B2B versus B2C Product Management

First things first…Are you vaccinated? Is your touchscreen clean?

Building products is hard enough, even when you are not burdened by the state of the world and the health of your family. Just making sure your health is in good shape.

Having recently gained experience in B2C product management and interacting with 100s of B2C Product Managers in the Bay Area, I wanted to write on the topic of B2B versus B2C product management.

Users vs. Buyers

In a B2B product company, as a PM, you focus on two different people.

Users and Buyers.

Users who use your product every day for work and the buyers who make the ultimate purchase decision. Since users have a specific way of doing their job in their organization, they will look for ways to customize your product to suit their needs.

For example, the way your company has implemented ATS for recruiting or the way your designers have design workflows for developer hand-off will be quite different from how your users do these things in their org.

Customization becomes key. Custom fields, custom layouts, custom workflows, custom integrations through custom scripts, custom branding and it goes on. You get accustomed to being asked about customization.

You are concerned with your user’s job title, department, company size, department size, number of people on a team, what tools they use, what they do at work, facilities and infrastructure at their workplace, budget size and how the market landscape is changing because all that will decide what gets built in your product.

The product roadmap is clear because your users are professionals and have a good sense of their daily workflows. In fact, your users know too well what they want so as a PM your highest impact comes through execution and GTM strategy than feature ideation.

In a B2C product company, as a PM, you focus on your users. As the product does its job well, it will organically open up paths for monetization. People don’t put up with your product just because someone high up in the company ladder mandated it for use like in B2B. People show up every day in your B2C app because they’re finding some value in it.

Organic growth becomes key.

You are concerned with your user’s age, gender, race, income, hobbies, interests, location, relationship status, their demographics, culture and patterns of their daily lives as those will decide what gets built in your product.

The product roadmap is less obvious, keeps evolving with product usage, or gets reframed over time because it’s hard to tell what users do in their spare time and what needs they have in life. Your users do not know what they want as much so as a PM your highest impact comes through experimenting with ideas, design, execution, and GTM strategy.

Business Model

In B2B, your business model is highly sales-driven unless you started as a B2C app. You focus on direct Sales (Transaction) and fee-based (Subscription) business models. While in B2C, your business model is highly consumer-driven. You explore a combination of ad-supported, marketplace, affiliates, direct Sales, community-based, and fee-based business models.

Market Landscape

In B2B, there’s a lot of consolidation happening in apps leading to an All-in-one model. Companies are outgrowing from one category to encompass another one. Eg: Mailchimp from an email campaign app to an all-in-one integrated marketing platform. The reason is partly due to overcrowding of B2B players in the market and the need to have enterprise data in one place.

In B2C, there’s a lot of unbundling happening in areas unexplored by major players leading to an X for Y model. New, creative categories have emerged as a result. Eg: Verticals on top of a/v conferencing tools such as Loom, Descript, Luma, mmhmm, etc.

Credit: The Verticalization of Zoom

PM Knowledge and Skills

In B2B, your most important asset is stakeholder management skills, industry knowledge in app ecosystems, and customer relationships. You move up with terrific execution and GTM strategizing skills.

In B2C, your most important asset is your consumer behavior hypothesis, data skills, knowledge in new media formats, and innovating new paradigms in human-computer interaction. You move up with a combination of ideas, execution, and strategy.

Technology

It isn’t a surprise that most interesting technological developments have historically been from consumer technology companies. Someone reading this blog is shaking their head thinking about CERN. But, really, consider the creators of all the latest languages, especially in frontend. You have Angular JS from Google. Javascript from Mozilla. React from Facebook. You often don’t see a typical B2B company innovating much in the field of technology. You see them do creative things in sales and marketing.

B2B companies are all about product positioning.

“World Happiness” from a former colleague Sanjeev NC really cracked me up.


Well, what does this have to do about product management? Product Design takes a back seat.

Product Design

In B2B, many users are forced to tolerate poorly thought out UI and UX as long as the product does the intended job for the buyer. Companies with a distribution advantage will use this hold on customers to justify why they care less about product design.

Fortunately, the consumerization of enterprise software is raising the bar for design.

This is the opposite in B2C. Product design can be life or death for the product. Product designers in B2C have a lot more freedom to experiment and opportunity to lead initiatives. As a result, they set the benchmark for industry wide adoption.

One of the reasons why many product-led based B2C companies flip easily into successful B2B ones. Eg: Calendly, Slack, Trello, Canva, Figma.

Data and Analytics

In several B2B companies, there’s less access to data for actual product development due to compliance issues with customers or trust issues with employees, or historic neglect due to obvious product roadmaps. PMs don’t rely too much on data for product development.

