Why Product Management is Perfect for Aspiring Entrepreneurs (Big vs. Small Companies)

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By Katie Corner (Product Manager, BOKU) It’s an age old feeling for aspiring entrepreneurs: I’m not ready to start my own company... yet. In the meantime, what is the most valuable next step? Join a big, stable company to learn the best processes and ship high-impact products? Join a startup to learn the classic mistakes and manage a high-growth product?

I found myself in this exact situation when trying to pick a full-time job out of college. I had enjoyed a couple product management (PM) internships at Microsoft and Google, and enjoyed my time at these giants. Yet I couldn’t turn off that little voice in my head: maybe I should check out startups too?

I decided to join a small mobile payments company, BOKU, and have since been happily cramming my brain with six months of new knowledge, experiences, frustrations, and triumphs.

I’ve also had time to reflect on the different benefits that come along with this choice. Here’s a taste of what I’ve gathered so far:

The Benefits of Working at a Big Company

  • Tried and true process -- Process may be a bad word among large companies, but it is also very easy to take for granted. While unnecessary process is undeniably annoying, there’s no doubt that highly successful big companies know a thing or two about processes that can really smooth out how products get built and shipped. While every product and company is different, I would argue you can generally build higher-impact products faster at big companies. For example, when I worked as an APM intern after building a local feature for Maps last summer at Google, we were able to ship it to not only US users, but were also able fully localize it in 50+ languages for Google users around the globe. (mostly due to the fact that the infrastructure, specialists, and process already existed!). The outcome? Overnight we witnessed millions of people interacting with it from all corners of the earth. Very humbling and rewarding!
  • Great product mentors -- Sometimes at small companies, you will be the "only one of your kind." You may be the second PM... or the only one! If you are anything like me, I store up about a bazillion questions daily. Is this deadline fair to the team? Does that process even make sense? Does anyone have a better idea of metrics we can use to help us prioritize features better? While you can seek mentors outside of the office, I have found that bigger companies are chock-full of amazing specialist mentors. Want a director PM’s opinion? Walk down the hallway and knock! Access to a spread of great mentors can accelerate building up your product gut.
  • Larger customer footprint/Smaller decision impact -- Generally speaking, your decision impact is more limited in bigger companies than smaller ones. The tradeoff? When you launch something new, you usually already have a loyal customer base waiting to be delighted! My best example of this was working as a PM at Microsoft for Windows 8. While I worked on a considerably small set of features related to OS accessibility, our launch would culminate in potentially billions of upgrades across the world. I recall Steve Ballmer telling the interns that there are now more computers running Windows in the world than cars on the road!

The Benefits of Working at a Startup

  • DIY Process -- Like flying fast and loose by the seat of your pants? Enjoy building backend technology from the ground up, with no legacy code to refactor or support? There are so many wonderful benefits of building products from a clean slate. Generally there are no official "approval processes" in place to slow down the fun! However, once growing pains set in, there will come a time when everyone will begin to crave a little process sprinkled into the mix. The best part about a startup is that is your team’s call to decide how much and where.
  • Great entrepreneur mentors -- Obviously, entrepreneurial folks exist in big companies! That being said, startups are packed to the brim with people exhibiting huge ideas, dreams, and relentless persistence to succeed. If you pick a great small company to join, you will be able to soak up hundreds of success and failure stories from your coworkers. Not to mention, you often have immediate access to the craziest in the bunch: the founders. If you are considering starting your own company, picking the brains of your talented founders can lead to years of advice and knowledge that can kickstart your own founder intuition.
  • Smaller customer footprint/Larger decision impact -- Unsurprisingly, this is the opposite tradeoff of the big company benefit above. At a startup, regardless of your role, you will likely be asked contribute to startegic decisions, drive quick pivots based on feedback, and rapidly iterate on the visual designs and backend architecture (simultaneously!). Oh, and by the way, keep all of the priorities straight too, since you never know what could be lurking around the corner tomorrow. Often this expansive decision power means that you will be delivering to a smaller consumer base than bigger companies, at least initially. But stick through it, as this will define and beef up your product gut. Bad decisions are almost as valuable as good ones, since you are ultimately learning lessons that will apply to your own venture one day.

By blending my favorite aspects from both big and small companies, I feel more ready than ever to take the reins and start a company of my own one day.

The more I learn from organizations like Women 2.0, the more I feel comfortable and ready to take the plunge!

Photo credit: Jeff Kubina Editor's note: Got a question for our guest blogger? Leave a message in the comments below. d1daff10f9a4109e6a943742d164d303_bigger About the guest blogger: Katie Corner is a product manager at BOKU, a mobile payments startup. Prior to BOKU, Katie interned with Qualcomm, Microsoft and Google. She writes about design, technology and product  management on her blog, Sprucing It Up. Katie holds B.S. in Electrical and Computer Engineering from the University of Colorado at Boulder. Follow her on Twitter at @katherinecorner.