and can start helping to solve the company problems at hand. By bringing it to the forefront, you might actually be the catalyst for change that the business needs. This could work wonders for you personally, if you get to offer advice and play a hand in tackling real business challenges. Imagine what your LinkedIn profile will be able to tout in a few years time, if you helped spot problems and take preventative measures.

Best case is that the business is actually fine. Perhaps there isn’t a problem and your execs are able to enlighten you on why they see the business plan as perfectly viable, and how you and your product will play a role in that. Speaking up will give you a chance to put your name forward to help in new ways outside the product team, and to deeper understand how the business operates and makes money, and you’ll be respected for your ability to ask the tough questions.

Being a product manager is tough. You’ve got to understand your customers and your market. You’ve got to understand the tech and what’s feasible. And you’ve got to understand the business and how it profits. This last bit is hugely important but often the weak link. Sometimes product people end up working for companies that are only viable because they’re heavily funded, not because they’ve got core metrics or an actual business model figured out. Sometimes product people end up working for companies that essentially operate as agencies or solution houses, never investing enough in discovery or the product side to realistically get the growth they envision. It’s only by asking the tough questions and getting a word in with the exec team that many product people ever realize just what kind of company they work for. 

If something doesn’t add up, if the business model doesn’t make sense to you and it’s leading to questionable product decisions and tensions, speak up. You’ve got little to lose and everything to gain, as a product person, and for your whole team. 

Looking for a little dose of product-shaped business advice, too? My DMs are open, so let’s chat

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