Product management in Singapore: What startups need vs what they can afford

Since I got more involved with the product management community in Singapore, I found myself explaining over and over again to founders, startup employees, and recruiters the nature of a product manager’s job. And the more I did, the more I felt that there’s a mismatch between the perception of product management in the ecosystem and the expectations of product managers who actually do the job.

I wasn’t sure if my experience was anecdotal or if there was something there, so I ran a survey about the state of product management in Singaporean startups. Coincidentally, Anh Han, a fellow member of the Product Management SG group on Facebook, ran a survey on PM salary ranges. Together with a cursory analysis of salary ranges listed on Tech in Asia Jobs, AngelList, and StartupJobs.Asia, those surveys gave interesting insights into what’s happening with product management in Singapore, and especially PM hiring.

Disclaimer: Even though I did my best to obtain responses, I still ended up with small samples. This means that not all results are statistically significant. If you want to help in getting more data next time, you can let me know in the comments if you’d like to participate in the next survey.

Study 1: The quality of product management

Sample size: 20
Respondents: Startup employees and founders

Insight 1: CEOs aren’t good product managers

Employees at startups where CEOs act as product managers rated the quality of product management practice in their companies at 2.6/5. In contrast, employees of companies with dedicated product managers (or CTOs or project managers who lead product) rated the quality of their product practice at 3.6/5.

Why this might be happening:

  • Lack of time: Product management is a full-time job. A CEO’s involvement in product is usually much more high-level. That means in circumstances like this, they can’t compete with a dedicated PM in quality of execution.
  • Lack of skill: It’s a tough pill to swallow for some, but being a founder and a visionary don’t automatically make one a good product manager. This is especially true for non-technical founders struggling to work with their software engineers. This hypothesis is partially confirmed by the fact that CTOs working as product managers score higher.

Insight 2: Most people in startups don’t fully understand what product managers do

The statement “most people at our startup understand the role of product managers well” received an average agreement score of 3.2/5 on a Likert scale. Personally, I feel that product managers in Singapore are too busy executing and don’t have a habit of taking some time to talk about their practice. We could do better when it comes to explaining how good product management can support founders and development teams.

Insight 3: Product managers seem to be in demand

Seventy percent of respondents stated that their companies plan to hire product managers within the next 12 months (take this data with a grain of salt, as some might belong to the same company). Notably, there was no difference between companies that already have product managers and companies that don’t; both wanted to hire PMs equally.

That said, the desire to hire product managers raises an important question: can Singaporean startups afford that?

And here’s why that question is important: product managers aren’t cheap.

Study 2: The cost of product management

This study was done with two data sets: first is Anh’s survey and the second is the list of PM salaries on Tech in Asia Jobs, StartupJobs.Asia, and AngelList (data collected in early December 2016).

Existing PM salaries vs startup salary budgets

Data preparation
For the salary ranges of product managers, I derived respondents’ monthly salary by dividing the total annual salary and bonus by 12. For startup salary budgets, I defined “offer” as the average of the minimum and the maximum salaries.

For instance, if a startup states a US$3,000 – US$6,000 range for a position, the offer will be US$4,500. This is based on an assumption that candidates won’t agree to take a minimum salary and companies will avoid paying maximum unless they hire someone who is overqualified.

As we can see, there’s a US$2,000 mismatch between a median offer and a median existing salary. There can be multiple explanations. First is that there aren’t enough junior product managers to fit the bill of startups who can only afford lower salaries. Another is that startups might be undervaluing more experienced product managers.

How startups could get product managers

Although imperfect, the studies give a sobering illustration of how startups need to improve the quality of product management and how they are trying to hire product managers yet cannot afford to pay the market rate.

But do they actually have to hire someone to get the job done? Not necessarily. In fact, a good option would be to make one of their existing employees an associate PM. Even though nurturing and helping them grow into the role might seem expensive, it will be a rewarding experience for the company and the employee. Besides, it will save money in the long run (at least until the APM turns into a full-fledged PM and asks for a raise 😉).

Future studies

Due to small sample size, I chose not to look for predictors of PM salary. In the future, I’d love to explore the relationship between salary, experience, type of company, and company size. I’ll leave it for next year’s survey.


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