Being a product manager in a start-up vs the public sector (or big organisation vs small): what I have learned from the past year

Just over 1 year ago, I joined a climate tech start-up called Climate Policy Radar as employee #11 and their first product manager. Before that, I spent 8 years working in bigger organisations, mainly in the public sector (Government Digital Service, BBC, Land Registry) but also a bit in the private sector (Cazoo and Gameloft).

In this post, I share what I have learned so far about the difference between being a product manager in a start-up vs the public sector (or big organisation vs small). Lessons cover topics like burnout, impact, networking, urgency, alignment, explaining what I do and wearing many hats.

Wearing many hats

The first time I was asked to design new features myself, I was a bit alarmed. Was this something I was expected to do? In larger organisations, every team would have a designer. I would describe to them the problem we need to solve, and they would take it from there. Most of the UX designers I have worked with in the past would be horrified if I handed them designs or wireframes, and the idea of me being hands-on with Figma would be the stuff of nightmares!

But we don’t have many of the full-time roles I have grown used to over the years, such as a service designer, interaction designer, user researcher, content designer, business analyst, performance analyst, tester or delivery manager. So these are roles that I have had to pick up and try to do myself. Delivery master aside, these are not jobs that I have done on a full-time basis before.

Before 2014 when I worked with small non-profits and digital agencies, I was also working in quite broad roles where I had to wear a lot of hats. Knowing what I know now, I didn’t wear any of those hats particularly well! Over the past 8 years, I have experienced working with specialists of all disciplines who really know their craft, so I now have a much better idea of what good looks like. I also have a good network of people to reach out to for advice. Some of these ex-colleagues have been enlisted to volunteer with us a few days per year to provide advice and feedback.

I have found it fun to get stuck in and try to do these things for myself. Learning by doing is the best way to learn (at least it is for me). I feel like I have achieved a lot, made a good impact and learned a tonne.

Test earlier. Test more often

Wearing many hats has its downsides. Chief amongst them is that it’s hard to do a great job at something if you are trying to do 6 jobs! Even in the unlikely event that I was skilled enough to do each of these jobs as a specialist, there aren’t enough hours in the day for me to do them all to the standard I aspire to. Especially so as we don’t have a permanent product manager across every product – we just have me across everything the company does.

That said, even if there was time for me to do everything perfectly, it wouldn’t make sense for me to do so. Why?

Uncertainty. Product development in general is full of uncertainty, but especially so in start-ups. Big questions like whether we’ll have funding to carry on a year from now remain unanswered. We are earlier on in the journey of discovering how best to meet user needs, what technology/design patterns to use etc.

The correct response to uncertainty is to test early and test often. You can spend all the time in the World building the perfect feature. But if nobody uses it or you don’t have funding to carry on, then it is a waste of time. This is also true for bigger organisations. It’s just more true in start-ups where there is less to be lost from the “move fast and break things” mantra (as there’s less to break), and more to be lost from spending months building the wrong thing (as we don’t have time to waste).

Communication is less complex

One of the great time savers from working in a start-up is that it is easier to communicate ideas and keep people aligned. When building GOV.UK’s publishing platform or BBC iPlayers APIs, a large part of my role was spent aligning the work of my team with 20+ other teams, managing upwards to senior leaders and negotiating trade-offs with competing organisation-level goals. At Climate Policy Radar, keeping 17 people aligned takes much less of my time. This is largely because the complexity of communication increases non-linearly with organisation size. Product managers need to spend more of their time doing this in larger organisations.

The strategy has to be more focused

Another reason why communication and alignment are less of an overhead is that strategy needs to be more focused.

Strategy is all about aligning people towards a common strategic goal so that we can maximise our leverage and achieve that goal faster and better. With 200+ people on GOV.UK, we were able to pursue multiple strategic objectives in parallel. With less than 20 people, the strategy needs to be simpler. Spreading our bets means we move too slowly, and moving fast is arguably the most important core strength of a start-up.

