10 January 2021

What to Look for in Your First Product Manager

Product management is easier at scale. When you have a great VP product, with a bunch of great product managers under them, leading product teams driven by a single north star, strategy, or vision, life is simpler. There are many illusions of simplicity that come with scale, but this is not one.

Hiring into early-stage startups

The first product management hire is typically made before the startup has product-market fit and often before it has problem-solution fit (the point at which the value proposition has been proved) and sometimes before a real value proposition exists.

For a pre product-market fit startup, or a product team launching a substantially new value proposition or business model, the top priority is getting product-market fit. This is more important than strategy, more important that pricing, more important than marketing, PR and growth.

If you are a product focussed founder or CEO, the first product manager will be your top sparring partner. If you do not have a product focussed founder, then the product manager will shoulder most of the responsibility of getting to product-market fit.

So your first product manager hire should be an expert in attaining product-market fit.

What to look for in your first product manager

To find product-market fit there are three essential steps, each of which requires a different set of skills. It is essential that your product manager has competency in each of these areas:

  1. Understanding the customer, their needs and problems
  2. Discovering solutions to the customers’ problems, usually by working closely with your design and engineering teams
  3. Finding fit, usually by working with design and engineering teams to run experiments like landing pages, prototype testing, click-response and so on.

Therefore, your first product manager needs to look like this:

These are the main questions I get asked about hiring the first product manager

We all like to save a few bucks here are there. But before you close on a low-cost product manager, consider the following:

1. I want to hire someone junior to as a product owner and train them

If you are a founder who has run product organisations in the past and you are energized by spending 5-10 hours a week mentoring your product managers, then this may be an option. But if you are pre product-market fit, then by definition you do not know what features to build yet, so why invest in another person (cost overhead and management overhead) who’s sole value add is elaborating on features that are almost definitely not the right ones?

2. I’m an experienced founder, I know what I need to build and I know how to do it, I just need a product owner to execute

This may well be true, but first answer this:

How many hours a week can you dedicate today to working on product?

How will this trend in the future as you fundraise, hire and build a team?

Will you be able to give your organisation enough of your hours?

3. I need a product manager with strong domain skills

Though I have never seen this be true, I can believe that there are some domains that are so specialized you need a product manager with expertise in those domains. If that is truly the case, then you need a domain expert and someone with the skills I defined above.

4. I can’t afford a product manager with experience finding product-market fit

In most major tech markets product managers are hot property and those with product-market fit experience are even hotter. If you cannot afford a product manager with product-market fit experience, you might be better off doing it yourself and investing whatever revenue or investment you have into other areas of your business that take your time.

Maybe I can help

I spend a lot of time coaching founders and their product managers, helping them develop the skills needed to find product-market fit and helping them identify those skill sets in others. Drop me a note, I’d love to chat.

Cover photo by Christina Morillo from Pexels

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