Advice from an Expert Product Manager for SMBs
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Q&A with Product Manager Extraordinaire, Pilar Sterne: What SMBs Should Know About Product Management

Published: | Updated: | By Aimee Thompson

1. What made you choose a career in product management?

I joined POWr in a customer support role when the company consisted of just the founders and two other guys. I loved the product and was hyper passionate about helping customers have an awesome experience using POWr. With the team being so small, everyone helped shape the product strategy. 

After a couple of years of managing support and customer success, it felt natural to transition into a role where we I could be a more proactive part of building a product that solves small business owners’ website pain points. That’s how I ended up becoming a product manager!

First step, product management. Next, world domination 😼

2. What are the key responsibilities of a product manager? 

There are a lot of different opinions out there about what a product manager’s responsibilities are! 

At POWr, the role mostly entails managing the product development lifecycle. This includes: sourcing product ideas, prioritizing new projects, approving a design before it gets handed off to the software engineering team, specing out tasks for the engineering team, communicating with engineers and designers on a regular basis to help move a project in the right direction, unblocking teams when they’re unsure how to proceed with something unexpected that comes up during the development process, writing out test cases for QA (quality assurance) to go through, training the support team on new features, looping in marketing for a successful product launch, and analyzing data to report on the success of projects.

Since we’re still a small company, I also still help out with whatever else comes up. From building landing pages and creating help center articles to translating all of our plugins into German and hiring new POWr rangers, there are always millions of things that keep me busy. 

The only thing that could make me more productive is a basket of kittens 😻

3. What resources do you recommend for SMBs striving to create a successful product management strategy? 

Nothing beats talking to people in your industry and learning from those who’ve been through a similar process. 

Talk to people about the customer problem you are trying to solve and what your strategy has been so far,share what you’ve learned, and ask for their advice. This will help you develop a more strategic approach to product management.

The other thing you shouldn’t neglect is talking to your customers and potential customers. You will learn so much about what their pain points really are and what you need to do to solve those problems.

There are also great online resources for SMBs who want to learn more about developing a product strategy. Shopify and Weebly have fantastic blogs with plenty of product advice for SMBs. Intercom, Pendo.Io, and Product Coalition also have a wealth of helpful articles on how to manage the product life cycle and grow your company.  

Never forget the secret weapon resource, kittens. All the kittens. 😺

4. What are some common product management mistakes, and how can they be avoided? 

This one is pretty common among tech startups: not allowing enough time for UX and design. 

Great design doesn’t just happen. It requires a lot of thought, research, and trial and error. Us startup people tend to get pretty impatient since we want everything to move fast, and we try to release cute, new features all the time. 

The reality is, bad UX can be just as damaging as any sort of technical debt. It’s so hard to catch up if you made bad design decisions in the past. The user experience can get incoherent and confusing, and oftentimes users won’t even be able to find all the cool new features you’ve built because your product may not have been built to highlight them in any way!

The only way to avoid that is to trust your UX people and let them lead the first phase of product development. If you’re working with experienced design folks and they tell you that something you want in a day is actually going to take a week, they are probably right. Look into where else you may be able to compromise so you still meet the deadline. But don’t always cut the design and UX phase short, your engineering efforts will be wasted on something that was never given a chance to be a great release to begin with.

Why didn’t I trust my UX designers? #fail #lessonslearned 😿

5. What advice do you have for SMBs striving to figure out what product management looks like for them? 

Every company is different, but in our case we did not have a product role for the first 3 years or so of existing. It’s important to understand what you can do with the resources you have. We were lucky to have product-minded people in various roles and we didn’t see a need to have someone do the job full-time until we got much bigger. 

I think it’s wise for any company to think about who should be making product decisions and establish clear expectations. You may not immediately need a product manager, but you will need someone on the team to take on the responsibilities of a product owner. 

Once you have that part figured out, have the product owner come up with a rough idea for how projects should be planned. There are a lot of product development buzzwords out there, and I recommend any product owner familiarize themselves with all major ones - Scrum, Agile, Sprints, Standups, ICE, Gantt, etc. Decide on what will work best for your company, and teach everyone on the team what it means for how projects will be structured and managed.

Boom! Product managed like a boss 😎

6. As a product manager, do you have any tips or tricks you utilize when tackling a new project? 

Get data and find a couple of good examples of what you are trying to build. 

At POWr, all of our decisions are data-driven. Gathering data on a topic is always the first step and helps us evaluate how much time and resources we want to spend on a project. That can be our own internal data, or just generic data that’s available from various studies along the lines of, “Offering live chat can increase your conversions by x%”. 

The next step is finding a great example of a similar product that will help your  team visualize a your idea. This may sound like we’re lazy and just copying others, but that’s not what this is all about. Very few ideas are actually ground-breaking, and chances are whatever you are trying to build has been built before. Find a good example, or even an especially bad one, and use it as a template. Your final product could look completely different, but it’s a great starting point to go through what someone else has built and get a feel for how you can mold it into something that works for your product.

Purrrfect, tell me more! 😺

7. It’s often said that we learn more from our mistakes than our successes, have you found this to be true of your own experience? Can you share an example?

Mistakes are definitely necessary in order to become good at your job. The mistakes that initially hurt the most are any that directly affect our users.

For example, a couple of months ago we made some updates to our Form Builder submissions dashboard. The goal was to improve performance and give users a better and easier way to manage their form data. 

Unfortunately, when we launched that, we encountered a few issues that we had not anticipated. Because we didn’t have a great system in place for how customer support can communicate those bugs to our engineering team, things got really difficult. Support assumed an issue had been resolved when the engineers didn’t even know the bug existed, among other things.

This forced us to come up with a system for how the feedback loop between support and product works, and resulted in us hiring a support engineer whose job it is to facilitate that process. Things have vastly improved since then, and we are feeling a lot more confident when releasing big updates these days.

Oh, uh--hi there. Just, you know, learning from my mistakes--like this one...😳

8. What are some of the ways you stay motivated and inspired in your product management role? 

It’s easy to stay motivated and inspired when you work with such an incredible team! I also like to go through customer emails and reviews for inspiration. I often hijack tickets in our support inbox when I see a user contact us with feedback or suggestions. It’s always a great opportunity for starting a conversation and learning more about their frustrations, hopes, and needs. And that’s what my role is--helping real people solve those exact problems.

I am also motivated out of a desire to help others--and naps. Naps are very motivation--😴

9. What is the best advice you’ve received regarding product management? How has it impacted your personal approach?  

“Let your team do most of the talking.” This bit of advice was shared with me when I turned to an experienced Product Manager for help on how to share knowledge within a growing team. I’ve found it to be great advice for a couple reasons: 

 I’m guilty of talking too much. That’s bad. I get tired of hearing my own voice sometimes, so I’m sure others are pretty sick of listening to me, too!

A product manager’s job isn’t to tell everyone what to do, it’s to help teams build awesome products. People need to become comfortable sharing ideas, asking questions, and making decisions. This can’t happen if the product manager is the one doing all the talking.

I have some advice for you. Let me babysit the fish while you’re at work...😈🐠🍣

Pilar is one of the original POWr Rangers and will go to great lengths to make POWr users happy and successful. Originally from a quaint mountain village in Switzerland, she enjoys the fast pace and vast food options of the city life in San Francisco as well as quiet time with her two kitties.