March 17, 2024

Product Manager's start guide: 10 Key Questions to ask to make an impact fast

Olga Shavrina
Just realized that it was 15 years ago when I joined my first startup as a co-founder. We made all possible and impossible mistakes, of course, but had so much fun along the way.

Since then, I have worked in and with various startups as a product manager, UX/UI designer, co-founder, or consultant and have formulated a framework of 10 questions on how to quickly onboard in a product and start providing value, which I'm happy to share with you.

Who can benefit from this framework?

  • In-house product managers who are starting at a new company to quickly onboard and start providing value;
  • Product consultants who are taking on a new project and need to quickly understand what they are dealing with;
  • Product managers who have been working in a company for a while, but feel that they are swamped by routine and lose a holistic view of the product and business;
  • Junior product managers who are planning to grow.

What is usually expected from a product manager?

When a startup (usually a young one) hires a PM or a product consultant, they usually have specific questions or burning problems that need immediate help. It's like you're possessing a magic recipe on how to build products, and have all the answers up your sleeve. However, every product is unique, so questions like "What UX improvements should we make?", "How can we improve the conversion rate?" or "What features should we prioritize now?" don't make sense without understanding the product, and its current state. And you need to do it quickly, as nobody is going to wait for several months until you properly finish your onboarding.

And here comes the framework

10 key questions to ask to make an impact fast if you are a product manager
10 key questions to ask to make an impact fast if you are a product manager
To quickly understand the state of a product and be able to propose the next steps, ask the questions below. The goal is to get a clear answer for each of them, and if there's not one, work with the team to obtain it.
Who is our customer?
"Everybody" is not a good answer, as you already know. Look for specific answers, e.g., small business owners looking for staff, tourists looking for local fun and affordable (up to $1k) daily activities; landowners looking for additional income, aged 40-60. List segments or user personas if you have them.
What user problem are we solving?
Again, be specific and think from the customer's perspective; don't think about tools here. Examples: "Finding the right people is hard and time-consuming"; "Planning a vacation is challenging, especially when trying to balance budget, fun, and safety"; "The land does not provide enough income."
What stage are we at?
Do we have product-market fit, a working MVP, a perfect happy path, or are we scaling? It's pretty common for a startup to have not finished a previous stage before pushing into the next one, wondering why it's not working.
Do we have a clear strategic vision, is the team aligned with it, and are we working towards it consistently?
If you ask several team members this question and get different answers, or if you notice that there's nothing in the roadmap that supports the vision, then there's room for improvement.
How does our product differentiate from competitors, and what is our unique value proposition?
This is a tough one. Ask salespeople what they think, how they sell the product, and how they answer objections."
What is the #1 reason MORE people are not getting MORE value from our product MORE often?
I borrowed this question from the incredible Chris Saad, a startup and product advisor with whom I was blessed to work for several days. It's a fantastic question that can reveal unexpected answers. Maybe people just don't know about the product, or they forget about it after using it once.
What are the main complaints of our users?
Look into the NPS survey. Don't have one? Implement it. Ask customer support folks; they usually can name the top 3 complaints with their eyes closed.
What is the main objective or business need right now, and are we focusing on it?
I have yet to see a startup that focuses too much on one thing. It's always the opposite - two folks in a garage trying to build Facebook with all its services from scratch, teams trying to implement everything in their backlog, and teams attempting to build all the features that all the departments (or even worse - clients) ask for.
What are we measuring and optimizing for? Are these metrics right for us?
A common mistake here is to measure quantity when we care about quality, or to measure everything and get swamped with numbers. There's also a tendency to focus on a beautiful number, which is great to show to investors and to write on a website, like DAU (Daily Active Users), but overlook the fact that these users may come from ads, do nothing useful, and never come back.
Does the team execute quickly and effectively? Can the process be improved?
It's not about closing Jira tickets, velocity, or story points; it's about making meaningful progress towards agreed-upon goals and objectives. It's about consistency, ensuring everyone is aligned on what we are doing, being agile, and looking for ways to deliver value faster.
And of course, look at the product and go through at least the happy path yourself, documenting all the confusion points you notice. This fresh-eye perspective is extremely valuable.

Looks easy, huh?

In reality, it can be pretty hard to answer some of these questions. You can easily get stuck on each one of them, especially on customers, strategic vision and competitive advantage, and get lost in philosophical discussions, opinions, and data. The trick here is to use common sense and find answers that are good enough to allow you to move forward. The main thing is to get buy-in from the team. If team members completely disagree on some of the answers, it's a sign that you need to align on first principles first.

To give a rough estimate, this process shouldn't take more than one or two weeks, three at most. Try not to lose momentum and move as quickly as possible, documenting your findings.

After going through the above exercise, you will have a very clear idea of what's going on and where the main bottlenecks are. You will have some artifacts with formulated answers to these questions, which is valuable in itself. You will align with the team (or see that the team is not aligned, which is a separate issue) and be prepared for a round of brainstorming on how to address and solve the revealed problems.

Just to be clear, going through these 10 questions won't give you a deep and detailed understanding of all aspects of a product. You will still need 2-3 months to dig deeper into customer research, understand data, the market, and the product itself. However, it will give you a pretty good holistic understanding of the product, identify the main bottlenecks, and provide an idea of leverage points.
Inspired - Marty Cagan's book for Product Managers
Marty Cagan's 'INSPIRED' is a must-read guide for Product Managers. It explains how to build a successful product team, and hence, successful products. It details what distinguishes a mediocre product team from a great one. Among other things, it discusses what a PM should know and learn about the product to do his or her job brilliantly.

What's next?

So, the next step is to take problem #1, revealed in the step 6, brainstorm solutions with a team, test, iterate, implement, measure... do everything we know so well how to do.

In parallel finish your onboarding, regularly come back to the list above, fill the gaps, make sure we are on the right path, iterate and adjust. In a nutshell, this is it, but in reality, it's a huge and exciting topic to discuss. I'll delve into it in future posts.

And for now, if you have any questions or need help with your product, don't hesitate to get in touch with me; I'll be happy to discuss how we can collaborate.
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Olga Shavrina
Product manager. Human being