Security Product Management at Large Companies vs. Startups

Is it better to perform product management of information security solutions at a large company or at a startup? Picking the setting that’s right for you isn’t as simple as craving the exuberant energy of a young firm or coveting the resources and brand of an organization that’s been around for a while. Each environment has its challenges and advantages for product managers. The type of innovation, nature of collaboration, sales dynamics, and cultural nuances are among the factors to consider when deciding which setting is best for you.

The perspective below is based on my product management experiences in the field information security, though I suspect it’s applicable to product managers in other hi-tech environments.

Product Management at a Large Firm

In the world of information security, industry incumbents are usually large organizations. This is in part because growing in a way that satisfies investors generally requires the financial might, brand and customer access that’s hard for small cyber-security companies to achieve. Moreover, customers who are not early adopters often find it easier to focus their purchasing on a single provider of unified infosec solutions. These dynamics set the context for the product manager’s role at large firms.

Access to Customers

Though the specifics differs across organizations, product management often involves defining capabilities and driving adoption. The product manager’s most significant advantage at a large company is probably access to customers. This is due to the size of the firm’s sales and marketing organization, as well as due to the large number of companies that have already purchased some of the company’s products.

Such access helps with understanding requirements for new products, improving existing technologies, and finding new customers. For example, you could bring your product to a new geography by using the sales force present in that area without having to hire a dedicated team. Also, it’s easier to upsell a complementary solution than build a new customer relationship from scratch.

Access to Expertise

Another benefit of a large organization is access to funds and expertise that’s sometimes hard to obtain in a young, small company. Instead of hiring a full-time specialist for a particular task, you might be able to draw upon the skills and experience of someone who supports multiple products and teams. In addition, assuming your efforts receive the necessary funding, you might find it easier to pursue product objectives and enter new markets in a way that could be hard for a startup to accomplish. This isn’t always easy, because budgetary planning in large companies can be more onerous than Venture Capitalist fund raising.

Organizational Structure

Working in any capacity at an established firm requires that you understand and follow the often-changing bureaucratic processes inherent to any large entity. Depending on the organization’s structure, product managers in such environments might lack the direct control over the teams vital to the success of their product. Therefore, the product manager needs to excel at forming cross-functional relationships and influencing indirectly. (Coincidentally, this is also a key skill-set for many Chief Information Security Officers.)

Sometimes even understanding all of your own objectives and success criteria in such environments can be challenging. It can be even harder to stay abreast of the responsibilities of others in the corporate structure. On the other hand, one of the upsides of a large organization is the room to grow one’s responsibilities vertically and horizontally without switching organizations. This is often impractical in small companies.

What It’s Like at a Large Firm

In a nutshell, these are the characteristics inherent to product management roles at large companies:

  • An established sales organization, which provides access to customers
  • Potentially-conflicting priorities and incentives with groups and individuals within the organization
  • Rigid organizational structure and bureaucracy
  • Potentially-easier access to funding for sophisticated projects and complex products
  • Possibly-easier access to the needed expertise
  • Well-defined career development roadmap

I loved working as a security product manager at a large company. I was able to oversee a range of in-house software products and managed services that focused on data security. One of my solutions involved custom-developed hardware, with integrated home-grown and third-party software, serviced a team of help desk and in-the-field technicians. A fun challenge!

I also appreciated the chance to develop expertise in the industries that my employer serviced, so I could position infosec benefits in the context relevant to those customers. I enjoyed staying abreast of the social dynamics and politics of a siloed, matrixed organization. After awhile I decided to leave because I was starting to feel a bit too comfortable. I also developed an appetite for risk and began craving the energy inherent to startups.

Product Management in a Startup

One of the most liberating, yet scary aspects of product management at a startup is that you’re starting the product from a clean slate. On the other hand, while product managers at established companies often need to account for legacy requirements and internal dependencies, a young firm is generally free of such entanglements, at least at the onset of its journey.

What markets are we targeting? How will we reach customers? What comprises the minimum viable product? Though product managers ask such questions in all types of companies, startups are less likely to survive erroneous answers in the long term. Fortunately, short-term experiments are easier to perform to validate ideas before making strategic commitments.

