What Does A Product Manager Do?

by nils  - November 3, 2015

When someone asks you in the future “What does a product manager do?,” instead of saying “he or she is the CEO of the product,” you can say they:

  • Find a market problem (and validate it)
  • Create a solution to the problem
  • Take it to market

Wait a sec! That seems simple, almost like something my mother might understand.

Product Management Is All About The Money, Baby!

Most of you have the ambition to get big. How do you do that? The only way to get big as a product company is for people to buy your product. Preferably a lot of people, for significant amounts of money at a time. Duh!

But why would people buy your product? We know there are products that people don’t buy. We don’t want to have one of those – because you can’t get big, or even grow at all. If you look at the revenue line for a product that no one buys – it’s nasty! We don’t like that line at all!


Why Do We Get Revenue?

Compare it to our desired revenue line – up and to the right – and accelerating as it goes up. If our product sells like that, it means it’s solving an important problem for some people. Important enough that people will pay for the solution.

You may have a beautiful product, beautifully engineered and architected, and rocking in usability. But if it doesn’t solve a big market problem… Flat line.

A product can have some warts, not quite work as the user expects all the time, have some typos, use a 1998 style UI – but if it solves a big problem better than anything else… Up and to the right.

Problem Should Be At The Center

This is called, in Lean, “product/market fit,” or “finding a repeatable business model,” or other things. These terms suggest the product is at the center. But in truth the market problem should be at the center. That’s what drives your revenue up and to the right – a good market problem that only you solve, or that you solve better than anyone else.

Also Known As … Product Management

There’s a person in your company, perhaps multiple people, who are responsible for finding these problems and figuring out how to solve them. If you’re a small startup, this is going to be one of your founders. In a larger company, that person is usually called a “product manager.” (Perhaps this role should be called “problem manager?”)

The Rest Of The Story

Apart from finding (and validating) the problem, there are two other important things product managers do as well – less important in some sense (doing a better job of building a zero-revenue product still leaves you with zero) – but still necessary for success.

One of these is to guide the creation of the solution. This happens differently at different companies – sometimes the PM creates a full spec, sometimes a tweet is good enough to guide the engineering team. But it’s the responsibility of the PM to make sure that what comes out solves the market problem.

The third critical piece is to get the product to market. This is often called, surprise, “go to market.”

  • Making sure Marketing knows who to target with programs, and knows the right messages to put out
  • Giving the sales force tools for reaching those people and selling the solution effectively. (Remember, those people are anxious for a solution and willing to pay for it.)
  • Providing competitive analysis and other materials so your product prevails in sales engagements

Taking Action

Here are three things you can do today to use these ideas

  1. Start thinking of yourself as a “problem finder” – and start to learn how to find problems (hint: Here are some posts on this blog to help you get started: Finding and Validating A Market Problem, How Badass Are You At Finding And Validating Market Problems?)
  2. Make sure you can articulate the problem your product solves for your market segment. (Here are some guidelines on how to do that effectively: A Weak Value Proposition Is A Symptom, Not A Disease, Do You Want To Be A Badass Product Manager?)
  3. Make sure your marketing and sales people understand who you’re selling to and why they should buy your product and not spend their money elsewhere. (What Is Marketing, To Product Managers?)


Product management consists of three main activities:

  1. Finding and validating market problems
  2. Creating solutions to those problems that are better than other alternatives
  3. Taking those solutions to market

While #2 is the most natural, for a lot of us, #1 is far more important. No matter how good your product is, if it doesn’t solve an important customer problem, it won’t sell. And if the market doesn’t hear about it, or hears the wrong thing (#3) then they won’t buy it either.


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Your host and author, Nils Davis, is a long-time product manager, consultant, trainer, and coach. He is the author of The Secret Product Manager Handbook, many blog posts, a series of video trainings on product management, and the occasional grilled pizza.

  • That is a very cool, startup-centric view on product management that in practise is fairly far from reality. Most product managers work with existing products trying to make them better or find more customers for them. The reality is that there are not that many “new market problems” looking for new solutions but rather solutions that can be enhanced. And it is reminder also for any (sw) product manager: use 80% of your time to improve existing features and only 20% to create new ones!

    • Harri – Great comment! I think I 80% agree with you on this. I’m working on a new post that explains the remaining 20% from my perspective – hopefully have that up soon. Bottom line, even for an existing product, it’s pretty important for product managers to get out and find new problems – even if they are just problems that their existing customers have with achieving their goals with the existing product. But they might also be problems that competitors are solving but you aren’t, or it might be problems that are adjacent to the problems you currently solve. Or it might even be problems that a new segment has that your product almost but not quite solves. Another way to say this is that even if you’re just adding or improving features to your existing product, new features and improvements to existing features should each be addressing market problems in their own right, albeit small ones.

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