Product Management: Big Tech vs Startups

Life and work could be very different depending on what type of organization you work at!

Image taken from AppFutura

Product Management is a role that is slowly finding its way into all types of teams, companies, and industries. And although you need a certain set of core skills to be a good Product Manager anywhere, the work role definitely differs when working across companies of different sizes and missions.

I have been very fortunate to have the opportunity to work as a Product Manager in one of the biggest tech companies in Japan (Rakuten).

I have also been lucky to grow into a volunteer Product Lead for one of the fastest-growing social startups also in Japan (mymizu).

Both experiences have been extremely rewarding for me, and have helped me fill in the gaps that either of the experiences could not have given me exclusively.

So based on my experience, here are the differences I found among both these types of companies.

Roles and Responsibility

Your roles and responsibilities could be very specific or broad, based on the type of company you are working for. Your team size and product offerings may also differ.

Rakuten

Rakuten is one of the largest e-commerce conglomerates in Japan. Rakuten Travel is the largest Online Travel Service in Japan.

  • I am part of a 15 member product team, the entire team size is 100+!
  • We are working on a new service for the Rakuten Travel platform, which is one of the 70+ services integrated into the Rakuten ecosystem
  • As a PM, I handle the end-to-end experience of some features of our consumer app (like translation, guest reviews, coupons, notifications), I also do any other task that might be needed to release our products or manage our processes.

mymizu

mymizu, Japan’s first free water refill app, is a movement driving the co-creation of communities and tools to reduce single-use plastics as well as promote ocean conservation around the world.

  • At the time of joining, I was the only product person in a tech team of 3~4
  • mymizu’s tech offering includes a mobile app, internal tools as well as a B2B product, all integrated around the mymizu API
  • As a PM, I do everything from defining the mission, managing the backlog, hiring new members, alongside also doing all the usual work of a PM

Team and Mentorship

Team and mentorship styles can vary a lot between the two types of companies.

Big Tech

  • Usually, in big tech, your team would have many experienced Product Managers as well as domain experts. It’s easy to reach out to someone to ask for help and get advice or knowledge on different situations.
  • You will have dedicated Product people as your managers who will work on helping you improve your Product skills along with generally skilling up as a member of the team
  • There are many other Product people you could speak to laterally in the company to widen your perspectives, get advice or just for the purpose of networking and friendship.

Startup

  • Basically, you're mostly on your own. A lot of things you will learn will be based on experimentation and trial and error.
  • Since your managers would be either in the executive team or equally busy as you, most of your learning and development will come by yourself. A lot more reflection needs to be done since maybe no one can tell you exactly what you should work on to improve yourself.
  • However, the kind of learning and motivation you may get from your founders, external mentors, and team members is unparalleled in a startup!

Processes

Processes are something that is very important to make sure that things happen in a systematic manner. However, the way these are created and handled in different companies is very different.

Big Tech

  • Many processes have already been established for all types of activities.
  • There is lots of documentation outlining processes and its easy to go down a rabbit hole of information, which could lead to answers to many of your questions
  • Sometimes the processes and documentation could be outdated, unnecessary, and slow down the output

Startup

  • Usually, a startup doesn't have the time and bandwidth to create processes, many times this can be chaotic for stakeholder sync.
  • However, it also means that you have the freedom to build your own processes and switch quickly as you please
  • This could mean a lot of learning, forgetting, re-learning. (example, the whole team decided to shift to Notion from Google Drive)

Risk

Big Tech

  • Big tech companies have a reputation to maintain. so their tolerance for risk is relatively low
  • In many cases, they would prefer to delay launching rather than compromise on the quality, they may also have to plan for internal audits and checks as part of the release criteria
  • This space to delay also provides a safety net and the large organization is able to absorb mistakes or misfires very easily, without any consequences
  • Timelines for projects are well defined and scope is usually fixed

Startup

  • The idealogy in a startup is to always release first, and then fix later as needed
  • Speed is prioritized since getting core user feedback is extremely important as the product is new
  • Mistakes are usually made in public and need to be handled in public as well
  • Timelines are usually very tight, and scope could change very often based on external factors

Resources

Big Tech

  • Big tech usually has relatively higher budgets and resources to spend on product development
  • There is also usually a lot of specialized human resource as well, across different functions
  • A job in big tech is relatively stable, and usually, employees would stick around for a longer time, making it easier to work on longer-term projects
  • If there is any loss of revenue, it can be absorbed by other profitable services within the same company.

Startup

  • It's highly possible that there is an irregular flow of revenue in a startup
  • Human resource is also hard to find and retain, startups are still considered risky for many people to forego their job and work full time for
  • It's important to optimize the output and outcome with the limited resources that are present, which means lots of creative thinking and prioritization

Idea buy-in

Big Tech

  • To have your idea pushed, you may have to go through multiple levels of hierarchies and approvals
  • Ideas may get lost or altered in the chain of command

Startup

  • If you have trust and a good relationship with the founders, idea buy-in can be instant

This has been my experience, however, there could be many other interesting comparisons. Let me know if this helped you make a better decision.

My recommendation would be to start at a big tech who is willing to make a bet on you and see how you like it. After that, you can decide your own career progression and see if a startup is right for you or not. You could also see a growing startup or a mid-level company as a mid-transition point.

Edit: I recently read a post by Lenny Rachitsky (Ex-product lead at Airbnb and writes one of the most popular product newsletters) who also had his own take on this, and i completely agree on this too.

If you found this interesting, or have any more points to add, I’d love to hear your thoughts. My LinkedIn DMs are always open!

P.S: This was an excerpt from my talk “The Roller Coaster World of Product Management”, where I introduced PM as a career and my personal journey becoming one! Feel free to check out the video below for the entire talk!

I like to write about Product, Tech, Culture, and anything else I can think about