Hiring your first product manager

Hiring your first product manager

I advise early stage technology startups and product teams. A number of startups have recently asked me when is the right time to hire a dedicated full time product manager.

In the early days, it is critical one of the founders, the CEO and/or head of engineering, plays the role of the product manager. This is key as she needs to have intimate knowledge of customers, understand what problem the product is solving and has a good idea what needs to be built.

 The most important focus for early stage startups is to get to achieve product/market fit.

 Typical activities include:

  • Understand the market and identify problems that are worth solving
  • Define unique value proposition
  • Specify minimum viable product feature set
  • Test minimum viable product with customers
  • Ruthless prioritisation of features

Here are some of the factors to consider when considering if it is time to hire the first product manager:

Product/market fit
If the startup has achieved product/market fit, it is a sign that you may need to hire your first product manager. At this stage, the growth pace is rapid, the number of customers are increasing, and company is hiring people. This naturally means the founders have to shift their focus to activities like hiring, fundraising and marketing the product.

It is not advisable to hire a product manager before product/market fit, it is too early.One of the founders should be performing this role, although it may not be full time.

Company size
If the company has grown to more than 15 – 20 employees, then this could indicate it is time to hire a full time product manager. At this stage, there are often sales team members who have also started asking for features etc. There are also lot more internal conversations and stakeholder management becomes key. Someone needs to represent broad set of customers and market segments rather than act based on a specific customer/account.

Airbnb hired their first product manager when the company was 35 employees.

Founder slowing down team members
The founder wearing the product manager hat has started becoming a bottleneck to the rest of the product team. She is often not available to make day to day product decisions and absent for important product related meetings. This directly leads to employee frustration and slowing down of delivery.

Founding team experience
How early you hire a product manager also depends on the strengths of the founding team. If the founding team is weak on product and business, there might be a case for bringing in a product manager earlier than later. This is especially true in the case when the founders are not keen to learn these skills. This is however a less than ideal scenario.

These are all clues that you may need to consider hiring a product manager. It is however key for the founder to remain involved at the right level to drive out the product vision and long term direction. This is something we have seen in product focussed CEOs like Steve Jobs, Larry Page and Mark Zuckerberg, they have remained involved without inhibiting the product teams from moving forward, as Marc Anderson put it in this article – ‘maintained their essential involvement’.