Growing PM Skills in a Fast Growing Startup - AMA with Suba A Kanchana,

Hello Folks!

We are glad to have Suba A Kanchana as our guest for this edition’s AMA series. Suba is currently working as a VP Product at Taxdoo, Hamburg. 

Suba A. Kanchana has pursued her MBA from Esade Business School. She has more than 16 years of Technology & Product experience in various industries such as E-commerce, Banking, FinTech, and TaxTech. She has previously worked at Tata Consultancy Services, Lazada Group, OUTFITTERY and Deposit Solutions across India, United States, Southeast Asia and Europe. 

In this week’s edition, Suba answers people’s questions around growing PM skills in a fast-growing startup, transitioning to Product Management, dealing with product prioritization and much more.

So let's jump straight into it!

What frameworks do you use for prioritization as a PM?  

There are lot of frameworks. Sometimes you don’t even need one as long as things are clear with the vision and strategy. In my past, I have deployed 3 types of frameworks:

  1. Impact vs Effort 
  2. Business case - this is a bit tricky where we had SAFE framework and each team had to pitch for business cases quarterly. 
  3. RICE - this is a good mix of Quantitative and Qualitative

What should someone in mid-career PM really work on and set their path to becoming a product leader?  

When someone is in mid-career PM, I assume they have the key PM competencies covered; which is mostly: logical thinking, holistic approach, stakeholder management, product discovery etc. 

To summarize the steps to becoming a product leader, it goes like this: 

  • Start to be better at core PM competencies (some mentioned above) 
  • Start with a softer approach like mentoring other Junior PMs /APMs in the team  
  • Get involved in adjacent product areas related to your work 
  • Then go towards the Group PM role - where one still has hands-on PM work in addition to managing 1 or 2 PMs. This is important because this will tell if one wants to move towards a Principal/Expert role in product or a leadership role. 

I started in small numbers and took up 1 or 2 teams additionally before taking up a whole portfolio. Above all, start to express your interest to your product leaders and this will help open potential doors. 

What’s your specific advice to someone for the first 30 days, 60 days, 90 days as a new PM in the company?  

Let’s break it down -

  • For the first 30 days, just be nice to yourself and focus on onboarding and understanding the status quo of the company. Observe as much as possible and DON'T jump into recommendations. 
  • The next 30 days is a time where you really get a pulse of your own product, team, engineers and business stakeholders. Get deeper into the product as much as you can. 
  • When you are nearing the 90-day mark, it is almost a quarter for you in the role/company. By this time you should have already been active in your responsibilities from the PM side – discovery/  delivery. 

How important is it for a PM to develop long term thinking? How should one go about it?

It mostly depends on the type of company you are in. If you are in an early stage or seed,finding the right market fit is more important. For a hyper-growth stage one, start from the vision. Be clear about where you see your product in X years and then plan or do your hard work towards it.

What's the best way to research about an early stage and fast growth start-up as well as connect with the founders, to eventually apply there as a product person?  

Personally, I always joined a post Series-A and went towards growth stage startups for a few years. If you join a seed or early stage, there won’t be any streamlined processes. That one product person will be doing almost everything in that organisation. That's more hands-on. Normally, you try fast and fail fast. Learn and move on. 

If you join post-series A or B, that’s where the rapid growth comes in. This is where it’s really important to get to know from Co-founders where the vision and product thinking is. This is a key step because Co-founders need to have a product driven attitude to have a strong product focus. Else you will end up in project management /feature teams again. 

Last but not the least, join ONLY if you believe in the idea and business model.

How did you transition to PM? What do you feel helped you with the move?  

It was never really pre-planned for me to get into PM. I came from a technology background. I quit that job and pursued an MBA in Europe and a PM job just happened. The CPO of the company looked into my profile and thought that PM is the area that would fit me better. So it was quite serendipitous.

Would one’s learnings be more exponential if one joins a start-up or a big company at the start of their career?  

