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Scaleup vs Startup in Product Management

Written by
Spencer Wong Spencer Wong
Product Lead @ Bondex
Published
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Working as a Product Manager in companies of varying sizes and stages of their business offers a different set of challenges. Having spent most of my Product career in scaleups, my recent move to a fully remote startup has provided an opportunity to experience the adaptations of the Product function. While both environments are driven by innovation and the pursuit of growth, the strategies and tactics employed in each setting are distinctly different.

In the scaleups I’ve been a part of, the focus was on refining and expanding an already established product. As a VP/Head of Product, my role was one of orchestration. I led small, nimble, product and design teams with a mission to fuel the company’s growth engine. The initial priorities were around understanding business intricacies, dissecting existing user behavior data, and translating those insights into a roadmap. In parallel, there was a budget to grow the team quickly so it was necessary to agree on product development processes between Product, Tech and Design to ensure new team members could be integrated quickly. At a high level my role was about creating a high performing team, maintaining strong relationships with stakeholders across the business and coordinating work across multiple teams and streams of work.

My recent transition to Bondex, a Web3 talent and recruitment startup, has been a departure from this way of working. As the Lead and sole Product Manager in a small startup, along with strategy, I’m back in the details of building requirements, specing features and building the platform from scratch. It has been rewarding working hands-on and dedicating more time to the essential task of advancing the product. The shift also means every decision has a direct impact on the product’s trajectory with the thrill of crafting something entirely new.

Startups are obviously riskier ventures. You will need to embrace uncertainty and take bold risks in the pursuit of product-market fit

Spencer Wong, Product Lead @ Bondex

Let’s dive deeper further into areas of Product Management that are more extreme in a startup environment.

Resource Constraints

Working in a startup requires Product Managers to be scrappy and resourceful. It’s a constant examination of “Do we really need X to solve the problem Y?” Build vs Buy are inherently more challenging when you may only have one engineering squad. Taking an off the shelf solution can make sense for the sake of speed and experimenting quickly before investing in building it as part of your core IP. Perfection should not be the goal here, being pragmatic, learning and adapting through quick iterations and feedback should be the priority. When evaluating Saas solutions, check for special offers for startups and if you need to pay for a product or service, negotiate hard and don’t overpay based on optimistic forecasts (expected traffic, transactions, API calls, etc).

Risk Tolerance

Startups are obviously riskier ventures. You will need to embrace uncertainty and take bold risks in the pursuit of product-market fit. You may have to pivot the entire business model if key user feedback or actual results are not aligning with your initial hypothesis. Compared to a scaleup where the focus is on scaling on the existing business model, risk taking is far more calculated where disrupting what is already working has significant implications and will be met by resistance.

Even from a personal perspective, startups may offer equity, options or tokens in lieu of a higher base salary so your personal circumstances will often align with the risk/reward profile of the business. When choosing to work at a startup, it is worth considering your own timeline, risk tolerance and whether the time is right for where you are in your career.

Decision Making Speed

One of the benefits of working in a startup is decisions can be made faster due to smaller teams and less bureaucracy. Even with imperfect data, Product Managers can have more autonomy to make rapid decisions and execute swiftly. This has been a welcome change having worked in larger organizations where decision making ownership can be unclear and significant time is spent debating with stakeholders and the process is stretched over several weeks or months.

Approach to Optimization

With a sizable user base, scaleups can see significant growth from small percentage improvements to conversion rates. Through A/B testing, user journey analysis and UI/UX refinements there can be great return on investment. While there is a tipping point for startups when dedicating resources towards optimization can make sense, early on you will lack the massive user base to optimize for. Instead, the focus is on understanding the initial user’s paint points through in-depth interviews, surveys and feedback loops. This ensures that the product addresses real needs.

Product and Design Relationship

One of the areas I’ve always enjoyed about Product Management is working closely with Product Designers. In an early stage startup with a sole Product Designer it means finding a great designer is critical to success. Many of the traits of a great startup Product Manager apply to Design as well. Their ability to work quickly and still produce beautiful and usable experiences is vital. At Bondex, myself and the design lead conduct any research together to ensure we both develop a deep understanding of user behaviours and motivations which we reference when problem solving. By working together, if we need to pivot and certain designs get left behind, no one feels bitter that their efforts were wasted. Instead, we refocus on what we have learned and move forward. A shared embracing of the agile mindset, openness to feedback and adapting designs to evolving priorities of the product roadmap help create the best product and design partnerships in my experience.

While many principles of Product Management remain when working in startups and scaleups, the pre vs post product-market fit highlights different areas to more extremes. Is working in a startup right for you? It depends, I would always advise gaining product experience in a team first where you can gain mentorship and learn from other Product Managers before joining a startup as their first product hire. Because of the need for Product Managers in startups to be well versed in a broad spectrum of areas from user interviews, analytics, email, SEO, API to App development, it is better if you have already covered most areas previously since it will be challenging to ramp up your knowledge while juggling short timelines. That said, if you’re ready for that next challenge and want to get to the heart of building great products then the startup experience can be thrilling and rewarding.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Spencer Wong

Spencer Wong
Product Lead @ Bondex

As a Product Leader, Spencer has been building and scaling innovative Product and Design teams for over a decade. He is passionate about creating customer-centric experiences rooted in data driven insights across Web and App platforms.

He served as Head of Digital Experience at Made.com for 5 years and played a pivotal role in driving the company’s growth from £100M to £500M in revenue, ultimately leading to a successful IPO in 2021.

As an entrepreneur and enthusiast of Web3, he founded an NFT project with renowned portrait artist Bo Feng Lin that grew a large following across Twitter and Discord and sold out a 1,555 PFP Collection in 2023.

Today, he’s applying his experience and expertise to disrupt the talent and recruitment landscape within Web3 at Bondex.

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