Brian Chesky (Airbnb) kills product management and the thing no one is saying about it

Estimated reading time: 9 minutes

If you’re a product manager or in the product management space, you likely felt the wave that went through the community recently when Brian Chesky, the CEO and cofounder of Airbnb, announced that he was merging the product management function with product marketing.

This announcement has left many people in the space wondering, “Is product management a dying breed?”

As a product & project management person, I think there’s more going on here and this is an unconventional approach to a problem that many companies have.

Let’s discuss.

But first, some background information.

Who is Brian Chesky?

Brian Chesky is an entrepreneur and co-founder of Airbnb. Mr. Chesky is a designer first and by education with a BA in Industrial Design. He was part of the co-founding Airbnb team in 2008, along with Joe Gebbia and Nathan Blecharczyk.

Under his leadership as the CEO, Airbnb has transformed the way people travel and find accommodation by providing a platform that allows individuals to rent their homes, apartments, or rooms to travelers worldwide.

Chesky’s vision and innovative thinking have led to Airbnb’s immense success and disruptive impact on the hospitality industry. He is known for his emphasis on design, customer experience, and creating a sense of belonging for guests. Brian Chesky’s entrepreneurial spirit, dedication, and ability to adapt to changing market dynamics have cemented his position as a prominent figure in the business world.

This is not the first criticized decision coming out of Airbnb. Pre-pandemic, Airbnb cut their advertising budget in favor of doing more brand focused marketing and it’s proven to have been a good call.

What is Product Management?

Product management has become a crucial discipline for many organizations and is a role that encompasses the entire lifecycle of a product, from its inception to its retirement.

It involves strategic planning, development, and execution of a product or service, with the aim of meeting customer needs, driving business growth, and achieving overall success. There is no shortage of product management driven frameworks that help product managers act as the driving force behind a product.

The role also collaborates with cross-functional teams such as engineering, design, marketing, and sales to translate customer insights and market trends into actionable strategies.

They define the product vision, prioritize features, set clear goals, and oversee the product development process, ensuring that the final offering aligns with customer expectations and business objectives. A skilled product manager possesses a deep understanding of the market, competitors, and user behavior, enabling them to make informed decisions and iterate on the product to maximize its value and impact.

They’ve been known to be called “mini CEOs” because of their cross-application to all things in the business. In more recent days, the product manager role has taken on and more and more specific meaning and has begun to find more specialization across Growth, Marketing, Hardware, software and more.

What is Product Marketing?

Product marketing is a strategic discipline within the field of product management that focuses on promoting and positioning a specific product or service in the marketplace. This role is intended to work closely alongside the Product Manager in effort to understand the customer needs, the problem the item solves and to really help develop the messaging and positioning that gets shared to the customer touching teams.

The field involves a comprehensive list of activities aimed at understanding the target audience, defining the product’s unique value proposition, and developing effective marketing strategies to drive its adoption and sales.

Product marketers collaborate closely with various teams, including product development, sales, and marketing communications, to ensure that the product meets customer needs and is effectively positioned in the competitive landscape.

They conduct market research, analyze customer insights, and leverage their expertise to create compelling messaging, pricing strategies, and distribution plans.

Through their efforts, product marketers play a crucial role in driving awareness, generating demand, and ultimately achieving business objectives.

How do product management and product marketing work together?

Product management and product marketing are two complementary functions that work closely together to ensure the success of a product in the market. While product management focuses on the strategic aspects of developing and managing a product throughout its lifecycle, product marketing focuses on positioning and promoting the product to the target audience.

There can be times when this overlaps and a Product Manager at a startup may be responsible for both the marketing & positioning aspects and the development and overall product development.

As a company grows, though, a collaboration between these two disciplines is crucial for aligning the product’s features and capabilities with customer needs and market demands.

Product managers rely on the insights and expertise of product marketers to gather customer feedback, conduct market research, and analyze competitive landscapes. This information helps product managers make informed decisions about product features, pricing, and roadmap planning.

