/ #product-management 
12 minutes read

How to best start your new Product Manager job?

Before joining a new company, some PMs may have only worked with products that they started from zero. During onboarding, there are many aspects to cover when you inherit an existing product. Here’s an attempt to list the things you should consider when starting as PM.

Catch up with your Manager on important things

This is the first thing to do. As early as possible, try hard to agree with your manager on the following points:

  • What is your mission (often, it can be something like maximize the return on investment of the company in product X)
  • What is your domain of responsibility (the expected output, the types of decisions you should make)
  • What are the goals you are expected to reach for the next quarter
  • Who are the people you should meet with asap
  • How she prefers you to communicate with her. Maybe set up a status report every week (at least for the first couple of months) to catch up about What have you done in the week?, What do you plan to do this week?, What is currently blocking you?)

Understand who is everyone in the team

This is something you want to start as soon as you understand your mission on a high-level, your role, and goals. This will take you 2–3 weeks. You can expect your manager to share the list of everyone on the team with you. If she won’t for some reason, consider talking to:

  • Your tech lead, and his manager
  • Your team’s software engineers & developers
  • Your team’s designer, and his manager
  • Your team’s QA and the QA lead
  • Product Marketer
  • Support Lead
  • Technical writer or Documentation team
  • PMs from adjacent products
  • Someone in the growth team, if any
  • Someone in the sales team, if any
  • The UX researcher, if any
  • BI or data analysts, if any

Some Key Questions You Have to Ask

Before you meet with each of your new colleagues, try sending an agenda upfront, with a clear description of what you would like to know. The better they can prepare their answers, the better for you.

For inspiration, consider arming yourself with the questions below, but tailor them at every occasion. To make a good introduction, don’t forget to start by introducing yourself every time. For instance, tell about your background, what you achieved in your previous roles and describe consistently your mission in this new role.

About what is everyone’s area of responsibility

Some examples of questions to personalize:

  • How long have you been in the company?
  • How many other people are working in your team?
  • How much time will you dedicate to work on my product?
  • Is contributing to this product your primary job?
  • How many other products are you working on?
  • Do you have a goal or KPIs? What are they?

It’s important to understand that because… if a designer works 100% of his time on your product, then you’d want to involve them much more in the product development activities. On top of that, you might expect a shorter response time from her and have a bigger say in his priorities. If, on the other hand, a product marketer is working with 4 other products, you must remind yourself to always be very selective in what you ask him, because he will take longer to reply, or deliver.

About how everyone interacts with your product

  • What are the touchpoints you have with my product or team?
  • How does your job is affected by my product?
  • At what stage in the feature development process do you prefer to get involved?
  • Is there any input you are expecting from me (user stories, acceptance criteria, etc…)? If yes, in which timeframe?
  • What kind of deliverables/outputs do you produce (e.g. designs, support articles, etc…)? How fast, usually?
  • How long in advance do you prefer to be notified if your contribution is required (e.g. marketing, UX research)?
  • On what occasion do you need me, as the PM for this product?
  • In what ways did you collaborate with my predecessor?
  • Is there anything would you would change or keep in this cooperation?

It’s important to understand that because… if the quota of your sales rep depends on how often you prioritize the feature requests they gathered from potential clients, they will expect to have a voice in the roadmap. The support team might be impacted if you’ve released a critical bug in production. Marketing might need 2 months in advance of feature release to prep go-to-market artifacts. Head of engineering might expect to take a few days per month of your developers for training and knowledge sharing (TDD, education, code reviews, test coverage). Designers might prefer to get involved in the user research efforts early in a feature definition or rather join when the feature scope is better defined.

About what’s their suggestions & recommendations

Some of them might be in the organization for a long time, or have a strong opinion about your product, and what should be done. It’s great to listen to what people have to say at this point.

  • What do you think should be the priorities for my product?
  • Who else do you recommend me to talk with, in the company?
  • Do you have any particular recommendations for me or the team?

… and wrap it up with them

  • Did you discuss some changes with them? Then, make sure to set the right expectations on the timeframe to implement because it might take a while before you can implement it.
  • Did you agree with your manager on your objectives for the next 3 months, share those, to justify your priorities

Understand who the customers are

Even if you just arrived, for everyone you are now the voice of your customers. You won’t be able to get the respect of your teammates if you can’t speak for your customers. You have to know what your customers need, to have confidence in making product decisions. It will take you some time to gain as many insights as the rest of your organization. Nonetheless, you have to start digging in.

Here are a few activities I’d suggest:

Start by using the product by yourself, and try going through the main “Jobs to be Done” scenarios for the user personas the product addresses. This will give a context to what follows:

  • Ask if there is any record of existing customer interviews, then watch/listen to all of them. If none, run between 5–10 customer interviews (here’s a template). A great idea is to invite one or two team members to each customer interviews, they will give you some context when something is not clear to you.
  • Ask if there is an existing survey, then analyze the results of all of them.
  • Ask if there are session replay tools installed (Fullstory, Hotjar, etc.), then observe your customers using the product. If none, it won’t take long to install one, and it can be a great help for later.

Some important questions you’ll need to answer

  • Who are the end-users of the product?
  • Are the end-users also the ones who purchase the product?
  • What is the problem your product is solving for them?
  • Why do end-users or customers love your product?
  • What are the reasons they prefer it over other alternatives?
  • What is lacking in the product?
  • How were they doing before they started using your product?
  • How they use your product?

Understand what the product is

In parallel with meeting people in the team and learning more about your customers, you will want to dive into the product & numbers.

Get familiar with the product’s functionality

Ask someone in the team to walk you through the product and its features. Ask them about documentation, so it will help you answer any follow-up questions you might have and get you to learn more details.

