The top 5 insights I’ve learnt as a PM in a venture studio

The beauty of working in product, whether that be in a large or small organisation, is working within an industry that is diverse, dynamic and fast paced. As an early stage Product Manager, working ‘smaller’ accelerated my professional growth by allowing me to go deep within the problem space whilst operating shoulder to shoulder with some truly inspirational founders.

Mikaela Larkin, November 2022

I’m a product manager at UntilNow, a venture studio where a diverse team of specialists work together towards the same goal: to ship delightful products and propel businesses forward. We are focused and intentional about validating an opportunity. Once validated we craft the best team of entrepreneurial athletes to maturely pursue the validated opportunity.

I began my journey in product as a product designer. To be completely honest with you, I had very little understanding of what ‘product’ actually meant when I was hired (I still get flustered when people ask me what I actually do...) Coming from a background in brand, I was delightfully surprised by the logical, problem solving approach that product required: identify problem > work out how to solve the problem best… how good?! Having the opportunity to get deep in the weeds of product design was an immense privilege and something that I am so thankful for now that product management is my day-to-day. I believe experiencing all of this within a venture studio like UntilNow has truly given me priceless opportunities to experiment, fail, grow, and learn.

These are the top five lessons I’ve learned to date.

01. Focus on the problem first, solution second.

As a PM, it’s all too easy to focus on shipping solutions — getting value to customers as quickly as possible. In a venture studio environment, you need to relax on the output and instead lean into the input, that is, validating and investing in the problem.

We work tirelessly to first understand every lens of the problem and the customer we’re solving for. We’re fast, scrappy, experimental. And while this may not be a groundbreaking way of working, it forces you as a PM to loosen your grip on the satisfaction of getting that final, polished solution into your customers hands. Our core intention is to create outputs that help us test and learn. Working in this way enables us to confidently reach a solution that we agree is optimal for right now. I would go as far to say that we don’t believe there is ever a final and complete solution that satisfies all needs & wants. That’s the fun bit!

02. Lean into the unknown.

Working at a venture studio means you drop into new clients and industries all the time. I’ve dipped my toes into the ponds of multiple industries across B2B, consumer, DTC ecommerce and marketplace products. Along the way, I’ve gained a sound knowledge of different areas of specialisation, like working within proptech or fintech.

In my experience, having the opportunity to jump from industry to industry allows you to broaden and extend your general knowledge-base. You not only begin to understand how product impacts and solves problems for users across multiple industries, but you also start to notice patterns in human behaviour across those industries. This allows you to apply your learning to the next challenge. Few companies would be able to offer this kind of opportunity to work hand in hand with founders within so many varying industries and markets.

Being able to experience this wide spectrum cultivates a unique skill set that only a niche group of product professionals have. In essence, you specialise in being a generalist, which is kind of a superpower. The ability and desire to dive into unfamilliar spaces activates your breadth of knowledge across different types of products to pattern-match what the current product needs. You become nimble and resourceful, which makes you highly valuable to your team and clients.

The pace of validating, testing, and iterating within a venture studio environment forces you to leave your pride at the door when it comes to being the subject-matter expert (SME). You have the opportunity to work with people who are at the top of their game and have extensive domain knowledge. Absorbing their insights by osmosis is inevitable.

Another upside to going ‘wide’? You’re forced to flex soft skills because you need to be coachable and malleable — an evolving sponge of sorts. Which is a great segue to the next learning 👇

03. Ask the right questions.

The sheer pace of work at a venture studio forces you not only to plunge yourself into an ever changing set of subject areas, but also to strategically choose the right questions to ask. Rest assured, the feeling of ‘what the heck are they talking about?’, is an all too familiar one for me.

You’re expected to learn fast and learn well. How on earth do you do this? I’m still figuring it out, but I have learned the importance of ensuring you’re asking the right questions. Use the time you have with founders and SMEs to ask the most impactful questions. Don’t get stuck in the weeds of details that aren’t currently relevant. Chat as much as you can to customers and people who are experiencing the problem you’re trying to solve. Ask them questions, let them educate you on what’s most pressing (spoiler alert: they’ll love it). This way, you’ll quickly understand what’s most important and impactful for the very people you’re designing for.

04. Work with founders, not for them.

Ever dreamt about being part of something from the very beginning? As a PM in a venture studio you become a core part of the founding team, over and over again. You get to work directly with every founder that comes through the door. These are individuals who are at the top of their game, are incredibly experienced, and are experts in their field.

I’ve worked shoulder-to-shoulder with a number of founders, partnering with them to tackle the problem they’re trying to solve. These powerhouses become your colleagues — your day-to-day teammates. Our team becomes integrated into theirs. It’s a partnership like no other. It’s also an immense privilege.

You learn what it takes to be a founder — the rigour and grit required to lead at this level. There’s something special about seeing this up close, not as an employee, but as a sidekick. At 25, I feel pretty inspired to have great people on rotation to look up to and learn from directly. Talk about some pretty special mentors!

05. Learn to make decisions without dashboards of data.

Data is definitely your greatest ally and friend as a PM, but what do you do when you don’t yet have access to all the data you need? You have to make strategic decisions with what little data you have. Do this over and over again, and you begin to develop your product sense for what works and what doesn’t.

At a venture studio, you’re most likely working with founders on products that either: don’t exist, or haven’t yet found product-market fit. When you don’t have access to hard data or trends, you need to rely on something else. Being forced to make strategic product decisions without data, means two things: The first is that you will sometimes make the wrong call. And that’s okay. Part of being nimble is learning to fail. And thank goodness product at UntilNow is not a solo sprint. I like to think of it as being similar to a volleyball match — there’s always at least one other stellar experienced professional watching your back, helping you avoid those pitfalls.

The second learning is that you’ll rapidly develop your product sense and knowledge. Through the process of trying something, seeing the results (whether successful or not), iterating, talking to customers, and pivoting again, you begin to develop your knowledge of how products win and fail. This is gold.

Last but not least, without all the data, you deepen your empathy and understanding of people by listening well to real customers and users. It’s easily forgotten that behind all data and statistics are individual people with stories and experiences. You learn how to turn qualitative data or mere observations into actionable insights that have real impact on real individuals.

The take-away

If you’re someone who loves solving problems in creative and experimental ways, someone who wants to be thrown into the ponds of multiple industries and markets and who wants to work closely alongside impressive founders launching game-changing products, then can I suggest looking into a venture studio, like UntilNow? It may just launch your career.

Alternatively, if you are a founder looking for teammates that care about your idea as much as yourself, that will walk beside you to help navigate the uncertainty that this journey can bring and do whatever it takes to get your idea into the wild, then I encourage you to think about working alongside a venture studio.

More reading
Product designers take note - Tokens save time and money
Design tokens are a foundational technology that supports the present and future.
4 reasons why Webflow has been our go-to tool
4 reasons why Webflow has been our go-to tool to build and scale successful businesses