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How to get into a product role at your startup

Aamir Chishtie explains how he moved from marketing to product at his startup — and shares how you could too.

By Amy Lewin

Aamir Chishtie

Aamir Chishtie was not always a product manager. His first foray into startups was as a performance marketer, which he did for a good few years, before shifting from the marketing to the product team while at fashion tech startup Thread. He’s since worked in product at Deliveroo and is now at edtech startup DataCamp. Here he gives some advice for others wanting to jump into product.

This Q&A first appeared in our weekly Startup Life newsletter. For more insights like this, sign up here.

Try to learn (some of the ropes) in your current role.

I didn’t intend to switch into product; when I joined, Thread didn’t have a PM. It came up organically; I started doing conversion rate optimisation, so that was me working with a designer and an engineer to run experiments — and became my way to learn the ropes. I was fortunate that Kieran [O’Neill], Thread’s CEO, is a big believer in the concept of tours of duty’, which Reid Hoffman ran at LinkedIn. He asked me if I would like to transition into product or stay in marketing after our Series B. But if you’re already embedded in a product team and can shadow the PM, that’s definitely the way to go.

Find out what your ‘spikes’ are.

In product, there are a wide range of skills you need to know. I think you need a couple of ‘spikes’ in different areas — things you’re especially good at — and those will vary from person to person. There were some things I knew from marketing that I didn’t need to worry about — analytics was one, finance another. We would also talk to our customers a lot in marketing, and then work backwards from there; that transitioned nicely to product. But there were loads of things I didn’t know, like the technical aspect and learning the rituals of a product team and how they operate and communicate. How do you talk to an engineer vs. a designer vs. a data scientist vs. your stakeholder? That entire thing is very different from the marketing world.

Talk to a lot of product people.

When I was contemplating switching over, I reached out to product people on LinkedIn and offered to buy them coffee. I asked them what they liked and didn’t like about the job, and what they would’ve done differently in retrospect. Product can be overly glamourised — it is a bit of a tough slog. When it’s going right, there’s no glory; when it’s going wrong, you need to be there to provide air cover for your team. Those are aspects of the job people don’t see.

Gain your manager’s trust.

In marketing, I was always trying to find my weaknesses, strengths and gaps, and reading a lot. I demonstrated my ability to grow in that role — and that gave Kieran the confidence I’d work hard at learning skills I didn’t already have [for product].

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Try to switch within a startup.

Moving companies as a product manager is particularly difficult — the role is different at each company, and the culture too. There’s a lot of benefit to switching into product inside a startup; you have a lot of knowledge of the company already, and know the people and processes. Moving companies to get into product is also likely to come with a reduction in seniority.

Earn your team’s respect.

The engineers on my team are always going to know more about coding and systems design than I ever could. What I can do is learn enough so that I can have good conversations with them and question whether they’re thinking about things in the right way. I did a computer science course through edX, I learned SQL and I share articles on engineering that I’ve been reading; I want to show that I’m not a PM who just cares about the user-facing side of things.

Amy Lewin is Sifted’s deputy editor. She covers VC, mobility and diversity in tech, coauthors the Startup Life newsletter and tweets from @amyrlewin

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