Learn by doing: 3 ways running a business makes you a better PM

For the things we have to learn before doing them, we learn by doing them - Aristotle

When I worked at Google, @kevaldesai gave me some advice: “be like him”. He was referring to another PM I knew and noted that his success was due in large part to a deep understanding of other key functions (sales, support, marketing, etc) outside of engineering/product.

So I asked this PM, how do you do it? And his response was: “I sell TV wall mounts in my spare time…”

It was not the response I expected. But as he explained, it made sense. He used AdWords as his primary sales channel - he’d felt the pains first hand of linking Analytics to AdWords, experimental beta campaigns & the occasional bug. He built and maintained his own site, customer database, integrated payments, and front end. He dealt directly with the suppliers in China he was buying wall mounts from. And he answered the support emails when people couldn’t get the damn thing attached (or heaven forbid only temporarily before the TV came crashing down!). Bottom line: he understood his business end-to-end.

If you are a PM, this type of end-to-end grasp of the business is essential. And there is no better substitute for acquiring it then simply running a small business, end to end. It doesn’t need to be the next VC backed start-up, it just needs to be a facilitator for repeatedly challenging you outside of your core skills. There are 3 key areas it will improve you as a PM:

Cross-functional literacy
When I built RocketBlocks.me, I’d never setup an EC2 instance before, I’d never designed a MySQL database from the ground up, never edited together my own demo video, designed a logo, never built a sales pipeline or written email newsletter copy. That’s an embarrassingly long list of things that I’d never directly done before but made the products/businesses I worked on tick. Running your own web/mobile business will force you to do all (or most of) the above, and likely, more.

The Kryponite of scope creep is the one-man business unit. There were some days where I only coded, some where I only did sales prospecting and some where I only ran through logo iterations with designers on 99designs. Add to the time constraint that your efficiency in each new functional area will be severely hampered (because you’re learning it), and time has never been scarcer. On each of those days, there was only one P0 and everything else had to wait. As a PM at a company, the same is true although the fog of war is likely thicker. You can’t just come in every day and write PRDs and dissect competitive products. Some days your P0 might be helping the sales team close a deal, working through a series of nasty edge cases with engineering or working with recruiting to lock down a candidate.

Gear shifting
One of the challenges of a PM is that you’ve got your fingers in so many different metaphorical pies. You might go from a meeting reviewing mocks, to a sales call, to reviewing a contract line by line with your biz dev guy/gal. Variety is great, but it can be a hell of a challenge too. As a PM you need to build versatility that lets you switch gears quickly and smoothly. It’s not easy to be down in the weeds of a mock one moment and then at 20,000 ft view in a long term biz dev deal the next. And operating as a one-man shop is good forcing function to build gear shifting skills (eg if you’re endlessly stuck on X, then A, B, C simply won’t get done).

Overall, running your own small business isn’t a pre-req for being a PM. But it is the most effective learning exercise for building cross-functional muscle memory. Aristotle said it best: “learn by doing.”

Lastly, for more related content, check out @andrewdumont’s great posts on side projects (why you need one and the highs and lows of one).

Follow me on Twitter @kivestu, for future posts!


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