The Difference: Types of Product Teams

Distinguish between Core, Platform, Growth, and First

Hi, Product People. Welcome back. In this week’s newsletter, we’re going to go through a quick lesson on the different, and most common, types of product teams so that you can be well-informed and prepared as you move forward in your job hunt.

So, you’ve started job hunting in Product, and you’ve noticed that not all product teams are born the same.

You’ve seen one job posting which offers a role on the core product team. Your favorite company is offering two entry-level Product Manager roles, but one is with growth, and the other with platform. Which one should you apply to?

And what will happen if you take up your friend on the offer of joining their brand new startup? What does a first product team look like?

So many questions, and so much confusion! Luckily, this guide can help.

Job hunting can feel like learning a whole new language (Product Management even comes with a glossary!), and today you’re going to get the run-down of some product team vocabulary.

What Is a Product Team Anyway?

Before we dive into the different structures and functions of various product teams, we should take a look at what product development actually is, and how teams work to make it happen.

A product team is formed with various cross-functional roles that cover all areas of development. The team structure will vary greatly depending on the type of product they’re working on, the size of the company, the industry they’re in, etc. But generally speaking, all digital products have very similar needs to get them off the ground. For instance, building a digital product will always require:

Developers and Engineers: Although the no-code community (the process of building an app or interface through drag-and-drop tools rather than hiring a tech team) is taking off in popularity, there will always be a need for engineers and developers. These are the people who actually build the product and make everything work.

Designers: Without any design at all, the users would be sold pure tech with little to no interface. Without good design, a product will receive either little to no attention, or a slew of negative reviews. Without great design, a product will never hit the big time and reach its maximum potential. Research has shown that companies who invest in design early on enjoy greater success.

Marketers: What’s the point of building an amazing product if no one knows it exists? Enter the marketing team. While it could be argued that product marketing goes painfully unrecognized as a separate discipline to eCommerce or community marketing, it’s a valuable asset to any product organization.

Marketers do so much more than just running ad campaigns. They take care of everything from key landing pages and website micro-copy to managing brand voice and image. Never underestimate the power of a good marketing team.

Check out: What is Product Marketing Management?

Product Managers: And finally, holding it all together, we have the Product Manager. A Product Manager sits at the intersection between business, design, and tech. That means they understand what the company and the market require, what the users need, and what the technology is capable of.

It’s a juggling act that involves working with a variety of internal and external stakeholders, all the while holding onto the product vision and strategy. It involves a lot of long-term, big-picture thinking, as well as moments where you need to roll up your sleeves and dive into the nitty-gritty.

Interested in learning about different Product Management roles? Check out Decoding Job Titles: The Different Types of Product Manager

Of course, different products and companies have different requirements, meaning that product teams can be as varied in size and structure as any other team. Larger companies may have a Product Operations Manager, who makes sure that everything runs smoothly for the other PMs and their teams. They may also have access to Business Analysts and Data Scientists, and within agile organizations there may be a Scrum Master.

Now we’ve got all that out of the way, we can start taking a look at the different types of product teams.

Core Product Teams: The Real MVPs

When you imagine a ‘traditional’ product team, you’re probably imagining a core product team. These are the teams who build the products that solve customer problems, and work directly with users to give them what they need. (Not what they want…that’s a whole other topic!)

If a company offers one main product (think Canva or Spotify) then the core product teams will be working on this product. In a company that has a whole host of products (Apple and Google) then they will have as many core product teams as needed to build and maintain their offering.

What Does a Core Product Manager Do?

A core product manager does everything that a ‘normal’ product manager does, with the emphasis being on making external stakeholders happy. A core product manager’s main goal is to find a problem that needs to be solved, and working with a talented team of individuals to build a solution.

They’re the owners of the product strategy, and the product roadmap. They work closely with all members of the development team to make sure the right thing is built in the right way, at the right time.

Depending on the level of seniority, Product Managers either manage products or people. At entry-level, a Core Product Manager will be doing more of the groundwork, like working with the product designer on wireframes and translating requirements for the engineers. They’ll also be working on gathering user research and conducting surveys.

When they move to a people-management position, they work with product management teams and oversee more things at more of a macro level.

Interested in learning more about Product Management? Maybe you should think about getting certified…

Platform Product Teams: Keeping Things Running Behind-The-Scenes

Platform product teams really do deserve more recognition for all their awesome work, they’re a huge part of the reason why some of the biggest companies on Earth are able to build the products loved by millions.

Rather than working on products to sell to businesses or the general population, platform product teams build systems and programs that are used internally by the company. For example, they could be building a cloud platform that helps cross-functional teams organize and share their assets.

What Does a Platform Product Manager Do?

A Product Manager for the platforms team will have to do all the aspects of the PM role that they would do in a core team. However, the key difference is that the company is now the customer.

Instead of researching things like the competitor and the market landscape, the platform teams have to listen to the needs of their teams. User experience is still vital, even when the users work across the hall from you.

A Platform Product Manager will also have to think about the future needs of the company, and weigh up whether what they’re building is what’s needed right now, or if it fits in with what will be needed in the future.

A platform product team will have to work on building something that can scale with the size of the company, as the company is investing in technology that will not be directly bringing in revenue. That means a Platform Product Manager will need to have a good grasp on the business strategy of their company, as well as a handle on the direction it is going in.

A great Platform PM will be able to foresee both the trajectory of company growth, and be agile enough to adapt to any possible requirements changes.

Growth Product Teams: Getting The Most Out Of The Market

You’ve definitely heard the word growth thrown around in dozens of different ways in the tech industry in recent years, from growth hackers to product-led growth strategies. You may also have seen that there are whole teams dedicated to aiding in the growth of a product, or else a company’s entire offering of products.

The growth product team, rather than building and launching one product, finds ways to help get a product into more users’ hands, and to identify friction points that may be holding a product back from reaching its potential.

Some of the more common areas that a growth team may look at are things like adoption and discoverability.

What Does a Growth Product Manager Do?

A Growth Product Manager won’t be going through the usual stages of product development, as usually the products they’re working on have either already been launched or are being built mostly by another team.

A Growth PM’s job is to identify the little things that might fall through the cracks in affect the overall user experience. They may work on new ways to help users discover new product features, or to identify unexpected use cases that will open up new opportunities.

They’ll also work closely with the sales team, and with the customer service/support teams, to understand what speed bumps the customers are finding.

Your First Product Team: Speed and Chaos

Of all the teams to be in, this might be the most exciting. Sometimes known as a naive team, first product teams are the team brought on to build a brand new product for a brand new company.

Almost everything laid out in front of them is a blank page. This team has to figure out everything from the ground up.

Strictly speaking, most first product teams will follow established methodologies such as Agile and SCRUM in order to control the chaos. Until funding can be secured, operations will usually be bootstrapped, meaning that product teams have to get creative and think outside the box.

What Does a First Product Manager Do?

A first PM has to operate within the dual role of both PM and Product Ops (unless a Product Operations Manager has also been brought on, but it’s uncommon in startups for that to happen so early).

A first PM will lay the groundwork for the future success of the company (no pressure) by selecting resources, establishing processes, and setting out structures. They may also be involved in the hiring of engineers and designers, as they’ll be the person best suited to understand what kind of skills will be needed.

The first step towards building a brand new product will normally be to build an MVP, as it’s something to test and validate the team’s product idea.

And that’s it! Pretty manageable, right? Now go forth with this new knowledge and knock those job applications out of the park!


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Don’t forget to check out some of the previous issues!

Design Thinking for PMs

Starting Your Product Management Career

Every Product Manager’s First 90 Days