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When should you hire a Product Manager?
When should early stage companies make their first product hire
I’ve been doing some consulting with early stage companies and figured I’d write about some common topics I encounter. The first topic is hiring product managers. “When is the right time to hire a product person?", “Do I need a product manager right now?” — these are common questions I get from early stage founders.
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All of your time as a founder should be focused on finding product market fit.
Only if this happens should you consider making your first product hire.
Once you make the hire, let go and let your product manager do their job. Be collaborative and guiding and don’t micro manage.
I start by asking why they think they need a product manager. I get a range of answers but it usually comes down to the founder shifting to more pressing responsibilities and not having enough time to continue acting in the product role.
The above is a valid reason. The next question I ask is “Have you found a good market with a product that satisfies demand for that market?” aka product market fit. If the answer is no, it’s almost never the time to hire a product manager. It’s time to eliminate all other tasks and focus on your market and your customer. If the answer is yes, you’ll find yourself with shifting responsibilities that will hinder the pace of your team and inevitably spread your time too thin. This is when it’s time to consider a product person. Let’s detail both cases:
Don’t hire — No product market fit: When a startup is in its nascent stages trying to build their first product offering, it’s best for founders to lead the product development charge and hone in on the details. Founders are often the holder of the vision, so it’s natural for them to jump into the details and keep a small team (sometimes just their co-founder) moving in the right direction. If you are a founder at this stage, I advise you to keep the team small and focus on finding product market fit. You may be tempted to to hire someone at this stage in order to help you accelerate product market fit, but I think this is a waste of time and money. The truth is that most startups will never make it past this point, so it is your job as a founder to pour all your energy into increasing the chances of survival. Survival is not something you want to outsource. 90% of startups fail and 10% of those fail in their first year. The leading reason for failure (about 42%) is misreading the market and not creating demand, therefore you and your founding team should only care about finding a market and customers. Everything else is a distraction.
Hire — Product market fit reached: If your company is fortunate enough to have found a market with enough customer demand to sustain growth and revenue, CONGRATS! Now your focus will likely shift. You’ll transition from a founder cared primarily about bringing your first product to market, to a founder that now has to build a company. New and higher priority responsibilities will emerge, including, building the company culture, hiring a stellar team and dealing with investors. Your product responsibilities will begin to skew more strategic and less tactical. To use a football analogy, you’ll be more of the GM that orchestrates the team rather than the coach that is on the ground, coaching the players through tactics. It’s tempting for founders to want to keep acting in the product role and do it all, but I’ve seen first hand what happens to a team when founders are spread too thin. Goals and expectations are often not clear, product requirements become ambiguous, milestones are not defined and deadlines start to slip. This will ultimately slow your product development down and cause frustration with your engineers and designers. Assuming you have adequate capital, now is the time to start thinking about making that first product hire in order to get ahead of the challenges stated above and keep the pace of development moving. The next thing you need to be extremely careful about is the criteria for this product hire. A few things to think about:
Determining what kind of product manager you need — Do you need someone who skews more on the operations and execution side, or more of a strategic thinker that can dig in and figure out the best path forward? The key is to figure out what complementary skills the person can bring to the table. In all cases this hire should be a senior person that can be strategic and also execute and be hands on with the team.
Setting the right expectations for the role — This can be said for every hire, but it’s especially important for product hires, since shipping the right products and having the right team dynamic will make or break your company. Make sure that you outline responsibilities, what success looks like and the timeline you are willing to give this person to achieve success. Hire slow and fire fast.
Crafting the right interview process — Make sure the interview outcome will tell you if this is the right person. Tailor it to your needs and expectations and try to mimic real work-like situations the candidate will face in their role. In addition to this, make sure to involve people the candidate will be working with closely — most of the time this is engineers and designers. You want to make sure that they are a great skill and culture fit before pulling the trigger.
There is a lot more to finding the right product people to hire, but I’ll leave that for another post. Once this person is hired, the most important thing you can do is let go and trust. Don’t micro manage and let this person flourish. You’ll quickly realize if this person is the right fit or not.
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