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It was 10 minutes to midnight when my phone buzzed with an unusual notification — a meeting request with our CEO and one of our biggest corporate clients.
Subject line: “Urgent Update.” Time of meeting: “immediately.”
Within a few minutes, I was on a call with the CEO getting updated on our successful acquisition.
For product managers, being part of an acquisition is validating. After all, the market just proved the value of your strategy. But being part of an acquired company also presents challenges. Can you scale with the product? Is your skillset ready for the big leagues?
The first year of work on transitioning a product from startup to one inside an acquiring company was one of the more challenging experiences of my career. Here are the core learnings I took away from it.
1. When founders phase out, everyone looks to you for answers
Leadership is easy to take for granted, and I expected the product role to be easier in a large company.
Not the case. Without founders to steer the ship, the product role becomes responsible for answering questions on both sides:
- New and existing employees need your help as a peer to explain process and guide development.
- Executive leadership looks to you as the de facto “expert” on the thing they just bought.
As product manager during an acquisition, I found myself “framing” the product and positioning over and over for peers, new hires, and executives alike.
Ultimately, neither side cares which business functions were or weren’t “your responsibility” before. They need answers now to do their jobs, and it’s up to you to not let them down.
2. Be ready to redefine true north for your team — and yourself
Developing a compelling “why” for a product team is already a challenge before you add dozens of new hires and a completely different parent business model.
You might find yourself frustrated that the “North Star” metrics that matter for the product in the startup context don’t apply in the corporate environment. I found it paradoxically easier to think big when small and scrappy. Going corporate, it was easy to fall into the trap of putting quarterly reports ahead of long-term vision.
Perhaps it was the lack of daily/weekly check-ins. Perhaps it was the “David and Goliath” narrative. Either way, it’s your responsibility as a product lead to earn executive buy-in for a long-term strategy around your product.
3. Be ready to be wrong
During my first performance review as part of the new company, my executive report rated me strongest on the Amazon leadership principle “Is right, a lot.”
However, I often stumbled by making assumptions based on patterns that applied in the startup context but didn’t make sense for vertically integrated products.
Proactively collect data to validate which initiatives are most important — don’t wait for leadership to make assumptions, and don’t make assumptions yourself. The things that “just worked” before might not apply anymore.
4. Don’t be scared to scale
The budget proposal I presented to my new executive report during my first week after the acquisition was easily five times what I felt comfortable with. Still, it was a fraction of what the new company considered a reasonable baseline.
Creating outsized results from minimal input and growth hacking was my biggest strength in the startup environment. In the corporate setting, it became a counterproductive habit that was tricky to kick.
Frugality is healthy only when your understanding of “reasonable expenditure” matches the scale of the business you’re working within. Analyze competitors and communicate with new peers to understand acceptable expenditure and risk. Concentrate on ROI, and remain calm as the scale of investment rises.
5. Redefine your KPIs and re-investigate your customers
Different companies have different goals, customer, and KPIs. Chances are, you’re not being bought out to continue the status quo.
Take time to redefine your customers and KPIs. Otherwise, you run the risk of building features that make perfect sense to your team but not to the new market you’re playing in.
Work with new stakeholders to understand the KPIs that matter most for everyone at the table. Don’t rely on outdated customer data to power decisions you make to meet those KPIs.
6. Create situations where your pre-acquisition peers can shine, so they don’t get burnt out
When you’re used to the family feeling of a startup, corporate life can feel like a family reunion: crowded and confrontational.
Paradoxically, peers that thrived in the startup environment might struggle to adapt, as politics and a lack of ownership of their work get in the way of day-to-day job satisfaction.
As product lead, it’s essential you don’t fall into this trap yourself. Remain positive and create situations where frustrated teammates can provide maximum benefit (and receive maximum credit) for their contributions.
7. Proactively engage with your new peers, particularly for data-driven insights
The most significant benefit of the corporate environment is also the biggest challenge: access to a plethora of talented, busy people.
Time and time again, the best insights and data sources at the new company came from unexpected corners of the business. Don’t judge new peers on their titles, and take the time for exploratory conversations with all roles.
The best data at a large company is likely to be hidden or overlooked. Set up one-on-one meetings with everyone, not just the obvious candidates. Be honest about your goals, and you’ll be surprised by what strangers bring to the table.
Jameson Zimmer is head of product at BroadbandNow. He has written extensively on internet infrastructure and broadband policy issues.
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