I'm the first PM in a startup that used to be sales led. I'm trying to set up the proper discovery processes, prioritization tactics and strategy, but I find that extremely hard to do as I'm getting carried away in the day-to-day tasks around requests, issues reported and project management.
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Natalia Baryshnikova
Head Of Product, Enterprise Agility, AtlassianFebruary 16

Startups are all about speed. To move fast, you need to know where you are going (aka what to be ruthlessly focused on) and allocate the most of your time/energy to that. Easier said than done, right? One thing that helped a lot in my early startup days was my framework of "One thing I am going to fail today". 

Once you establish together with your team what you are focused on this week, month, quarter - write that down and look at it every day when planning out your work. Then, notice things that either don't help you move there, or things where your quality of deliverables will not be critical to the area of focus. Then, tell yourself (and the team, if you so prefer) - I am going to focus on nailing X today. I will do an okay job on Y, and I am going to drop the ball (or fail) Z. 

Breath out, and go stay focused. 

Julian Dunn
Senior Director of Product Management, GitHubNovember 29

I've definitely been there! As you correctly intuit, your first order of business is to buy yourself some time to develop a strategic point of view and a roadmap that supports that it. Obviously that means you're going to need to spend time meeting with customers, prospects and customer-facing teams inside your organization, synthesize the learnings, and develop that roadmap & strategy. In a startup, you have to do this at a much higher tempo than at a more established company, but it's essential that you convince your direct (and indirect) management that investing in these things is going to pay off down the road in time saved / lower risk for the startup / more satisfied customers / whatever rather than just continuing down the feature factory path.

What's important when you have that conversation is to be explicit about the things you are going to drop or do less of, like literally saying, "I am going to do less tactical project management, status reporting, etc." Invariably, some of your peers who have expected PM to do these things are going to be disappointed at the lower level of "service" which is why you need your management to buy in on your shift towards becoming more of a strategist rather than a tactician. This may need to be a shift that happens over a couple of iterations particularly if the organization is not used to strategic product management (you can't "big bang" stop doing project management if the company doesn't trust you to deliver high-quality strategy yet).

You don't mention the reasons behind why the startup has become less sales-led and more product-led. Whatever those reasons are (e.g. we are good at bookings but our churn is really high when customers find out our product falls short of the promises), you want to be clear-eyed in understanding them and tying any communication around your shift in focus to those issues. Also, there will obviously be one or more individuals at the company driving that change from sales-led to product-led. Ally yourself closely with those individuals, get them on board with your plans, have them amplify your strategic work products, and (particularly if they are more senior to you) use them to deflect the noise from folks who wish you would just spend more time doing project management.

Milena Krasteva
Sr Director II, Product Management, WalmartOctober 5

Actually, no differently than managing the 1001 questions and tasks shot at you in a large company :)

A PM wears many hats. If any one area takes over disproportionately, the risk is that you are no longer doing the job of a PM. Some common blurring of the boundaries is when PM is acting to fill gaps that are normally entirely different functions:

- Project manager

- QA

- Technical Support

- Technical Writer

- Trainer

- Solution Consultant

- Marketer

- Data Analyst, etc.

Write down the CORE PM responsibilities, that should NOT be owned by another function. This is how in theory your PM role is meant to drive value. Write down how much time you are currently spending on each and what your total is on core PM activities. Next, list all the other things you do that should be owned by someone else. How much time do you spend there beyond a reasonable amount that PMs would normally have to dedicate there? The difference between time spent elsewhere vs core PM dilutes your role and masks gaps of equivalent or greater magnitude in other departments. 

Estimate, if resources were not a limitation, how many additional people would need to be in these stakeholder areas such that end-to-end things run smoothly without you filling the gaps. Articulate what would get done, if you were not filling this gap, but were instead focusing on product management. This is your recommendation and ask of your management chain to rebalance things such that you can do the best possible PM job.

You may hear that resources are in fact a very big limitation and the status quo remains, but at least you now have a clear indication of the company's priorities - e.g. all hands on deck for new sales over new product development, bug fixes, or launches. That is OK, but then the decision is for you, if you want that for yourself. Chances are, however, that it will give leadership some pause and potentially drive some change. I've been through 3 companies (startups and large companies alike) who all swore up and down that they were philosophically opposed to having a project management function. That is until we repeatedly showed how 30%-40% of PM time was spent on project management and no product acceleration could be had unless we either added more PMs operating at partial capacity (expensive) vs getting 1 technical project manager (less expensive). I even had a startup founder snipe about how PM was tied up with eng in expensive meetings without asking what the meetings were about - they were about tickets, bugs, backlog grooming, and status reporting. We got new ticket/bug management tools and a TPM shortly thereafter :)

Vasudha Mithal
Senior Director, Product Management, Headspace HealthAugust 22

In a startup, the R&R is faintly defined at its best. You naturally get pulled into 1000 different things - that is both fun and a challenge :) A few things that you might find helpful:

  • In the beginning, it is good to get exposed to a variety of different topics. It can be overwhelming for sure.
  • Once you understand the organization's needs, ask yourself "What can I do to make our company successful?" (and I hope your equity motivates you to ask this question each step of the way).
  • The answer to that question will help you in 1) Defining more R&Rs across the company 2) Seek the resources for the stage your company is at (e.g. do you really want to add another project management layer or would rather just do it yourself if communication lines are easy?) and 3) Act like the owner for the areas where you can make the most impact! 

Some tactical things to do:

  • Set a goal/theme for the week - if there is one thing you could accomplish that week, what would it be?
  • Proactive and recurring calendar blocks to get that one thing done.
  • Consider even setting a target for the day-to-day requests that you feel good about - e.g. personal SLAs for when can you get back to an email request.

One thing that I like always coming back to is that day-to-day tasks will never get over. One task will simply get replaced by another. It is so important to have your boundaries, prioritize and create focus time for what will help your company the most.