SaaS is highly competitive and more so all the time. Everybody wants those sweet monthly recurring revenue dollars, and founders and VCs are teaming up to draw them in with cloud-based software—a $172 billion industry in 2022.
Of all the people operating in concert at any successful SaaS startup, product managers are some of the most crucial. If you’re thinking about SaaS product management as a career—or just wondering what PMs do—this article will help. Read on to learn everything you need to know about the skills, responsibilities and tools required to nail SaaS product management in 2022.
What is SaaS product management?
SaaS product management is the process of shepherding a SaaS product through the product life cycle, from ideation and development to marketing and launch (and beyond!).
It’s the same idea behind regular ol’ product management, but it’s about SaaS products. That means deep tech proficiency and even some coding skills can be helpful (although not required).
As many cloud-based software companies are CX-focused orgs, an eye for user experience (UX) is another feather in the cap of potential SaaS PMs everywhere.
What does a SaaS product manager do?
Is “pretty much everything” descriptive enough? 🤗
The roles and responsibilities of SaaS product managers are broad. One day, you may find yourself bridging the gap of understanding between engineering and business development teams. The next, you may find yourself gathering early-stage user feedback for a report.
But product managers in any space oversee the product life cycle, constantly improving the product at each stage. The same is true in SaaS specifically, but there is no physical product. You’re much more focused on user experience (UX) concerns.
Here are some other examples of what you might do as a SaaS product manager:
- Act as the communications liaison between disparate internal departments
- Accept ownership of product and market performance, delegating tasks as necessary to make sure the software is a success
- Find ways to improve UX, with a laser focus on making the product as “self-serve” as possible
- Establish and track relevant growth metrics for SaaS products
Responsibilities of a SaaS product manager
If you’re looking for it in a nutshell, here’s your tasty morsel: SaaS product managers oversee every step of the SaaS product life cycle.
If this is a role that interests you, you probably want to get a bit more granular. Here’s a more detailed look into the responsibilities of a SaaS product manager.
Identifying valuable opportunities
Perhaps the most daunting part of a SaaS product manager's job is the first part—the part where you actually come up with new feature and product ideas.
Brainstorming ideas is a part of that, but you’re ultimately responsible for coming up with good SaaS product ideas. Good can mean a lot of things, but that usually boils down to whether the idea is valuable to your company and your users.
You can break this major responsibility down into three distinct phases:
- Product ideation
- Screening product ideas
- Clarifying the idea
You come up with ideas, find the best one and make a plan to make it real. That’s it, but it may sound simpler than it actually is.
If you have an engaged user base, you’ll have plenty of feature and product requests to choose from. That’s product ideation.
But you’ll have to make the tough call: Which ones will make the most users happy?
When you prioritize what will be useful to the largest number of users, you’re usually going to land on the best—potentially most viable and most profitable—idea. That’s screening.
Once you’ve picked the best SaaS product idea, you then have to establish its viability (establishing SaaS product-market fit, in other words). That’s where you describe the features of the software, as well as the market’s appetite for a SaaS offering with those features. That’s clarification.
Creating a product strategy
Name a big, multi-part task in any other industry that doesn’t involve some kind of overarching strategy. We’ll wait.
You have to have a strategy for any SaaS product. This space is too competitive. The I’s to dot and T’s to cross are too numerous. You just can’t skip it.
And yes, you need to write it down. You need to have a defined product roadmap that takes your winning SaaS product from passing thought to game-changer.
If you’ve managed to select a product idea without input from others (which is unlikely), this is where that ends. You have to draw all other product owners into your product strategy.
You may be responsible for defining what success looks like and mapping out each step, but you have to get buy-in from product owners in every other department.
That’s just good teamwork, but it’s also because the success of any SaaS product relies on dozens of tasks across multiple departments going right. You may have the world’s sharpest product management skills, but without a strategy—and buy-in from other stakeholders—you’re not going to get to where you need to go.
Conducting market research
We’ve already touched on market research as a key step in the product ideation and selection phase, but you’re not done with it yet.
One of the key responsibilities of product managers in the SaaS space is to compile valuable market data that can inform the activities of the product marketing team.
Remember—you’re in charge of the success of the product. Marketing, which takes place close to or after product launch, is a key determinant of product success.
That means you need to be involved with it. Heavily.
You’re probably not a marketing genius (that’s OK—not your job), but your main contribution is going to be in providing information.
