As product focus is more important than ever in building startups in a very competitive market, the product manager role is increasingly getting more common and is highly valued.

But to many it’s a job description that’s a bit vague, and often means different things from company to company.

We invited three product people from the startup ecosystem in Barcelona to discuss the topic: Former PM at Google and currently product consultant Itamar Gilad, CEO and co-founder of Factorial Jordi Romero, and CEO and co-founder of Quipu Roger Dobaño.

Long time product expert Gilad says it’s hard to explain the PM role in one sentence:

The position has changed so much over time, and it’s still changing. I like to define the PM as the person who’s the expert on the users, the customers, the market and the competition, and manages to deliver this context to the product team in a good way — it’s a super man basically!

From product to customer first

From the left: Sindre Hopland, media manager at itnig, Jordi Romero, CEO and co- founder of Factorial.

The last 10–20 years, tech companies have shifted their focus from trusting their engineers more than market, to lifting the customer and the users as the number one priority in making the product, says Gilad that for the last six years has managed products such as Gmail and Youtube:

The first time I heard the term product manager was back in the 90’s, and back then it was very new. The thought was that engineers always knew best, but that has changed a lot.

Also Romero, CEO of Factorial, recognizes the attitude from earlier times when he worked in other SaaS companies in the US and in Barcelona:

I remember we first defined ourselves as a product-first company, then a sales-driven startup and later a customer focused company. It think these terms are hard for startups that alter and change the way they do business often.

Dobaño is both CEO and head of product at accounting SaaS Quipu, he defined the product role like this:

You’re the CEO of the product, but it’s not just about making a great product, it’s about continuously solving problems for the customers and making an impact in your customers life.

All the responsibility, but no authority

The product manager is found somewhere between tech, business and the UX/UI team of the startup. © 2011 Martin Eriksson.

Even though the PM has the word manager in the title, all three guests agrees that the only thing the PM actually manage is the product itself.

Romero points to several challenges connected with this kind of responsibility:

An issue I’ve seen in many product teams, is that the PM is managing the team itself, and not only the product and process. I think this is a real problem that is hindering the communication in the organization.

Itamar explains that the PM is there to fill all the holes of work that aren’t being worked on, which means that the person needs to be diverse:

The PM is working closely with both customer service, the business side, designers and engineering, it’s more about creating a pattern for collaborations and a good flow of progress. It’s needless to say that soft skills are in high demand.

He continues to say that a startup needs a designated PM when the startup is at a scale where the business people and the engineering team start arguing what to build next, and you don’t have time as a CEO to deal with all the discussions.

How to become one

From the left: Itamar Gilad and Roger Dobaño.

Romero says he believes a lot in promoting PM’s within the company that share the original values and vision of the founders.

Itamar explains that it’s not necessary to know how to code, but many big companies require it:

In companies like Microsoft, Apple and Google they alway prefer someone with a coding background. However, the personal also needs to be interested in the business side of the startup and have strong soft skills for team management.

Dobaño thinks many companies are setting too high requirements for their PM’s:

What you’re describing here is a unicorn. I do agree that PM’s should have a computer science background, but my job is to empower one person within each product team, and I’ll then make sure the communication flow is good between the company.

Romero repeats how vital soft skills are to this profession:

To have all the technical skills is one thing, but to be able to both do a sales pitch and to convince the developer team that what they’re building is the right thing to focus on, that’s tricky.


This post was written by Sindre Hopland, media manager at itnig and produced together with Masumi Mutsuda.

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T.

The new time and attendance law will kill innovation in Spain and Europe

Simple solutions or “one fits all” policies are easy to market by populist governments but they are sometimes at the expense of certain sectors and their people. This time the affected party is innovation and value added services, to a point that puts in jeopardy our (already weak) spot in the global competitiveness landscape.

I’ve always told my teams that I do not hire their time, but rather their talent and potential: their brains, their energy and passion and their willing to make a difference and impact our clients and the world through them. Innovative companies try to get in existing markets and solve things in complete different ways, some go as far as creating new markets from scratch. They all have in common that their mission is extremely hard, sometimes impossible (thus most fail along the way). The key for their success is how they manage to convince their teams that everything they do is not a job, but a religion. They are changing the world and that is something worth spending time and making history.

I can tell if somebody is motivated by their job by looking at their eyes while they talk about their challenges and ideas. Best people don’t work, they play. They make their challenges their hobbies. I’ve had many conversations at 1 am in the office, after some beers and sushi, before even realizing what time it is. Only when a job makes this kind of conditions happen, the wheel of significant value creation really stirs and great things come from it.

It is very hard to create a culture in which people feel so empowered that they are capable of anything. In my experience, it helps granting absolute flexibility. I don’t remember the last time I approved vacations to my team, or I paid attention to their schedules, or the days in which they worked from home or the office. This is not the kind of conversations I want to have with them. My relationship with my team is based on trust, and it is based on one single (often repetitive) conversation: how can we do more and better, how can we grow faster, how can we raise the bar. Little it matters to me whether they contribute to this questions from the beach in Canary Islands or spending many hours in the office.

However, the government today decided that it is a great idea in the 21th century that all companies like ours should make everybody clock in and clock out by law. I’m now obliged to add people’s time and attendance into our conversation. We now have to treat all jobs like production lines in factories (amidst the era of hyper automation and robotization). They go as far as having us registering accurate pauses for lunch. Unfortunately they don’t include how should we manage the time spent in the chill-out area, or when having long coffees in the outside terrace, or spending the afternoon in ping pong championships. Should we clock-in and clock-out every time we do that too?

When I travel I always get asked how is the Spanish ecosystem for entrepreneurship and innovation developing, I always defend our potential to become a leading actor in science and technology,  besides our current reputation for tapas, toros and siesta. We previously analysed the many initiatives taking place in the city of Barcelona. But my question is: is there anybody in the government actually helping us to make this happen?

The new law will come to place the next 12th of May. At Factorial we developed a free feature, so companies can instantly become compliant with the law. Interestingly enough, almost immediately after launching this feature people started developing tools using our API to automate clocking or connecting it with Slack and other interfaces. It looks like after all there will always be people willing to work on relevant things and not waste their energy in bureaucratic traps.

PD: You can find more information about the law in this article.