How to hire the first product manager for your startup
A common approach on what to write about, is something that people ask you often enough. This not only validates that there is some audience out there that is interested in your content (product managers see what I did here?), but also selfishly saves you time as you can point anyone who reaches out about the same topic to your post. I recently had several discussions about Product Management for startups with a few startup founders and Heads of Product, so while it is a pleasure to talk to them, I am sharing my thoughts in case others find it useful.
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Do I need a Product Manager?
Simply put, yes but the timing can vary. The first PM of a startup is the CEO. This doesn’t mean that everything a CEO does is product work, but some of her main responsibilities revolve around product. This role can also be taken by another member of the founding team if they happen to have a product background (e.g. CEO focuses on tech or sales, while another co-founder has previous experience as head of product). The factors that define when you need to hire a PM are:
Ability to scale (or lack thereof). The moment a CEO finds herself unable to scale and dedicate the time required to support product development is a good time to hire your first product person. The CEO must be ready to (at least partially) let go of the day to day product involvement.
CEO’s familiarity with product. If the CEO (or a co-founder) has a product background it might make more sense to delay this step, otherwise the sooner you hire a PM the better as it will allow you to set up your product organization on a solid base.
So what does a PM do?
At a high level a startup PM will have very similar responsibilities with any big tech PM: define the product vision, translate the vision to a prioritized roadmap, and support execution (get things done). In more detail:
A PM defines the product vision and how to measure success towards this goal. This activity requires diving into customer insights and coordinating with the rest of the team.
Based on this vision, the PM puts together a roadmap. A roadmap defines the sequence of feature delivery. Needless to say, this is also an activity that involves the executive team, the tech org, and all product stakeholders.
Lastly, a PM drives execution. Even in large companies a PM does a lot of things that one would argue are outside of his scope (not me) like product marketing, copywriting, wireframes, and anything else required for the product to launch. This is even more prominent in early stage startups where most of these complementary roles don’t even exist. While I strongly believe that a PM should do whatever is needed to launch a product, the tech execution (writing stories, sprint planning, tech design) should be owned by the tech team. But this is a post for another time.
The right profile for your first hire
The best person to accomplish these tasks is someone who has done it before. Startups compete against time so hiring an experienced PM is the best way to ensure that you will see fast progress. No matter what, you will make a lot of mistakes so at least make sure you avoid the ones that can be avoided by experience. This is not to say that more junior PMs or candidates with experience in other functions won’t make great PMs. However, on average an experienced PM is more likely to move faster, and when you run a startup you want to take the best odds of success. The sweet spot is a Sr. IC (individual contributor) with 3-7 years of PM work experience in big tech or another startup. This ensures that she has enough background to be able to offer solutions in most situations while still being hands on. If you happen to evaluate a PM manager (Product Manager already managing other PMs), make sure they understand that they will be doing IC work and don’t make any promises about when you will hire a second PM or build a team. The last thing you want is someone who joins with the prospect of building a team and loses motivation because timelines change.
Assessing a PM
If one of the co-founders is a PM, then assessing a PM is more straightforward. However, this is usually not the case. So how do you assess a PM if you haven’t yourself worked as a PM?
One way to do this is to look for a branded resume. If a PM has worked for a few years at a company with an established PM org, they will likely be good. While this increases your probabilities of success, you can do even better to maximize your odds. The best way is to set up a hiring process that includes an interview with an expert - someone who has hired several PMs in the past. This could be someone from your network, an angel investor, someone from your advisory board, or a paid consultant that is specialized in assessing PMs.
Your process should focus on assessing several key dimensions. The top two areas are product management and communication skills.
PM functional skills (Product strategy/execution): focusing on the candidate’s ability to identify an opportunity that addresses a customer need, while also having business impact, identify a path to execute, define an MVP and the relevant metrics to assess performance.
Communication: clear and crisp communication is a very important PM skill. This is assessed throughout the process by evaluating if the candidate is able to describe complicated ideas in simple terms, adjust their style based on their conversation partner, respond to verbal and nonverbal feedback, etc.
In addition, your assessment should include some standard areas like fit with the company’s values and willingness to be involved with a startup.
Fit with company values/principles: every hire should raise the bar in the company’s values and principles (hopefully you have some). The best way to assess this is through behavioral questions.
Startup fit: not every candidate is a good fit for a startup environment so you should make sure that candidates understasnd what they are getting into. Needless to say, this is not unique to product hiring.