It’s super easy to be a contrarian in B2B: “We don’t believe in data-driven decision making. We go by our gut.” Because, you actually don’t have to! Some might liken themselves to a data-driven company. But what they really do is they have an idea and want their data to prove it.

Data in B2B, however, has huge relevance in Sales and Marketing (and also in creating analytical features or products. Oh, the irony!) In B2C, data is crucial to develop interesting features. You cannot survive in B2C without good data interpretation skills.

Product Management Culture

What does a great PM Culture look like? This calls for a separate blog post.

  1. A knowledge-sharing environment where people look up to their peers and want to create value
  2. Has a good balance between structured and fluid collaboration
  3. Develop their product development frameworks. They don’t rely on popular frameworks that are only good at communicating answers rather than generating it
  4. Established a clear way to onboard external PMs, recognize efforts, and measure product success
  5. Respects the perspective of colleagues from different functions such as Marketing, Legal, Sales
  6. Product organization’s structure reflects the size of the company and the maturity of the product. You know something is not quite right when you see a 7-level hierarchy in the PM org for a Series A startup with 100 employees.

Several factors make or break the Product Management culture of a B2B or B2C company such as what the CEO believes in, where the company is located, or what the product does but largely the benchmark is set by the C-Suite. This trickles to how teams perceive the role of PMs and collaborate with them.

Supposing the CEO was a former engineering manager, they may (or may not) believe engineering is the most important problem while ideally, you want every function to be treated equally for the success of the product. In their way of speak, Engineers become a first-class citizen. This is usually addressed with a VP or CPO who keeps things in check. However, I have personally experienced managers who are champions of pure product thinking.

In well-known Bay Area companies such as FAANG and emerging startups founded by former FAANG leaders, there’s a clear understanding and communication of the responsibilities of a PM. It’s a very useful learning ground for early career PMs to have clear ownership and career milestones to look forward to. The lack of such a culture in your initial days might quickly spiral you into feeling like an impostor while it could also help you cover a breadth of interesting experiences early on.

Several B2C companies have been the pioneers of a strong product management culture although there have been exceptions in the recent past with B2B such as Stripe, Amplitude etc.

Business Metrics

Churn in fairly established B2B business doesn’t have as much effect as it has on B2C because of multi-year contracts in the former. In B2C, Cost to Acquire Customer (CAC) and Customer Lifetime Value (LTV) can make or break the business.

Release Cadence

In B2B, features are bundled together and released. You can’t win an enterprise deal with one feature release. This ends up taking up a lot of time. In B2C, the feature release cycles are fairly quick.

Work-Life Balance

This is highly subjective so take it with a pinch of salt. But if you relate to it, I’m sorry it rubs on your wounds.

A mature B2B product is (and should be) relatively low stress and low risk for a Product Manager when compared to its B2C counterpart. Once a B2B product has crossed the tipping point of growth, PMs in VC-backed companies become primarily responsible for maintenance work.

If you are aspiring to start a career in PM, I would suggest choosing an early-stage (Series A and Series B) company or a mature one that is creating new categories over established names. Or, if you’re super stressed in B2C and in need of stability, consider your retirement plans in a big name in B2B.

While landing a job in B2C is considered lucrative, a large company may give you less job satisfaction as a result of diluted feature ownership whereas a small one might make you feel burned out. B2C companies place a lot of importance on PM performance. When you fall short, the next thing you know is you’re on PIP (Performance Improvement Plan) within 3 months of joining the company and ask referrals on Blind. While these may seem like extreme examples, it’s definitely not a rare scenario in several tech companies in the US.

Customer Relationship

In B2B, the customer is a phone call away. PMs have almost direct access to customers. Typically, these customers demand a lot of features and companies do a lap dance… (joking) a ton of nice things outside of product development to retain customers and partners. PMs may end up adding their names to large annual contracts or enterprise deals by releasing a few strategic features while this is uncommon in B2C.

In B2C, customers are usually a bit unreachable. So the relationship grows pretty organically. Less is usually more and it’s evidenced by companies saying NO to a lot of feature requests. PMs focus on doing fewer things exceptionally well. There’s a lot of involvement from the legal team for product decisions and customer relationships. PMs take pride in helping scale users in the order of millions.

There’s obviously a lot more ground to cover on this topic so you’re free to agree or disagree with me. In conclusion, no one type of Product Management is better than the other. Your choice of starting, staying or moving depends on what your interests are, what stage of life you are in and also where you live. There’s so much choice and information in Bay Area for me to make these observations. It might not be in line with your experience in your city.

Featured Image credits: Michał Parzuchowski https://unsplash.com/photos/geNNFqfvw48

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