Study the current product roadmap

Most likely, there will be enough work planned for the next 3 months. If not, don’t rush to start building a new roadmap without doing a proper analysis first. Instead, offer the team to catch up on the technical debt while you do your homework. There is always a technical debt.

Check product health

This will define what you want to do with the product next, and how you want to reshape the existing roadmap.

Below are some questions you’ll want to answer from the metrics

  • Is the product retention flat?
  • Is the product usage currently growing?
  • Is the NPS (Net Promoter Score) positive?
  • What acquisition channels work best? Are these channels scalable?
  • How is LTV (Lifetime Value) and CAC (Customer Acquisition Cost)? Do these values make sense with this retention rate?
  • What are the most frequently used functionalities in your product?
  • What are the best performing user segments, in terms of retention? of product usage growth?

More about retention

Unless your use case doesn’t expect retention (dating apps or flight booking), you aim for flat product retention. If retention isn’t flat, then you have pointed out your #1 problem. You shouldn’t go on building new “awesome” features, or take on new “promising” markets, or acquiring any new customers if you can’t retain them well enough. Not having flat retention, in the most case means that you haven’t found a product/market fit yet.

You will want to dive deeper into details to figure out why customers aren’t being retained. That is an important reason why you should do this in parallel with interviews because that will be a very good opportunity to dig into that.

Understanding core actions and natural frequency Whenever you analyze your product’s retention you will have to do a bit of research to understand against what behavior/action you should measure retention. Besides, the question of what temporal basis it has to be compared on (daily, weekly or monthly, etc.) is another one that needs to be understood.

Flat user cohorts? The most important aspect is that the retention curve flattens. If it does, it means we will retain a certain % of users from every cohort, which will provide a foundation for growth. Standard retention curve Standard retention curve.

Not flat? huh… Then accelerating or decelerating retention? Is the retention improving or is it getting worse? Another thing you should do is to look at retention cohorts over time.

For example, check if customers who signed up in March are being retained better than the ones who signed up in January?

Plotting individual user cohorts helps answer this question. Figure out if the slopes of the curves are increasing or decreasing, and by how much?

In this example, the slopes of the curves are decreasing over the weeks. The retention is getting worse. The business is having more and more difficulties keeping new user cohorts engaged past the activation stage. Example of decelerating retention Example of decelerating retention.

More about Net Promoter Score (NPS)

If your customers are unhappy, they will likely stop using your product for long. That’s why a similar analysis can be performed with NPS, and will likely correlate with the trend in retention.

Therefore, if the NPS is negative, you need to investigate, and dive deeper to determine why it happens. For example, you might have to invest in bug fixing, to improve the product’s stability.

What NPS/retention is good enough?

There are several ways to approach this but the bare minimum is for the NPS to be positive, and for the retention to be flat(or, at least, flattening over time).

For the retention, you can compare the acquisition cost (CAC) with the lifetime value multiplied by the retention (LTV x Retention).

For the NPS, it’s possible to use the NPS of the previous year (or previous quarter) as a basis for the comparison, and make sure it’s increasing.

Analyze the growth rate

It’s interesting to look into the growth rate of subscriptions and the growth rate of usage.

Then consider this:

  • If the retention is low, but growth is high, then it’s likely you have found a market but your product doesn’t satisfy it yet.
  • if the retention is flat, and the growth is flat too (and always was), then it’s likely you haven’t found your product/channel fit yet.
  • If the retention is flat, and the growth is high, then congrats, you’re in a great place because you can work on accelerating that growth or taking on new markets.

curve-growth-over-time The product life cycle and growth stages.

Break down growth & retention rates by acquisition sources

Next, you will want to breakdown the growth rates and retention rates by acquisition sources. Doing so, you will learn where is the strongest fit.

For example, surprisingly, you might learn that most growth comes from your FB ads campaigns, but this segment remains the worst in terms of user retention. That’s unfortunate because it also costs the most. That’s the kind of learning that can help you define what the next steps will be in the product.

Break down metrics by features

On top of that, check how metrics of adoption, engagement, and retention varies across your most popular features. Luckily, at this point, you already enjoyed a product tour from your new teammates and got to know different things mentioned by the customer in interviews or survey results, so you can look at what is the actual usage of each feature to understand where is the true value for your customer.

Balance short term vs long term

Lastly, with all the data you gathered at this point, you are well equipped to unleash your prioritization talents. To make the best of it, I suggest you follow the guidelines below:

  • Find what is working, then don’t touch it!
  • Find what is not working, then start fixing it!
  • Find the “low hanging” fruits, then show some quick results
  • Invest in long-term trust via overcommunication
  • Be careful when setting expectations: Promise little, deliver more.

Invest yourself in building trust

It’s a new job, but assuming you want to be here for a while, you will not be able to achieve much without the support of the people that surround you. Now, they likely have their processes already, and cultural identity or corporate history which you weren’t a part of. They also might have seen a couple of your predecessors. You have to cope with that.

In the beginning, you need to sync up with everyone and cultivate a tendency to overcommunicate. It’s important, it will help you gain their trust. Explain your thought process (why you chose to do this instead of that, and what data have you operated with, etc.) and see if anyone objects with your plan. If so, discuss it and change your plan if their argument is stronger. Coming along the way on an ongoing project is always a humbling experience.

Finally, use the extra time in communication to be certain that your team is on board with you. Doing so will pay back handsomely in the future when your team will trust you on larger bets.

References & Credits

~ Thanks for reading ~


By Alban Leandri

I am an engineer with a soul-devouring passion for sciences and the digital space. With experience in startups and technology companies, I'm always keen to face new challenges, improve my craft and share the love :)

Tweet me a "Thanks" :)