Key Differences Between the Role of a Product Manager in Startups vs. Large Enterprises

product management at startup vs. large enterpriseCompanies of all sizes across industries are looking to hire product managers. With this in mind, company culture, resources and the specific demands of different roles probably play a big part in your decision to take a product management position at a company. While there is a key set of skills that every great product manager has, each specific role comes with its own demands, challenges and priorities. When it comes to product management roles in startups vs. large enterprises, there tend to be a few key differences.

Product Management at a Startup 

A Product Manager at a startup is especially positioned to explore different areas and wear many hats. Working with smaller teams and lacking the abundance of resources that a larger enterprise might have pushes Product Managers that work in startups to take on a more generalist role.

Kevin Lee, Founder of Product Manager HQ, told Codementor that Product Managers in startups “will have to act as a jack-of-all-trades. You’ll find yourself covering the responsibilities of multiple roles and leveraging any kind of resources you can get.”

These opportunities to dip your toes in many areas allow Product Managers at startups to be more creative and build versatile skills that most likely wouldn’t be possible in a role at a larger enterprise. At a startup, you might play a more direct role in marketing, design, maybe even writing copy yourself. However, the same freedom to take on many responsibilities as a Product Manager in a startup comes with its own set of challenges, boosted by the lack of resources. You have a smaller team to work with and this often comes with less money to spend.

This being said, a product management role at a startup is a wonderful way to begin your career in product management. At a startup, you’ll have a great deal of responsibility and control over the product while you watch it mature in varying capacities. These product managers are innovative and have to react to rapidly changing priorities often on tight schedules. You will need to be flexible and aware of new industries and verticals that might impact your product, while at the same time creative enough to experiment with new product ideas without spending a lot of money.

Product Managers at startups also have the ability to make a large impact, with the ability to contribute to the vision and goals of the company with your market research and involvement. There’s more flexibility within the roles as the Product Manager and the founders brainstorm and choose the release dates together. You have a small team to work with and everyone is committed to a user-centric approach – user growth and what real users think about the product. Plus, one of the biggest hurdles that Product Managers report about their day-to-day work is handling internal politics, which you largely avoid when taking on a role at a startup.

Product Management at a Large Enterprise 

A Product Manager at a large enterprise has more resources to work with – between teams and investments. But with more teams comes the need to trust others to handle areas of work like design, copywriting and user research on their own. The Product Manager may have less direct control over the specific areas of a product and needs to hone a more collaborative approach.

For example, the alpha 2020 Product Management Insights Report found that product teams at large companies maintain significantly less ownership over user research than those who work at companies with fewer than 1,000 employees. Only 31% of product leaders surveyed at large organizations said they’re directly responsible for conducting user research, compared to 69% at smaller companies. At a large enterprise, it can be difficult to reach out to your product users, a formal procedure might be in place to collect feedback. Many companies rely heavily on analytics to collect feedback instead.

Handling bureaucracy is one of the biggest challenges of being a Product Manager at a large enterprise. With more teams and more stakeholders involved, asking for approvals on all initiatives – often on multiple levels – slow down the product’s ability to go to market quickly. Navigating bureaucracy and maintaining diplomacy with company stakeholders is a frustrating but central part of a Product Manager’s job at a large enterprise.

You’ll have a more fixed set of tasks and responsibilities as a Product Manager at a large enterprise. Most of the vision and goals are handed off from the top level, so you might have less influence over decision making. Additionally, releases are not too often and are planned by a release team. You’ll have to commit a feature to a particular release by following tight sets of deadlines. There’s long-term planning required to get your features locked in.

For this reason, Product Managers working at large enterprises need to employ more traditional management skills in their day-to-day work. Your job description is much more fixed with a set of tasks and KPIs that you are measured against. Working in a larger enterprise assumes more structure and formality. For example, Product Requirements have to be properly defined and executed – you’ll handle a formal process to establish the product roadmap, get approval from business stakeholders and dependent teams.

Choosing the Right Fit for You 

At the end of the day, it’s about finding the Product Management role that suits your skills, personality and preferences. People thrive in different environments. While some professionals enjoy the fast pace of working in Product Management at a startup and the variety in your day-to-day work, other people may prefer to handle more fixed processes. By exploring the options and different company cultures, you’ll be able to learn more about your right-fit role in Product Management.

Carnegie Mellon University’s MS in Product Management program students complete a Product Management internship during their summer semester. By gaining on-the-job experience in the industry, students dip their toes into a specific Product Management role, helping them get a sense of the type of company that might be right for them. In the past, students have interned at Home Depot, Samsung, PayPal, Cisco, Grubhub, Dick’s Sporting Goods, NetApp, and more.