There will be a different type of learning in each. Start-ups will most probably have a steep learning curve. But you don’t necessarily do things in the right way. You do it in a way that's needed for growth. 

That's when the learnings from big product companies come into the picture. You learn the best practices, understand various processes; the pros and cons of it. You start to go deeper in a specific domain/area compared to a start-up where you have your hands on all products.

In a start-up, roles evolve in months. How would you suggest PMs keep up with the pace as well as upskill themselves at the same rapid pace?

As a PM, be clear on your core competencies, strengths and goals. Sometimes the growth is so fast that you feel you are in the middle of chaos. But this is where your learning curve is so high. When the growth happens so fast, you also start to focus on certain areas. Be upfront about it and find an interesting area for you. 

In certain companies, they grant a couple of hours per week for training and learning. So, they push people to allocate time amidst the workload. I normally block myself for specific learnings. 

The beauty of this evolution is that you will not realize that you are learning so much until you look back.  Though you can also refer to books, diff. blogs etc, I believe in learning in the job with new problems coming up too. 

Do you have any favourite books/podcasts or people on Twitter you follow for regular updates about the PM world?  

Actually, The Product Folks is quite cool and has a lot of resourceful info there too. Nevertheless, my favourite books depending on what you want to know:

  • Inspired by Marty Cagan
  • Empowered by Marty Cagan
  • Continuous Discovery Habits by Teresa Torres
  • Product Leadership by Martin, Nate and Richard
  • The Lean Startup by Eric Ries

Some of the blogs I like are medium, SVPG and most authors have their own blogs too. MTP has one as well. So, these are my go-to mostly.

What pointers would you give to people who want to transition within the company to PM roles? How can one establish credibility?  

Yes, internal transition has a huge advantage in that they are already part of the company and understand the business. The key point is building trust and confidence in the Product management team. This is based on the outcomes achieved. Keep a soft goal for yourself for every quarter and look back and see if it’s in the right direction. 

What is the secret sauce for disrupting into fintech Product roles (digital assets-NFTs/STOs) from traditional software development?  

This one is not always easy. The big advantage in my profile was that I did Software development in Banking. So that experience really helped and that’s how I was able to push myself into Fintech. If it’s the start of your career, starting with an entry-level PM job in Fintech helps. If not, before doing a career switch, you should develop self-interests in the industry and domain where you self-teach yourself. But as I said, this one is really difficult. 

Suggestions for non-tech product managers on breaking into Product Management

Companies don't necessarily expect deeper tech knowledge for Product roles.  Yes, you need to know how to interact and understand the engineering teams. But focus on the core PM competencies. Pick the type of PM roles that are relatively "less" tech focused. That would help. But I think this isn’t a deal-breaker in most cases. 

Nevertheless, if you would really like to develop Tech skills, start with basics such as understanding API interactions, high-level architecture flow etc. 

How to successfully move into a PM role after having 7-8 years of entrepreneurship experience? 

I believe that entrepreneurs and co-founders are the first product managers in a company. As an entrepreneur, you get to have varied experiences. As a PM, start  with the specific focus where you have much interest or where your strength is. For example, If you are strong in Analytics, you can be a Data PM. Whenever I come across such candidates, I always look for very specific achievements or areas rather than keeping themselves broad. 

In a B2B product, how do you prioritize between features as there can be a lot of pressure from the customers?

This is quite interesting and common more often than not. Always look for values that you would bring in along with the features. With B2B, you have access to lot of customer data/metrics and potential customers are clear as well. Quantify as much as possible if there is a big push and don’t forget user research. Since its limited user groups anyways, always aim for experimentation before a decision. 

Do companies hire PMs or PM interns without an MBA or a great college background? If yes, how does one build a proof of work as a fresher which can help in cracking interviews?  

MBA helps, but it’s not really a prerequisite. As long as you have logical, analytical and user approach based thinking, it’s already a big advantage. In a fresher interview, I personally ask case/design questions, coupled with examples that could help them to display basic competencies. I don’t expect a bunch of proven records or deliveries. 

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