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05 Jan The case for the entrepreneurial product manager

It’s clear from speaking to many of the product managers who came to Industry last year, that a strong entrepreneurial spirit is shared amongst them. This fact to most won’t be surprising. The role is often sold as being the CEO of a product line in a company. But beyond this superficial perspective, is it actually true that entrepreneurs can be happy as product managers? Or is the industry filled with frustrated employees who will seemingly never get the chance to realize their dreams?

Obviously, without a considerable amount of research these questions will have to remain rhetorical for now. But it could be worthwhile exploring some of the pros and cons for an entrepreneur to choose the life of a product manager instead.

PROS

Salary
The most obvious one. Not having a salary as an entrepreneur sucks a lot. In fact, after a few years toiling away with little or no monthly income it’s easy to forget how valuable you actually are to an existing business. The knowledge you’ve accrued along with the energy and resilience you’ve demonstrated along the way should ultimately command you a sizable paycheck. Money doesn’t buy happiness, but it certainly helps.

Ownership
Many entrepreneurs will point to the desire to truly own their work and their destiny as being their primary motivator. Perhaps it comes from a natural inclination to be in control or, more critically, ego. Fortunately, the role of the product manager relies heavily on owning. Owning the opportunity, process, outcome and all that come with these things. The downsides that other people will see in owning so much is cherished by an entreprenuerial product manager, who will be confident that they can suceed.

Creating Things
An entrepreneur loves creating something from nothing. For most product managers, that’s their primary job function. Pardon the loftiness, but for me, the act of building a product from concept to shipping is akin to a writing a book, composing a song or painting a picture. I haven’t demonstrated myself to be successful as those other things but I feel confident as a product maker. And have felt enormous satisfaction in having that be the focus of my job.

CONS

The Man
Even if a disdain for this guy isn’t warranted it’s hard for an entrepreneur to reconcile themselves with being at his beck and call. Everything that a product manager works on, underlined by the law, is owned by the Man. Sure, you will own the product as it is being built, launched and then scaled. But eventually you’ll wonder what that even means. Most product people are able to come to terms with this in their own way, but for some entrepreneurs it may be too difficult.

The Big Payout (or lack thereof)
This is a tricky one. On the one hand, the big payout that comes when a startup is sold or IPO’d is clearly going to be one of the biggest things motivating an entrepreneur. And in a corporate environment, this simply doesn’t exist for product managers. On the other hand, you are far more likely to make a significant amount of money by taking in a regular and growing salary over a lifetime. Entrepreneurs will ignore this, believing in their hearts that they will beat the odds and win in the end.

Bureaucracy
Levels of approval and all the documentation, emails and waiting that are of a consequence are largely absent from startups. Entrepreneurs rightly crave this environment, and why wouldn’t they? That’s what makes startups so disruptive and nimble. Bureaucracy can be a killer for an entrepreneur who wants to move fast inside a large organization.

WHAT’S THE IDEAL SITUATION?

In my next post I’ll look at methods and theories that help entrepreneurs blossom inside existing organizations.

Paul McAvinchey
Paul McAvinchey
paulmcavinchey@gmail.com

Paul has spent over 15 years building and collaborating on digital products with the likes of AOL and WMS Gaming. Currently, he leads business development for DXY Solutions, a leading product design firm in the Midwest with a focus on building beautiful applications for connected devices. Previously, he led product development for MedCity Media, a publishing startup acquired by Breaking Media in 2015. He's also a founder of Product Collective, a new initiative to connect product people from across the world online and in person at INDUSTRY: The Product Conference held in Cleveland annually.

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