What do the following people all have in common?

– Marc Andreessen, co-founder of Netscape

– Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon

– Steve Case, co-founder of AOL

– Michael Dell, founder of Dell

– Larry Ellison, co-founder of Oracle

– David Filo, co-founder of Yahoo!

– Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft

– Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple

– Pierre Omidyar, founder of eBay

– Larry Page, co-founder of Google

– David Packard, co-founder of HP

– Fred Smith, founder of FedEx

In addition to being leaders of the most successful high-tech companies in the world, it turns out that they all share several other characteristics as well. Most importantly, all of them served as product manager (although the title they had was typically founder and/or CEO of their startup). But in fact these were the people that identified the product opportunity, established the product strategy, defined the product, inspired the product team, and championed the product’s use. In my book, that’s a product manager in the best sense of the term. In a few cases these people also helped build the initial product but mostly not.

Interestingly, none of these leaders went to business school, and several of them didn’t even finish college. But they all had an intimate understanding of an underserved market, a passion for finding a better solution, and a deep knowledge of emerging technologies and how they might be applied to their respective problems.

All of these product leaders possessed great empathy for the customer, insight into what was possible, and the ability to see what was essential and what was incidental. They had a deep understanding of the customer as well as their own team’s capabilities. They operated from a strong basis of knowledge and confidence. They defined products that could be executed with a strong effort.

I don’t believe that any of them would say they were “market-driven” in the sense that it is typically used today. They didn’t go out and gather customer requirements which then told them what to build. But they did, in a very real and meaningful sense, spend time with and get to know the people that would become their customers.

While none of them may have had an MBA, none were pure technologists either. Rather, these were very technology savvy people that saw how they could apply what they knew to solving real problems for real people.

I believe that there are many valuable lessons to be learned from studying these famous product managers. When I look at what they did to create the products that formed the basis of their companies, and then I look at what most companies do to create new products, the differences are striking and many.

For starters, most high-tech products today are created one of two ways. Either the team essentially builds what their customers tell them to, or they let their engineers “innovate,” and then the team productizes what they come up with. I’ve written elsewhere about these very common pitfalls (see www.svproduct.com/papers/toppmmistakes.pdf) but I think it’s useful to contrast this with the approach of the product leaders above.

In future articles we’ll look at this and other fundamental differences between the most successful product managers and how most people practice product management.

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