Don’t hire too soon
One of the most common questions I get from early-startup founders is when they should hire their first Product Manager. The slightly cheeky, oversimplified version of my answer is usually “not right now”.
Founders in early-stage startups often juggling one too many things. From managing fundraising to closing deals to managing the team internally, it’s true that founders often feel like they’re not giving the most important part of their company (the product) much love. However, I believe that the first Product hire that you make should be after some of your other critical roles, including marketing, sales, and support.
Founders need to be the first Product Manager
The product is the golden-egg of the startup. It is the core and the extension of the founder’s product vision. Further, early in the product and startup’s lifecycle, the product should be malleable enough that it can withstand pivots in the business model.
Deciding when to double down and when to pivot is a difficult decision – it is made usually by a combination of user feedback, a product’s ability to get traction or monetize, and changes in the competitive landscape. This is a major decision that impacts the entire company. If a founder gives up their work in customer and product research, their ability to make these decisions to pivot will be significantly hampered. Once a decision to pivot is made, the founder is in the best position to communicate the why, the what, and the how that pivot should happen to the rest of the team.
When to hire?
We all know that building a product is difficult. Between monitoring the sales pipeline, the feedback from support, and talking to customers, it’s no double that at some point, it needs to be come a full time job.
As a company grows, founders may find that they just don’t have time to give the product enough love. They may not be able to do the customer development calls and take in user feedback because they’re too busy scaling the company up.
Here are some common telltale signs for when you need to start hiring for a Product Manager:
- The engineering team has built a lot of functionality that no one wants
- No one has time to talk to the customers to understand their workflows and pain points
- No one is analyzing product feedback and data, so decisions slow down or are made poorly
- It’s unclear what the most important and impactful thing the product team should be working on next (internal confusion).
What to look for
Here are a few things that founders should look out for in the first product hire. They should look for someone who:
- Is user centric and can be the voice and a strong advocate for your users and customers.
- Knows how to convert a founder’s product vision to business objectives.
- Is highly analytical and can make quick data-informed decisions. They should also have a strong experimental mindset.
- Is able to influence different parts of the organization with data, analyses, and storytelling
- Knows what technologies to leverage to best execute the product vision
- A natural team-leader to help the team unblock, execute, and ship great products
Shared custody of the baby
A founder that has built up the product from scratch may find it difficult to give up the product to their first product hire. However, without some autonomy in product decision-making, the Product Manager will not be able to achieve her full potential.
The analogy we often like to use is to have shared custody of a product with your first Product hire. Founders should be willing to advise and give input based on their past observations, but should also back up the decisions made by the first PM.