I was recently talking to Europe-based FinTech startup who were looking to hire their first Product Manager (PM), and they wanted this potential PM to be based in New York (NYC) rather than in Europe with the rest of the company. Their rationale was logical: the majority of their current and potential clients are in the US, particularly in NYC since they operate in the Financial realm, and they wanted that PM to be as close to their customers as possible.
This situation got me thinking that they have three potential options:
- Option A: Hire an NYC-based PM who can readily and easily travel to customer sites (current plan)
- Option B: Move the product team and/or the company to the US
- Option C: Hire a Europe-based PM to be collated with the company in Europe
Ideally, the entire company should relocate to where the majority of its customers are, especially since the company is quite small at its stage.
Relocating the company would provide two enormous benefits:
- The team is together
- You are near your customers
But let’s say, for some reason, relocating the company (Option B) is out of the question. Should the startup continue as plan and hire an NYC-based PM so that the PM is close to their customers (Option A), or should they hire a Europe-based PM to that the PM is close to the product team?
Based on my experience, I would strongly recommend hiring a Europe-based PM and here’s why:
Accessibility + Communication is KEY
As DJ Khaled has not said, but I hope he one day would say this: “Product Manager…the key to success is communication and being there.”
As a product team in a startup, you may be doing something that hasn’t done before, and that will make people uneasy. A PM has to be very accessible to help quell the nerves of not only his team, but the founders and other stakeholders. If one of the founders has an issue, they probably do not want to wait 5-12 hours for a response from a PM because the PM is on another continent. If there is a change in strategy or a new development, the PM needs to be made aware of it as quickly as possible so they can process the info, ask any questions, and build a plan to mitigate a risk or take advantage of an opportunity.
On a more tactical level, there are always questions popping up during Discovery and Execution that need to be addressed quickly so that the product team can keep on moving. Nobody wants to wait for the PM to wake up to answer the a question, and no PM will love having to wake up to 20 emails that need to be answered urgently when they wake up.
Similarly, and even more consequential, when new issues are found, there needs to be somebody on point to evaluate the situation quickly. Is this an issue that is compromising user data/experience for all our users and should be fixed immediately, or is it just an edge case?
You’d want the same person to be making these critical decisions day in and day out, and that person should be the PM.
Maximizing “Check this out” moments
There have been countless times where either my designer or one of my engineers have come up with a new approach to doing something that we previously haven’t discussed. But, they aren’t sure if they should follow this new path or continue with the plan/spec.
Most of the time, their ideas are great. They’ve found a simpler interaction or a quicker way of building something, and we decide to pursue this new approach because we can get in the same room and talk about the pros and cons of the two approaches, and the new approach is indeed better.
Sometimes there is one piece of the data that the PM knows that proves we should continue with the current direction, and so we continue with the current plan.
Being in the same room allows both the designers and the engineers to feel they have the flexibility to try new things since the PM is there to help them evaluate their proposal without them investing too much into or going down the wrong path. If the PM is not in the room to have such conversations, can you imagine how many incremental innovation opportunities would be missed? A LOT!
You want your PM to be present so these conversations can happen quickly and easily.
I love having private one on one conversations (1:1s) with each member of my product team and my execs. It allows us to reflect on the previous weeks, identify and address any issues that are stopping us from being at our best.
I love them even more because they quickly expose how I’m doing as a PM and what I can do to improve and be better at my job. After all, it’s a tough job and one we learn while doing.
Now you could say, “Yeah, Irfan you can have 1:1s on the phone or even on Skype/Hangouts. Technology has solved this problem already.” That is true, but there is a difference between having such a conversation on Skype vs. having such on Hangouts.
1:1s require you to be vulnerable and put in the effort to have a productive conversation.
Most folks I work with are not okay with being vulnerable. I don’t blame them! Being vulnerable forces you to expose your weakness and show you are not perfect. But with sincerity and openness, we can understand these issues better and find better ways together to work overcome them, making everybody happier.
But how do you create an environment for people to be vulnerable when people don’t want to be? I don’t have a perfect answer, but I know when I’m with my teammates in a private, safe environment, they can see how much I care for them as people, rather than colleagues. I’m also able to read their body language better so I can detect those subtle hints on how they are feeling and where we should take the conversation.
Being there physically allows PMs to show their attentiveness and respect for their teammates, helping the team overall be more successful and happy.
Being and Feeling like a Team
We all know nobody reports to the PM, and if we are truly honest, it is the PM that assigns work to the team. Sometimes the work is enjoyable; sometimes it’s not.
When the team is physically located together, everybody can see everybody working hard…together! During both the good times and the not-so-good-times-but-we-need-to-get-this-done times.
Being physically together helps reaffirm everybody is on the same page and on the same mission: to change a particular industry for the better. It helps people become teams and create strong bonds with each other.
Since everyone is physically together, people feel there are all in the same boat and will motivate them to push harder to reach those calmer waters, so we can all enjoy together!
What about being away from your customers?
Having your product team away from your clients does make things harder, and even more challenging if there is a significant time zone difference. Without a doubt, there is less of an opportunity for your team to spend with customers when they are doing Discovery and Support. Even the CEO of Tinder recently spoke about how important it is for Tinder to be as close to their clients around the world so they can understand cultural differences.
So how do you build a relationship with your customers if you are so far away?
Although I don’t have a detailed solution to this problem yet, I would make two recommendations:
- Arrange your work hours to mirror your clients/users. If this is not possible, at least have certain times during the day reserved for your customers and communicate it to them, e.g. 1pm-5pm, where they know they can easily get ahold of you and provide any necessary feedback.
- The Product team should frequently travel. It doesn’t have to be every month, but if you can set up a proper cadence for a road trip every 3-6 months, then your customers will feel that you are committed to them and value them. Traveling also provides an excellent opportunity for having real-time and in-the-flesh discovery workshops with your clients. Such workshops would provide you with great feedback and insights, and will allow your customers to get invested in your product.
If it too expensive to get your entire team to travel, your primary objective to get the PM to go, then the designer(s).
All in all, I would highly recommend having your product team collocated together as the pros heavily outweigh the cons in my opinion. If this were not the case, I would be in Bali writing this post while drinking from a coconut. Because I know the opportunity cost of not being with my team is so high, I’ll save Bali and that coconut for my next vacation.
Do you have any thoughts and on experiences of a Product Manager being remote from their team?