Scaling product teams the structured way

You’re the first PM at a startup. You are a small company with one product, searching for product market fit. You grind and preserve and you achieve the holy grail of product market fit. CEO walks over and says “It’s time to start scaling, give me a plan, how are you going to scale the product management team? Let’s chat in a few days”. At this moment you are probably thinking “whoa what? team? There is going to be more of me (PMs)?”

How can I do it? So many questions. Where do I start? How do I hire? What do I do?

Have no fear, read on.

First, get into a good headspace

  • Assume success: Yep, this is hard. You’ve been in the trenches, you’ve seen the struggle. Assuming success is hard, but do it. Assume that your product will be wildly successful — you will have a multitude of products and PMs. Getting into this headspace is important since it helps you solve the problem by inversion. Envision how you want the organization to look in the far future and work backwards to get to a solid plan.
  • Don’t wing it: Approach this in a structured way with a well thought out framework. How you scale your organization is the most important thing you will ever do in your company, DO NOT muddle your way through it.

Why frameworks?

Frameworks provide a systematic way to grow your organization — a roadmap, if you will, on how you will scale. As with basic product management, scaling an organization is all about articulating the vision and communicating it effectively. Using a well defined framework helps you align the growth of your organization with that of the company. In fact how the product organization is structured is very helpful in driving the vision of what you as a product company are going to do. In addition, having a well defined framework has the following additional advantages

  • Enables the setting of well defined goals and purpose for the team that you are going to hire
  • Enables you to articulate clearly how your incoming PMs fit into the larger picture. How you want shape your organization as well as what career paths/choices are available for your PMs.
  • Finally, this is great for recruiting. People deeply care about the big picture. Organizational design is key to help them understand their role and the possibilities to scale themselves. A well defined framework clearly communicates the current and potential opportunities as individuals grow in the organization.

Down to the details, what is a good framework?

The starting point for the framework is that you already have your high level vision nailed. For example: You want to be the largest online lender for small businesses. This framework focusses on that next level of detail.

Work out an architectural model

What is the core abstraction that is going to drive your product strategy? The two common ones I tend to use are what I call the Integrated Application or Platform approach. Do you envision getting to your final goal by having a lot of products that are independent and separate (Integrated Application) or are you going to build a common core platform and utilize the core functions to build different products (Platform)on top that achieve your goal?

Typically in my experience most startups start with the Integrated Application approach — as they just have one product (think a single CRUD app). As they grow and mature, they transition into the approach of having multiple applications built on top of a core platform.

Have a mental model of your product

A.K.A breaking out into logical units, as an engineer would say, find the right abstractions. You should derive these abstractions from the types of users that you have/are targeting and the interactions that you want to drive from them. This is best driven through an example. My expertise and niche is fintech so I’ll pick an example close to home. Imagine a marketplace for small business financing.

There are three key participants

  • Borrowers: They need funding
  • Investors: They provide the funding and need returns
  • The company (you): You are rating the borrowers i.e. underwriting. Underwriting provides the borrowers a price for the funding and provides investors information about the available return if they fund the borrower.

Once you understand what architectural model you want to use, you have to work out a clear mental model of you how your products fit your strategy over the years. Break out what you want to do in logical units and layer them in progression i.e. get to a product stack over time. Working off the same example as above the product stack for the marketplace for small business financing would look like:

Product stack for an online lending marketplace platform

As expressed in this example, over time you can see a logical progression of how product areas will shape up and you can build/staff your team using this as your guide. This product stack also doubles up as a great tool to use in recruiting as it paints a vivid and detailed picture of what a PMs career path in the organization could look like as the organization grows. It is vivid enough to evoke excitement and specific enough to convey that this isn’t snake oil — it is logical and thought out.

Stress test your model

Run your concepts and how you are thinking about evolving the product stack with the senior team and get their feedback. Nothing lasts forever, but you shoot for your model to work for at least 2–3 years.

In summary, utilize a framework, don’t wing it — structured thinking will pay immense dividends in the future.

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