Alex Alexakis

Hiring your first Product Manager

This post answers some of the most pressing questions a startup’s founding team might have in regards to hiring their first Product Manager: when to hire one and how to make things work?

Product management is a strange discipline, which sits at the intersection of business, technology and user experience that never quite fits in anywhere, and the way it is practiced differs across organisations, industries and stages in a company life. Still, there are certain traits that act as common ground and good PMs share with each other. These can be encompassed under the following pillars: able to articulate what a great product looks like, rally the team to build it, iterate until they get it right; in other words, make things happen! If you want to dig deeper on what a good PM looks like and the impact they can have, this is one of the most lindy guides out there.

When to go from PM zero to PM one?

The moment you decide to go from PM zero to PM one can vary. The right time is usually when the company has found product/market fit and is ready to scale. This might happen a bit earlier or a bit later, also depending on the product chops of the founding team and how well the team can handle the product discovery and delivery process all together, but overall it makes sense to avoid having too many cooks in the kitchen very early on. At the same time, going to PM one very late is going to cause bottlenecks and slow down your team’s speed. A sign that often shows it is about time to hire your first PM is when you start receiving messages from the team such as “You are slowing us down”, “You are detached from the nitty-gritty product details”, “The rest of the company needs you”, etc.

Taking this decision also means you are finally ready to let go of the day-to-day product management activities and have your product beliefs challenged, to some extent, by a new hire. This is easier said than done, but nevertheless critical, when the needs of the overall business are too much to handle. 

How to find the right person for the role?

The product skills of the founding team and how ready you are to entrust parts of the process to another person are key aspects in making the right decision in regards to your first PM’s seniority. There are usually two paths:

  • Hire a junior PM or transition someone from the team into the role, who is already familiar with the product, users and business and will need less time to onboard. Where the junior PM is more likely to focus is product delivery, as well as contribute to discovery through setting up analytics, talking to users, making suggestions, etc. This is a recommended path when the desired contribution is mostly execution (without too much disruption on how things are done), rather than prioritisation and strategy, with a future outlook of having the junior PM grow over time to handle more strategic needs. On the other hand, it’s quite possible that this person will need training and mentorship for quite some time, before they can accelerate the team’s performance.

  • Hire a senior PM that has 3+ years of PM experience and has shipped several products before (ideally for similar customer audience and oftentimes for similar company growth stage). Nothing is a better indication of a person’s ability to ship great products than having done it before. A senior PM is expected to contribute to both product delivery and product discovery. This means they could contribute or lead activities including: prioritise features, set roadmaps, craft product strategy, deep dive into user needs, while at the same time work with the engineering team to deliver features. A more senior PM will likely bring in their own views and experiences on how products are shipped and might disrupt team dynamics, before hopefully re-emerging in the performing phase a few months later.

All in all, take the long view. This role would be central to the life-blood of the company moving forward, as product decisions are foundational to a startup and not so easily reversed. My advice would be to find someone that has the builder mentality. There are a ton of “start from scratch” problems to deal with in the early days (product, processes, etc), so having this trait is crucial. That person should be able to (senior)/or show potential to (junior) articulate what a winning product looks like, rally the team to build it, and iterate until they get it right.

How to make things work?

After you hire PM one, how do you make it work in the first days, weeks or even months? Your involvement in setting this person up for success largely depends on their seniority, but there are some obvious areas that need to be addressed early on such as getting the PM familiar with your product, users, business, and market in general, set expectations and build trust. While they do this, make sure you take advantage of their fresh eyes, as they are reviewing things for the first time! 

Most importantly, how do you reduce your level of involvement in any individual set of product decisions, but maintaining the essential involvement? Ben Horowitz is articulating this quite well here and is particularly valid for all product-oriented CEOs or CTOs. 

The only thing that will wreck a company faster than the product CEO being highly engaged in the product is the product CEO disengaging from the product. - Ben Horowitz

Some of the pillars you should make sure your focus remains intact:

  • Drive product vision

  • Set the tone and quality bar for the team

  • Share data and perspectives the team might be missing

Hiring your first PM, especially if you are a product-focused founder, is always a big and difficult step. When done correctly it can be a massive accelerator for the team and the entire company. It makes room for you as the leader to focus on the work that really matters. Nevertheless, it’s hard to hit it right entirely; it’s a balance you have to keep between not letting go and letting go.