StartupYard | Amit Paunikar

Amit Paunikar: On Product Management, and Owning Failure

I caught up with popular StartupYard mentor Amit Paunikar this week, to talk about the subject of his appearance at WebExpo, where he will talk about one of his passions, Product Management.

Paunikar has been a pioneer and evangelist in the area of product management, working with Google, Yahoo, and MarketShare. He has been a software engineer, a startup founder, and a StartupYard mentor, and is currently a product manager for Skype in Prague. He will speak at WebExpo, in Prague on the weekend of September 19th.

Q: Hi Amit, you’ve had a storied career, working for Google, Yahoo!, MarketShare, and co-founding your own company, MediaStudio. Can you tell us about your career journey?

Paunikar is a native of Mumbai, lived in the US for many years, and relocated to Prague 3 years ago.

An American educated in Mumbai and Los Angeles, Paunikar founded MediaStudio, and has worked for Google, Yahoo! and now Skype. He has lived in Prague for 3 years.

I grew up in Mumbai, where I did my undergraduate education in Computer Science. After a short stint in Citicorp, I moved to Los Angeles for my Masters in computer science. I spent 15 years in California after that, working at big and small companies including stints at Google and Yahoo! before taking the entrepreneurial path and starting my own company.

Early in my career, I switched from Software engineering to Product Management, which defined and shaped my career journey immensely.

Tell us more about your transition from engineering to product management. Why did you do it?

My first job as a product manager was with a company that made a hardware/software product, a networking gateway, that allowed users to access public wifi and wired networks.I was a curious engineer, but a lot of my questions were of the following type: “why are we doing this and not that?”, “why are we approaching this market and not that?”, “who is our target customers, what are their core needs?”  

Since I didn’t know a good way to get these answers, I would be quite vocal during company-wide meetings. After one such meeting,  the CEO of the company called me in, and said: “you have a lot of questions about things that go beyond engineering. Why do you need this information and whose job should it be give you that information?”

I told him that having this information would help engineering design the correct solution, get their “why’s” answered and instill a sense of ownership and accomplishment. I didn’t have a good answer of whose primary job it should be fill this gap, but when he offered me to step in and fill the role. So I filled that hole that existed for me as an engineer- someone who could from the connection between customers, sales, BD and engineering. Soon that role morphed into product management as we know it.

What originally drew you to the Czech Republic, and what makes you stay here?

It a combination of serendipity and need. At Mediastudio, we built a web-based video post-production platform with complex tools that dealt with image processing, waveform analysis and rotoscoping. We found most of these highly skilled engineers in Ukraine and Bulgaria. It made sense for me to move close to my engineering team. Also, my wife, who I met in California, actually grew up in Prague. So it was a 2 for 1 that I could not pass on.

Since moving to Prague, I have immersed myself into the startup ecosystem as well as have had a chance to interact with small and big companies. Prague and CEE has great engineering talent, but generally lack the product management function. This is an interesting challenge to solve and contribute to. In addition, Prague is a wonderful place to live!

As a popular mentor at StartupYard, you’ve long been an advocate for the idea of Product Management. Why is this such an important topic for Czech startups?

 

Product Management is an important discipline. While Product Management is one of the pillars of most companies, big and small, in Silicon Valley, it is sorely missing here in Czech Republic and in CEE in general.

In his seminal article, Marc Andreesson says the most important thing for a startup and companies is product/market fit. Product/market fit means being in a good market with a product that can satisfy that market. Creating a product that can satisfy a market requires companies to thoroughly know its customers. The primary job of a Product Manager is to be the customer advocate within the company.

Without a customer advocate, even the most brilliant engineers and companies end up creating products that no one wants to use, or worse, end up becoming engineering shops that provide their expertise to others. For a startup ecosystem to excel, just having amazing engineers is not enough. We need a good combination of functions that make a company successful, we need amazing designers, marketers, business dev, sales and good product manager. I feel product management is severely underrepresented in Prague and CEE in general.
What would you say makes a product manager different from a project manager, a UX/UI designer, or any other position?

