In the world start-ups, job titles are often a formality. In reality, each employee can handle a dozen responsibilities outside of their job description. Part of the magic of startups is the Choose Your Own Adventure style of work, and that’s often why generalists thrive here.
However, as the business progresses and the team grows, there comes a time when a founder must carve out dedicated roles. Of these positions, product management could be one of the most difficult roles to fill – and the most important.
Product stewardship is perhaps one of the most elusive – and important – roles to fill.
We spoke with startup founders and operators to find out how and when they hired their first product manager. Some of the things we talked about were:
- What traits to look for.
- Why it’s important to define the role before looking for the best solution.
- If your new employee needs to have technical training.
- The best interview questions.
- How to time your first hire and avoid overhiring.
Don’t hire for the CEO of a product
Let’s start by working backwards. Product managers often get a CEO job or leave a company to become a founder. Like founders, talented product managers have innate leadership skills and are able to communicate effectively and clearly. Likewise, both roles require a visionary person when it comes to product and execution.
David blake was a product manager before becoming a serial founder of edtech who created Degreed, Learn In and most recently BookClub. He says this experience helped him launch the first Degreed prototype and attract the first customers.
“The Indispensable Skill is the ability to defeat the best wisdom of the team and inform product decisions with users and potential customers to inform what you are building,” he said. The person “also needs to be able to take on the team’s mission and develop and sell that story to users and potential customers. This is how you open up a new path, balance the risk, while avoiding building a “faster horse”.
The overlapping synergies between project managers and founders are part of the reason why the role is so difficult to define and recruit. Ken Norton, former product manager at Figma who recently left to advise and coach solo product managers, says companies can start by defining what PMs are not: the CEO of the product.
“It’s about not handing the product responsibility over to someone,” he said. “You want the founder and CEO to continue to be the evangelist and the visionary.” Instead, the role is more to “block and tackle” on a daily basis. Norton wrote an article over 15 years ago on how to hire a product manager, and it’s still essential reading for anyone interested in the field.
Define the role and define your expectations
Product managers help translate all the jugglers of a startup to each other; connecting the engineer with marketing, design with business development and sales with all of the above. The grassroots role is difficult to define, but at the same time, it is the plumbing necessary for any startup that wants to be high-growth and ambitious.
If a successful product manager is a strong generalist, he must have the ability to understand and humanize technical processes. So the best candidates have some kind of technical background as an engineer or whatever.