When Simon and I started Red Gate, the two of us decided which product to build over beers and phone calls between Guildford and the Hague. We were doing product management. By guesswork, gut instinct and scribbling on envelopes and whiteboards, but it seemed to work.
Well, yes and no.
Our first product – an online bug tracking system – never followed the hockey stick curve of our business plan. But it didn't matter. You don't need stratospheric growth and a billion dollar addressable market to bootstrap a software company. A $50,000 market opportunity is enough to get you off the ground – once you get started you'll figure out the rest.
As we grew, so did the costs of failure and the spoils of success. At some point, these became large enough to make proper product management essential. We didn't realise we'd reached that stage until we were long past it. We'd experimented with engineers working on product roadmaps in between project work; we'd navel gazed and debated what 'product management' really was; we'd argued about how it would fit in with our way of doing things. As often happens, it took somebody from the outside to tell us what we all already knew but had failed to articulate. At the end of two days at Red Gate, Tim Lister, the author of Peopleware, told us that:
"Currently the role of product manager is not working. It seems like all the most likely candidates are so busy being developers, testers, and project managers, that nobody has the time to ponder and research the future of the products."
There were 85 of us before we finally hired our first full time product manager. We should have done it two years earlier.
I'm hoping that you'll do something that we failed to do: listen to the advice of others and learn from other people's mistakes rather than insist on making the same ones yourself. Here are three good ways to start.
Firstly, watch the video of Steve Johnson at Business of Software 2008. Steve is an instructor at Pragmatic Marketing and has personally trained thousands of product managers.
Secondly, join the online chat about product management that Steve is moderating. It's on December 12th at 5pm GMT (that's noon EST or 9am PST). You can sign up at the BoS social network.
Thirdly, subscribe to the Cranky PM blog.
Got links to other excellent product management resources? Post them here.
Based in the UK and want to discuss building profitable, sustainable long term software businesses? Come to the second London Business of Software meet up on January 13th. Register here. Or come to the Software East meeting in Cambridge, UK on January 22nd.
On the forum, there are questions about product management, Micro ISVs and marketing mistakes. Reply to them, or post your own questions on the forum.
On my blog, I give seven tips for surviving the downturn. I'd like to hear your opinion too, so if you've got a comment then please post it.