You conduct the market research. That means you can hand the marketers information about competitors, user feedback, industry developments, price points and more.
With the information you provide, product marketers can craft a go-to-market strategy that positions the product to succeed. They can understand how densely packed this particular part of the SaaS industry is. They can compare prices with competitors. They can synthesize use cases that actually mean something to potential user cohorts.
Managing a team
Product managers often find themselves in a strange spot within their companies. They manage products, not people, but often, no one directly manages them.
They’re on their own, with hands, feet, noses and eyes in departments across the organization. And because they’re overseeing the steps in a large, complicated plan to bring a SaaS product to market, they find themselves delegating tasks to others.
In other words, they act like team managers out of necessity. Sometimes, that’s a more official role. But even if you’re not considered management in your organization, you’re probably going to manage a team as a product marketer in SaaS.
That means it behooves aspiring SaaS product managers to sharpen their team management skills. It’s a primary, albeit sometimes unspoken, responsibility.
Most SaaS product managers wouldn’t know where to begin if they had to make a change directly to the SaaS product they were managing. (If you’re also a developer, more power to you.)
That’s OK. Coding isn’t your job. But understanding what parts of the SaaS product you’ve helped to build is your job.
Having an understanding of what’s possible in software development and how difficult certain changes would be to make is going to benefit you. Often, that part comes with experience working with dev teams.
But in the beginning, one of your primary responsibilities after product launch is going to be finding ways to optimize the product. This is SaaS—the products improve over time or fail.
Some hungry startup is always eager to create a competing product that addresses flaws in your current product. It’s your responsibility to keep that from happening by optimizing the product, planning updates and collecting user feedback.
More questions about tracking the growth of your SaaS product? Your answers are right here.
Best practices for SaaS product managers
Product managers are by no means a monolith, but SaaS product managers tend to be (lovely) Type A poster children. If that’s you, that means you don’t just want to be a SaaS product manager—you want to be the best.
We love it. Here are some best practices to follow to help you get there:
Marketing in SaaS—whether it is the marketing of an entirely new product or a significant improvement of an existing product—has to be product-led.
Users can switch products with little to no fuss, and they have options. And they care much less than you think about your description of your product.
Overwhelmingly, SaaS buyers want to know how the product helps them solve their specific problems. Bonus points if you can show-don’t-tell with a free trial or freemium arrangement. (Detailed articles showing real product use cases work well, too.)
That’s the crux of product-led marketing in SaaS. Show the market what your product does for them. Let them experience it.
By and large, they don’t care about:
- Your company
- What went into building this SaaS product
- How excited your marketing team is to announce the product
- How many times they see your product in paid media
They care about making their difficult lives easier. Your product leads the way in telling that story—or if it doesn’t yet, it should. And it’s your job as a SaaS product manager to ensure that the marketing your team does is product-led.
Interested in PLG, but unsure where to start? Level up your knowledge—check out the Product Led Growth Collective today.
Document, document, document
The SaaS products you’re responsible for as a product manager are not like other products. SaaS products change frequently, often without much fanfare for the user to notice.
The updates happen so frequently, in fact, that it’s easy to lose track of what changed, when it changed and why it changed.
That’s a problem you solve with documentation. This is SaaS product management 101: Make sure your team’s product documentation practices—for both end users and internal teams—are on point.
Why? Because documentation makes your life easier.
It enables a smooth hand-off from one developer to another. Your change log encodes the history of changes your product has undergone so you know where to focus next.
Product management is circular, not linear, in the SaaS space. When the product hits the open market, your job starts over again with each new update. You need excellent documentation to support your efforts to continually improve your product.
Put transparency first
Speaking of change logs, they’re a great way to promote transparency in your activities as a SaaS product manager.
Make no mistake—transparency is key. As a product manager, you’re 2 things:
- An honorary member of multiple departments in your organization
- Ultimately responsible for the success of the product
You’re a member of multiple departments because you’re in their business all the time. You’re guiding them to complete the tasks that will make the product a success.
And the second one is in your job description. In the end, the product’s success is on you.
To communicate well with all of the people you need to and give the SaaS product at hand a fighting chance at success, you have to be transparent.
Start with a well-oiled change log. But don’t stop there. Make communication with other departments a matter of routine.
No one should really have to consult the change log, interpret dev speak and approximate what’s going on with your product. You should tell them what they need to know.