Decisions are made faster

When the opportunity arose to deliver the Global Stocktake project with the UNFCCC for Bonn, we quickly pivoted to make it our priority. In a matter of weeks, we were able to build a new product from scratch and get it in front of users who used it to do their jobs.

Such a quick turnaround would have been much harder to achieve in a large organisation with team members, partners, stakeholders, business cases and dependencies between teams to manage. It is very hard to turn a big tanker fast, not without ruffling a lot of feathers!

Less productive capacity

The small team of ~10 I worked with on Climate Policy Radar was more productive than any cross-functional product team I have worked on before.

But when a big organisation actually decides to focus on solving a problem and mobilises multiple product teams to focus on it, it will always be difficult for a small organisation to keep pace. Throughout human history, countries and companies have gained competitive advantage by organising themselves into ever larger units.

I am a bit jealous of how fast my previous self has been able to scale up teams in the past! It is quite frustrating to have all these great ideas for where you want to take the product but keep saying “not yet” to so many of them. I am excited by the prospect of scaling the Climate Policy Radar team further.

Nobody knows what I do anymore

When you meet some friends of friends for the first time and you tell them what you do, it’s much easier to say that you do manage GOV.UK or are digitising the Land Regester. Most people know of these products.

It’s not so easy to do this working at Climate Policy Radar. But being able to explain what you do in a sentence or two is a pretty important thing for a product manager to be able to do well, so it’s not such a bad thing to have to practice.

Smaller professional network

Compared to my year in Cazoo or BBC, my professional network with other digital technology professionals has grown a lot slower this year. This is to be expected because I am working with a smaller group of people. Most of the best professional opportunities I have had in life have come to me via people I have worked with in the past, so this is a bit concerning. Not too concerning though as I already have quite a big network from my previous roles.

As the only product manager, I also haven’t had easy access to a professional community of others doing a similar job to me from whom I can bounce ideas. Communities of practice like this are some of my favourite parts about working in larger organisations. I have tackled this by seeking out a product mentor whom I speak to once per month (thanks Matt!). I also try to grab coffee with other product people I have worked with in the past who have more start-up experience than me.

Individual vs collective impact

Working in a start-up, I have more agency as an individual. The time delay between my effort and the impact I have is small.

In contrast, working in a bigger organisation, I have less individual agency. But the overall impact of my and my team’s work is generally higher. At BBC & GOV.UK, usage was measured in millions rather than thousands.

It is hard work

There is so much work to do, and not many people to do it. In the first 8 months, I pushed myself very hard, working a lot of evenings and weekends. Nobody was forcing me to do this. Indeed, Climate Policy Radar has excellent policies around time off and mental well-being, and we are actively building a culture where people don’t feel that they need to be online 24/7.

I have always been someone who is prepared to put in extra hours at work. But I think the fact that product managers in start-ups have so much more agency to impact things as individual contributors themselves, I find it even more tempting to keep on pushing myself harder.

About 8 months in I started to burn out. In the past, I have burnt out because of having to work in a toxic organisation or from pouring my heart and soul into a body of work which fails spectacularly (eg. losing an election campaign or losing funding for the team). But this time was different. Everything was going super well. My burnout came around the time we launched our tool at the Bonn Climate summit, which is probably the most amazing career experience of my life.

In the past 6 months, I have gotten much better at putting boundaries in place to give myself time to switch off. This includes disconnecting all work accounts from my devices on weekends, switching off at a reliable time most evenings and scheduling regular time for breaks. I will always be happy to put in the extra hours where needed. But for business as usual, I have tried to get better at using the time I and my team have more effectively. This is good practice no matter what size organisation you are working in. But it’s probably a bit easier to do in larger organisations where there are more processes in place and workload is generally more predictable and manageable.

Where next for me?

Towards the end of my time in the public sector, I was growing quite frustrated with the slow pace, bureaucracy and lack of agency. I needed to change things up and was very keen to give start-up life a try. One year in at Climate Policy Radar and I am having a great time, and am planning on being here for quite a while. But trying something different has given me a bit of perspective, and I do have more appreciation for some of the benefits of working in a large organisation than I did a year or two ago.

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