On the other hand, product marketers leverage the product manager’s deep understanding of the product to create compelling messaging, develop go-to-market strategies, and ensure effective positioning in the market. By working together, product management and product marketing ensure that the product is not only well-designed and developed but also successfully launched, adopted, and differentiated in the market to drive its overall success.

So… why did Brian Chesky combine product management and product marketing?

If the two roles work well together, why would he combine them? Well, he is quoted as saying that it isn’t part of the Airbnb culture and citing that other large companies, such as Apple, run the same way. As a product designer, there can even be overlap in the general functions of product management — such as discovering the product, interviewing customers, aligning the UX and ensuring the product has value.

In fact, in some roles, product management can very heavily look more like project management or a product owner role. Because product management is a relatively new domain, it has been in search of its footing and it finds a different footing for each company.

With so much overlap, though, it can be easy for a company to blur the lines between the roles and find that they are neither utilizing it correctly, overlapping too much and it creating confusion, or it ultimately becomes another layer between the top to the execution.

What makes this shift scary for many, though, is that the current economy and job market is already proving challenging for many in the field. After the last three years, no one is excited about more uncertainty.

But that’s just it….

Merging product management & product marketing is about managing uncertainty

Mini-CEOs do not replace top leadership and they may not be part of the overall strategic planning and implementation. It becomes another layer between the actual CEO and the execution and for that reason,

This is a strategy move.

Chesky is being strategic here. With up to 90% of strategic initiatives failing because of poor execution, eliminating another layer between the top strategy and the day to day execution may create a more successful space.

The more layers that you have between the strategy and leadership, the more you’ll play a game of telephone and the more likely your strategic initiatives for the product will not be carried out. In fact, one study suggests that even upper leaders are often not aware of what the initiatives are with only 28% of executives and middle managers being able to list three out of 5 strategic initiatives. There are other numbers out there to state that even as few as 7% of employees are able to say they know the business strategy and what they need to do to accomplish it.

If your product managers are not in that 7%… well, the Airbnb move here is one solution.

Ultimately, Brian Chesky is not killing product management

He is improving the connection between the top and the product’s messaging. Companies like Apple and Airbnb do not get to be Apple and Airbnb by letting employees operate in silos. They get to be them by setting a top level vision, purpose, direction and aligning everything underneath to who they are as a living and breathing organization.

You don’t need to eliminate product management to be strategic

The first thing you might ask then is, “will other companies begin to do the same?” And that could very well be the case but if they do not understand why this is a strategic move and continue to build in a silo, it won’t matter for the company. It won’t help. You can’t turn that 7% of employees and 28% of executive leadership into a higher number without being very deliberate.

A company may not have to remove the product management group, merge them with product marketing, or make other big dramatic shifts to improve strategic alignment, execution, and implementation.

You do, however, have to get better about infusing the strategic vision, purpose, and initiatives into the fabric of the company and the culture. You do, however, have to create a safe space for teams to have ownership of the work that they are contributing and you have to create a space in which they can see the fruit of their labor.

Strategy is a continuous journey

Strategy cannot be something that is one and done, stuffed in a large document or slide deck and then set aside for the rest of the day, month or week. It is something that needs to be acknowledged, assessed, monitored, and executed on every day – from top to bottom.

And this is why we exist, here at Leantime. Strategic project management is about creating a world where 7% is 100% and still keeping your product management team. We incorporate strategy into every level of the project but will also be releasing a high level strategy and program management plugins later this month (July 2023).

With Jira’s deadline to eliminate server support, be sure to reach out as these will be available for on premise licenses as well.

Let Product live on

While the announcement will likely continue to ripple through the community for some time, we have respect for leaders making really hard decisions in favor of building the right things at the right time. Did the product management and product marketing need to be merged for it? Maybe, maybe not. Only time will tell the impact it has on Airbnb and the work they are doing.

Be sure to connect with us and let us know your thoughts on it.

Gloria Folaron is the CEO and founder of Leantime. A Nurse first, she describes herself as an original non-project manager. Being diagnosed with ADHD later in life, she has hands on experience in navigating the world of project and product management and staying organized with ADHD.

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