How to Get a Product Management Job at a Startup

Sometimes, to outsiders, the tech industry and cool Silicon Valley startups are synonymous. That’s not the case at all, but there’s a little nugget of truth in there. Cool startups are a huge perk of working in tech. And Product Managers are perfectly positioned to help them succeed.

Maybe your goal is to have your own company one day, or maybe you live on the thrill of helping to build something new. Either way, we’re here to help you land that dream Product Manager role with startups.

What’s different about startups?

Startups work differently to giant corporations inside and out. The startup environment seems shiny and fun from the outside, but it’s not suited to everyone. So while it sounds fun in theory to work for a startup, it’s important that you know what you’re getting yourself into!

Benefits

Freedom and speed: At a startup, you have the opportunity to create your own processes and move at speed. You’ll be less bogged down with bureaucracy and red tape. You’re less likely to be held back from trying new things because ‘that’s how they’ve always been done,’ because everything is new! This gives you more freedom to try things out, and the opportunity to work at speed.

Open doors: Startups like to hire professionals who have previous experience in a startup environment, especially as they start growing. By getting a few years of startup experience under your belt, you’re opening up a wide variety of job opportunities. And who knows, if you take a chance on the right company, you might end up being the first Product Manager at the next FAANG!

Innovation: Startups are often at the forefront of innovation. Someone somewhere has a unique idea, and starts gathering resources and momentum to make it happen. As a Product Manager, you’ll not only have a front row seat to that innovation, but you’ll be part of the action on stage!

Challenges

Resources: The most common and most expected downside of working with a startup is a lack of resources. For many, that includes a lack of users. When you’re building something completely new, you’ll be running off of funding with no regular and expected income streams. That means you’ll have a much tighter budget than you would at Google.

People power: Startups are small, which obviously means fewer people in the workforce. There may be certain positions which would be wonderful to have, but just aren’t necessary right now. You might be missing a Business Analyst, or a Data Scientist. You might only have one graphic designer, which you have to share with every department.

Speed: Speed is a good thing…but it can also be a challenge. When a lot of work needs to be done very quickly by only a handful of people it’s time to buckle down. Crunch before launch isn’t unexpected in a startup space. For some that’s an absolute thrill, for others it’s panic-inducing.

Check out: As Startups Evolve, So Does the Product Strategy “You need to be young to work for a startup.”

Misconceptions

It’s a well-worn stereotype that everyone who works in a startup is in their mid to late twenties, has been coding all of their lives, and is always down to party after work. In all honesty, there is an element of that. People in smaller startups do tend to be on the younger side, and plenty of professionals have experienced age-bias in interviews.

“If the startup fails, my career is over!”

However, it’s absolutely not the rule. Startups need people with experience as well as youth and vigour. They can’t afford to waste resources hiring someone just because they’re young and “cool”. They need people who can get the job done, and if that’s you, it won’t matter if you’re 25 or 52. Hiring managers need skills, and you’re the person to provide them.

No one successful in the tech industry has a perfectly clean record. In fact, everyone at the top of the tech career knows that failure is a valuable teacher. Maybe it’s a cliche but, “it’s not about falling down, it’s about getting back up again.”

“People in startups work twice as hard for half the money.”

Business is about taking risks. By joining a startup you’re a risk-taker, a valuable asset for any company in the product space. Demonstrating how you’ve learned from failure will also give you some great interview fodder for the future!

Everyone in tech works hard, whether you’re in a FAANG company or a startup. Compensation for Product Management salaries is competitive no matter who you work for. In fact, geography has much more of an impact on salaries than company size.

Startup PMs may work differently to corporation PMs, but there’s no evidence that they’re expected to work long or harder hours.

Product Management Skills That Help Startups to Flourish

Every startup in the digital product space needs a Product Manager! In the early days of a business, nothing is more important than having a strong and clear product vision. Just as important is having the entire team aligned on that vision.

Product Managers can also have vital input on who gets hired, making sure that the growing team is being filled with the right people. Having a PM, someone who knows a little bit about everything, is incredibly valuable when getting a business off the ground.

PMs also own the product roadmap, a vital ingredient in keeping teams on track. Having someone whose job is to specifically oversee product development is the cornerstone of building great products.

Check out: The Skills Product Managers Need in 2021

When a company is just starting out, their customer knowledge will be based mostly on assumptions, or research conducted for other products. A PM is versed in customer research, and can help to build user stories, which are not only useful to product teams, but to sales, marketing, and design. It’s a win-win!

Start your own side project

What better way to show that you’re great at building things than by…building things! Building a side project, be it a blog, a community, or a whole digital product, is a great way to put you on the map. It shows off your entrepreneurial skills and your go-get-em attitude.

Check out our guide on how to build your own side project, or how to take the next step and crowdfund your side project.

Check out: 4 Tips to Write a Product Manager Resume

Tailor your resume

Breadth of experience is what’s going to catch the eye of hiring managers for startups. But they also care about results. Read each job posting carefully and be specific about how your skills and experience fit what they’re looking for. If they specifically mention growth, think about what you’ve done in the past that contributed towards growth. If you can provide quantitative information to back it up, even better.

Get certified as a Product Manager

Want to know more? Check out our Product Management certifications!

While it’s surprising that at this stage in the game, many hiring managers and CEOs alike still don’t know what a Product Manager really is! Getting a Product Manager role from a company that isn’t 100% sure what one looks like isn’t impossible, and you get to help define the purpose of the role within the company.

Getting certified as a Product Manager makes you that much more discoverable to hiring managers, and it makes it absolutely clear who you are and what you can do. It’ll help you stand out from the crowd and give credibility to your profession.

Boost your tech skills

Looking to up your tech skills? Check out our recommended (free!) courses to take in your spare time.

Learning to code is not a prerequisite for becoming a Product Manager, but when a company needs everyone to roll up their sleeves and do as much as possible, they’ll likely prioritize those with technical backgrounds, or at least technical skills.

Great Product Managers have a ‘can-do’ attitude, and a broad knowledge of all aspects of product development. Knowing more than the average non-technical Product Manager will be more useful to startup tech companies.

If you’re transitioning to product from engineering, a startup in need of Product Managers who can help out on a technical level when crunch time approaches might be your best bet.

Join Our Community

If you’re looking to break into Product Management, there’s no better place to join than Product School Pro — our community for product professionals.

I’m Carlos González, CEO at Product School, and I enjoy sharing weekly tips for Product leaders!

Are you interested in Product Management? Check out our certifications here.
Looking for a good read? Because we’ve launched “Ship It” as a free resource.

This article was also published on The Product Management Blog.

CEO at Product School — Global leader in product management training

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store