Product management is an interesting discipline. It is very critical function, yet you cannot learn it in schools, nor are any Product Management degrees are offered in mainstream universities. Most of the product managers I know have learned it on the job. They come from various backgrounds. I have seen designers and project managers transition and become great product managers.

I like to think of product managers as people who take the ultimate responsibility for the failure of the product. This might seem to be a pessimistic view, but there is a lot of depth involved in thinking about it this way. As a PM you take responsibility of everything. You don’t have the liberty of just thinking about what to build, why to build, how to build, how will it look like, etc. you have to think about all the questions above and more.

As a Project manager or a UX designer, you can limit yourself to just a couple of these questions.

If the product fails because there’s no market, or because the technology doesn’t work, or because the product/market fit does not exist, or the design is bad, then that is the product manager’s fault. You’re not in charge of sales and technology, or design, but it is your job to make sure that the people who are doing these have everything they need to get their job done right.

What kind of a person is best for that sort of position?

Good PMs excel in empathy, know how to keep an eye on the larger picture and just into details as needed. As a PM you have to be able to make sure everyone knows what to do, but not necessarily know to do it.

I can’t sit with a designer and tell her how to design something. But I have to be clear to her about what we are designing, who we are designing it for and what functions it should provide.

PMs have to be comfortable with unknowns and uncertainty. They need to have the drive to make sense of seemingly unrelated things and have a good grasp of multiple faculties. PMs should be the “tip of the spear” that heads into chaos and leaves a cone of understanding and calm behind them.

How has the position of product manager evolved since your time with Google?

A lot has changed in the past few years. Startups and smaller companies have a lot more tools available now that were once reserved for the biggest companies. With cheap cloud computing platforms, the cost of building products has come down significantly. A lot more processing power is available and so is the ability to create and analyze lots of data.

All this changes how product managers act. They can now market worldwide, launch fast, collect and analyze vast amounts of data, make data driven decisions and course correct. Product Managers also have lot of tools and resources available at their disposal. A growing list of well respected VCs, product managers, authors and bloggers are writing a great deal about Product Management.

Defining roles and areas of responsibility for a growing team is one of their most challenging early tasks for a startup. What are some of the mistakes you most often see in this process, and how would you correct those mistakes?

It depends on what kind of a startup it is. An enterprise startup will have a different composition as compared to a consumer startup. The key is to have a core set of people who have varied experiences. If you are an experienced founder that you have a leg up compared to someone who has never started a company. In any case, it is important to seek counsel, have strong advisors in the area and learn from existing companies in the area.

One of the biggest mistakes I have seen is that companies close themselves in, start developing the product based on a hypothesis and keep at it. They never go out and seek validation from customers and users. No matter how small the startup, it is important to have a line of communication to your customers. Another mistake is to now have engineering and process discipline. Startups have to be designed from the ground up to be scalable. Scalability as an afterthought can be very expensive.

So every startup needs

  1. A customer advocate function – these includes responsibilities like understanding the market and customer needs, establishing a sales channel and continuous business development
  2. A technical advocate function – this includes responsibilities like engineering discipline and technical excellence

Do you think that organizational structures and awareness of new working methods have improved in the worldwide tech ecosystem since you started as a product manager?

Yes definitely. As a I said before, I started before MySpace and Friendster, before Napster and Skype and definitely before AWS (Amazon Web Services). It’s now easier than ever to start a company. If you wanted to start a company back then to do something meaningful, you had to start with thinking of physical storage location for your specialized servers. Now there are cloud service available for not only computing, storage but all kinds of functions like monitoring, email, authentication, etc.

There is freedom to try out a bunch of stuff and fail quickly. Startups are making bigger and bigger bets. Backed by technology companies like Uber and AirBnB are disrupting centuries old industries, companies like Cloudera is venturing into and disrupting space reserved for the likes of IBM and Oracle.

This is the cloud era, but 15 years ago most of this would have been unfeasible. Companies just didn’t have the elements necessary for such broad missions. And because of that, people are changing as well. Nothing seems impossible, today a 20 year old out of school can think about disrupting really well established industries and get funded to do it.