5 Qualities of a great SaaS product manager
Do you have what it takes to be a world-class SaaS product manager? If you have these qualities, the answer is probably yes:
In SaaS product management, if you’re not organized, you’re lost. Organization is essential on both a macro and micro level.
That means you have to keep the major steps of the product life cycle locked down and in proper order. And you have to make sure daily tasks get done every single day.
You’re in charge of the tasks for each day. You delegate. In general, you don’t take orders on a daily basis. That’s life as a SaaS product manager.
That means you have to be independent. And that independence should breed initiative. The initiative it takes to find real, valuable SaaS product opportunities when no one is handing them to you. The initiative to get it all done.
3. Great with customers
Did you work retail in a past life? Great. If not, work on this:
Be the best at talking to real-life users of your products. Understand them. Know how to engage and delight them.
Why? Because you have to be great at 2 things:
- Getting feedback from users
- Understanding the UX of your product as real users experience it
The only way to excel on these points is to know your users like they’re your siblings—what makes them tick, what ticks them off and the like.
4. Not afraid to ask for help
You get big credit as a SaaS product manager if you can figure out how to use internal tools and avoid bothering customer success every five minutes.
That’s a fact. But you won’t always be able to do it alone. In fact, you will almost always need someone’s help to get a major product management task done.
If you’re quaking in your boots every time you need to ask for that help, you’re not going to operate at peak product manager performance. You need to be fearless in asking for help.
Be confident that if there was an obvious answer you should have caught, you would have caught it. Internalize this fact: People want to help you. They want to help you to help the product you’re all working on to succeed.
5. Excellent communicator
Written, verbal, nonverbal—great SaaS product managers deliver all forms of communication with arrow-splitting precision.
You’re going to talk to developers. You’re going to talk to salespeople. You’re going to talk to marketers. You’re going to talk to the C-suite.
If you leave room for ambiguity or misunderstanding, ambiguity and misunderstanding will enter the scene. Communicate precisely at all times, and you won’t have that problem.
Software for SaaS PMs
Your utility belt may not have Batarangs or a grappling gun, but the right tools will turn you into the Batman of SaaS product managers.
But there’s only so much space in the toolbox, and there are dozens of pieces of software meant to help SaaS product managers do their jobs. Which ones are most essential? Here’s our list:
The only way to do shameless self-promotion that is truly without shame is to be 100% confident in your product. That’s a hot tip for SaaS product managers, and it’s also why we’re comfortable putting Appcues at the top of this list.
Appcues is an essential tool for SaaS PMs. That’s partly because our tool fosters real app engagement and SaaS onboarding completions. We do it by empowering SaaS product managers to use a no-code builder that puts you in full control of app onboarding, feature adoption and more with no dev background required.
Appcues also generates an enormous amount of easy-access data to help you understand how users are engaging with your product. By extension, that tells you how to improve engagement, onboarding, feature adoption and more.
Speaking of in-depth behavioral analytics, Hotjar provides a wealth of this kind of information with its website heat mapping, user behavior recordings and digital surveys.
Whether you’re testing engagement with an entryway website for your SaaS product or your SaaS product is fully browser-based, Hotjar is going to provide a huge amount of information in a way you can easily digest and deploy to do your job better.
Amplitude elevates the behavioral data analytics game by adding granular cohort creation functions and digital journey visualization tools that make experienced PMs’ hearts skip a beat.
The only negative thing SaaS product managers might have to say about Amplitude is that its suite of tools is so customizable and broad that it’s easy to get lost in the weeds with experimentation and A/B testing. (For the record, we read that as a good thing.)
Part of Google Cloud, Looker is another data analytics tool that plays well with huge data sets and nicely with Google tools like Data Studio.
If you’ve got a lot of users (or expect you will soon) and want to stay on top of your data game, Looker’s embedded analytics tools are a solid solution—one that claims to be able to reduce churn by 7% out of the gate.
Data is kind of a big deal for SaaS product managers, but it’s not the only part of your job that requires some kind of software. The other part is organization, and Miro boards are a fantastic solution.
The product life cycle is like the worst kinds of roads—long, winding, and full of bumps and potholes. Your typical task management software might not be up to the challenge of keeping all of those tasks, subtasks and dependencies in check.
But Miro is. It’s a huge whiteboard. Fully customizable, connected, and flawlessly designed, Miro whiteboards can accommodate large and small teams working to bring almost any SaaS product to life.