Established Company vs Startup Product Management: Which Is Better?

startup product management

When trying to decide on the next step of your career as a Product Manager, the same choice is faced by Product Managers new and experienced; is it better to take a position in startup product management? Or should your focus be on securing a Product Manager job with an established company? To really understand which of these situations is right for you, it is important to break down the pros and cons of each.

Established vs Startup Product Management: Your Personal Situation

If you’re wondering about startup product management vs product management at an established company, you likely fit into one of four categories that each have their own set of pros and cons to consider. For example, new Product Managers that are either looking to join a startup or considering accepting a position with an established company will have different variables to consider than an experienced Product Manager that is faced with the same options. 

With that said, no matter what your situation, it is important to begin by establishing a baseline. It can be very helpful to begin this by answering the sort of questions a high school or university guidance counsellor might. Such as, what do you ultimately want from your job? This may seem exceedingly simple, but if you can lay out clear criteria to this question you are already a step ahead of many.

Do you want prestige? Money? Is it a particular industry you are hoping to work in? To really start to uncover that question, ask yourself what the perfect start to your Monday would look like. What does the perfect work week look like for you? What is it that you’re doing? What types of people are you working with? What’s the kind of culture that you want to be a part of?

Once you are able to answer these questions, you will have a clearly defined structure to steer your decisions that can come in very handy. No matter your experience level, knowing what your desired outcome is will help you assign weight to the pros and cons of each option. Ultimately, you are really deciding how you want to spend your 80 hours a week working. Once that first step is covered, we can begin to break down the pros and cons of each option. Let’s first look at the two options for a prospective first time product manager.

First Timers: Is Startup Product Management for You?

As a first time Product Manager, what you really need is you need to be working at a company where they’re actually going to train you to some degree on how to do the job.

There is no product management bachelor’s degree. There is no product management concentration for MBA programs. The majority of your training and learning will have to happen on the job, so what you really need right now is to get your foot in the door. Startups have the ideal lower barrier of entry to getting a job for first-time Product Managers.

Startup product management doesn’t necessitate having as much experience as a role at an established company might. However, working at a startup can be a double edged sword; it can be extremely chaotic. While it’s true that you will likely get to put your hands in the little bit of everything with the potential to gain a lot of valuable experience, it is often a trial by fire.

Many first time Product Managers will go into startup product management with absolutely no mentorship and no guidance. If you end up in this situation, you will basically have to learn how to sink or swim. Overall, if you’re talking about learning how to actually do the job, there really isn’t a better place than startups.

What About Experienced Product Managers?

 On the other hand, what if you are an experienced Product Manager that has been offered a position at a startup? Let’s say maybe you’ve worked at a few other startups before, or maybe you’ve been working at established companies for the last few years, but you’re at a point in your career right now where you’re looking for a change. Maybe a friend that you used to work with has decided to contact you for a startup product management role, or you saw a position open at a startup you admire and you were thinking to yourself, why not give it a shot? 

Assuming your goal is no longer to simply get your foot in that door, there are suddenly more factors to consider when taking a role at a startup. As an experienced Product Manager, your goals have likely shifted away from getting more experience and moved towards gaining stability.

Startup Success for Experienced Product Managers

A good startup opportunity will be cash flow positive, and they actually have some revenue. They will also ideally have a proof of concept — you really have to take a look at who’s running the company and ask yourself whether or not success is critical to them. If the people running the company aren’t 100% invested in its success, the chances of it failing increase exponentially. Getting a startup off the ground successfully requires a great commitment to the problem that you are trying to solve.

If you’re not ready to give up your nights and your weekends, you might want to just stay put at where you’re at right now. Being bored of your current job should never be a reason why you’re leaving your current job. Because while you’re going to get excitement at a startup, it honestly might not be the type of excitement that you want. 

Established Company Pros and Cons

Whether you are going to work at an established company as either a first time Product Manager or an experienced one, it’s going to be the complete opposite of a startup. There will always be a little bit more bureaucracy, and a little bit more red tape. At an established company, your role is usually pretty well defined.

Another key difference to consider is that while startups usually build products that are extremely client facing, an established company might deal with what we call internal tools in the business. You won’t see them outside of the walls or the confines of the office, and therefore you might have more work-life balance. Overall it comes down to what it is that you really want.

Established vs Startup Product Management: Which is Better?

Now we’ve laid out some overall generalizations in terms of life as a Product Manager at a startup versus life at an established company. While it’s important to remember that every company and position is different, generally there will be similarities in experiences at these types of jobs. So it really goes back to what it is that you want.

A lot of the time, what we’re missing is context in terms of getting what it is that we really want, because we’ve never really been asked that question. Truly great Product Managers understand how to maneuver in any situation that they find themselves in to get to the best possible situation for themselves.

If you’re looking for guidance to help you start making maneuvers of your own, schedule a free 30 minute career consultation with one of our career coaches. We’d love to answer any questions you may still have and set you up to start getting more out of your career. 

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