Experimenting With Capabilities

Working in a small, nimble company allows the product manager to quickly experiment with ideas, get them implemented, introduce them into the field, and gather feedback. In the world of infosec, rapidly iterating through defensive capabilities of the product is useful for multiple reasons, including the ability to assess—based on real-world feedback—whether the approach works against threats.

Have an idea that is so crazy, it just might work? In a startup, you’re more likely to have a chance to try some aspect of your approach, so you can rapidly determine whether it’s worth pursuing further. Moreover, given the mindshare that the industry’s incumbents have with customers, fast iterations help understand which product capabilities, delivered by the startup, the customers will truly value.

Fluid Responsibilities

In all companies, almost every individual has a certain role for which they’ve been hired. Yet, the specific responsibilities assigned to that role in a young firm often benefit from the person’s interpretation, and are based on the person’s strengths and the company’s need at a given moment. A security product manager working at a startup might need to assist with pre-sales activities, take a part in marketing projects, perform threat research and potentially develop proof-of-concept code, depending on what expertise the person possesses and what the company requires.

People in a small company are less likely to have the “it’s not my job attitude” than those in highly-structured, large organizations. A startup generally has fewer silos, making it easier to engage in activities that interest the person even if they are outside his or her direct responsibilities. This can be stressful and draining at times. On the other hand, it makes it difficult to get bored, and also gives the product manager an opportunity to acquire skills in areas tangential to product management. (For additional details regarding this, see my article What’s It Like to Join a Startup’s Executive Team?)

Customer Reach

Product manager’s access to customers and prospects at a startup tends to be more immediate and direct than at a large corporation. This is in part because of the many hats that the product manager needs to wear, sometimes acting as a sales engineer and at times helping with support duties. These tasks give the person the opportunity to hear unfiltered feedback from current and potential users of the product.

However, a young company simply lacks the scale of the sales force that accommodates reaching many customers until the firm builds up steam. (See Access to Customers above.) This means that the product manager might need to help identifying prospects, which can be outside the comfort zone of individuals who haven’t participated in sales efforts in this capacity.

What It’s Like at a Startup

Here are the key aspects of performing product management at a startup:

  • Ability and need to iterate faster to get feedback
  • Willingness and need to take higher risks
  • Lower bureaucratic burden and red tape
  • Much harder to reach customers
  • Often fewer resources to deliver on the roadmap
  • Fluid designation of responsibilities

I’m presently responsible for product management at Minerva Labs, a young endpoint security company. I’m loving the make-or-break feeling of the startup. For the first time, I’m overseeing the direction of a core product that’s built in-house, rather than managing a solution built upon third-party technology. It’s gratifying to be involved in the creation of new technology in such a direct way.

There are lots of challenges, of course, but every day feels like an adventure, as we fight for the seat at the big kids table, grow the customer base and break new ground with innovative anti-malware approaches. It’s a risky environment with high highs and low lows, but it feels like the right place for me right now.

Which Setting is Best for You?

Numerous differences between startups and large companies affect the experience of working in these firms. The distinction is highly pronounced for product managers, who oversee the creation of the solutions sold by these companies. You need to understand these differences prior to deciding which of the environments is best for you, but that’s just a start. Next, understand what is best for you, given where you are in life and your professional development. Sometimes the capabilities that you as a product manager will have in an established firm will be just right; at others, you will thrive in a startup. Work in the environment that appeals to you, but also know when (or whether) it’s time to make a change.

Updated

About the Author

Lenny Zeltser is a seasoned business and tech leader with extensive cybersecurity experience. He builds innovative endpoint defense solutions as VP of Products at Minerva Labs. Beforehand, he was responsible for security product management at NCR Corp. Lenny also trains incident response and digital forensics professionals at SANS Institute. An engaging presenter, he speaks at industry events, writes articles and has co-authored books. Lenny has earned the prestigious GIAC Security Expert designation, has an MBA from MIT Sloan and a Computer Science degree from the University of Pennsylvania.

Learn more