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Walking the Tightrope: Balancing Decisions as an Early-stage Product Manager or Founder

Understanding how to work as a product manager or early stage founder in a startup can feel like a complex task. This article shares some useful ways to make good decisions quickly and plan effectively in this fast-paced environment.
Marius Astikas

Product Management & Career Mentor, ex-Wix.com

Balancing Act

Walking on a thin line perfectly represents the startup journey. Your gaze is locked on the success waiting at the other end. Below you, an array of challenges waits, but you remain focused on moving forward. You have a mission: satisfying customers, working well with your team and other stakeholders, and making progress towards your goal. Time is not a luxury in the startup world. Every feedback, plan, decision, and effort feeds into your journey towards success. This encapsulates the startup life, whether you're a product manager or an early-stage founder.

Decoding the Decision Making in Product Management

In the rapidly changing world of a startups and tech companies decisions need to be made quickly. There are always new customer needs, stakeholder expectations, and market trends to consider. To manage these, product managers and early-stage founders need a clear and systematic way to make decisions. This is where mental models become very helpful.

Mental models are like guides or shortcusts that help us understand complex problems and make well-informed decisions. They provide a clear path through the quick and often complex process of decision-making. They help to give us focus and a step-by-step method to follow.

Think of mental models as a light in the dark, showing us the way when we're surrounded by too much information, user feedback, and actions from competitors. With the help of these mental models, product managers and founders can see through the confusion, focus on what's most important, and choose actions that will make the product successful.

In simple terms, mental models help us make sense of a lot of information and make better decisions. This leads to smoother operations, better product development, and ultimately, a product that meets customer needs and market demands.

 Pareto Principle (80/20 Rule)

The Pareto Principle, also known as the 80/20 rule, suggests that 20% of efforts yield 80% of results. For a product manager, this implies focusing on the critical 20% of features or tasks that produce 80% of user satisfaction or revenue.

For example, let's look at a B2B application, Camillion. User feedback and data analysis reveal that its video-sharing feature is the key driver of user satisfaction. Consequently, enhancing this feature should be prioritized, including improving video upload speed and quality, and introducing new filtering options.

Through constant monitoring and prompt attention to potential user experience barriers, we ensure a seamless user journey. By applying the Pareto Principle, we focus our resources on enhancing the most impactful 20% of the product, creating a compelling user experience that resonates with our audience.

First Principles Thinking

This approach is all about breaking down complex problems into basic elements and rebuilding them from scratch. It paves the way for innovative solutions. When working with the Content Management product at Wix, I applied the First Principles Thinking approach to address a key challenge. Users were finding it difficult to add, update, and manage content, leading to underutilization of the product and low conversion. I started by breaking down the entire process into its most fundamental parts: where users come from, what are their main objectives when they use our product, what actions they take to achieve those objectives, and where they face difficulties. Instead of trying to solve the problem with existing tools or traditional approaches, I started to reassemble the process from the ground up. We observed that the main issue was users getting lost in the numerous functionalities of the product. The process of adding and updating content was not intuitive and simple.

Circle of Competence

Knowing what you know best and understanding your limitations is crucial not only in decision making but also in facilitating learning and communication within a product team. During my time at a startup accelerator in Antler, we were working on a feature for a healthy eating app that involved nutritional guidance. However, my background didn't include deep expertise in nutrition. Aware of this gap in my Circle of Competence, I initiated a learning process about nutrition and involved a dietician in our discussions. When validating the product problem, which was to make nutritional tracking easy and accurate for users, I made sure to incorporate the dietician's expert inputs, effectively leveraging their Circle of Competence to complement my own. This approach enabled me to evaluate this business opportunity much more realistically.  

Confirmation Bias

Be wary that people often lean towards information that confirms their preconceptions. Each stakeholder has their own unique perspective - the engineer aims for efficient software, the designer seeks a visually stunning, pixel-perfect design, the data analyst is always looking for more comprehensive data, and the business domain expert wants more intel on market competition. These individuals will naturally be drawn to information that aligns with their perspectives and objectives. As a product manager, you need to acknowledge this bias. You need to ensure a balance of perspectives, test assumptions, and promote open, cross-functional discussions. This way, decisions are not made in isolation or influenced solely by one perspective. Instead, decisions are well-rounded, taking into account different views and key aspects of the product, thereby enhancing the chances of product success.

Summary

My own journey through the tech startup landscape has been aided by business mentors and product management leaders. In return, I have given back to the community by organizing events in Lithuania and Spain called Product Tank. These events allowed me to listen to numerous product management stories and offer advice when needed. Every interaction was a learning opportunity, and now, I want to share these lessons with you.

If you're embarking on your startup journey or trying to navigate the complexities of product management, feel free to reach out. Leverage my experiences to create successful products and startups that solve real-world problems and deliver value to users. The product journey is a delicate balancing act, but with the right strategies and insights, we can achieve great things together.

To summarize, working in product management is a balancing act, with challenges that require quick, strategic decision-making. By applying the mental models outlined here, you can navigate these challenges and find your own path to success in this rewarding field.

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