Founders tend to delay hiring the first Product hires. And it’s often because they don’t understand the Product Management role as it should be. Hiring a Product Manager doesn’t mean having somebody take care of prioritization, nor building and maintaining the roadmap. Hiring a Product Manager means hiring someone to focus on saving time and money for the company, which apropos, are the most important constraints startups normally have.
The final goal of a Product Manager is to de-risk product decisions which could potentially cost months of work, or thousands of dollars. Unless the founding team counts with enough bandwidth to do proper Product Management, my advice is to start hiring Product Managers as soon as the following conditions are met:
Although it would be very rare for you to do a Series A without seeing these happening already, I think it’s safe to say that hiring a Product Manager before that moment is 90% of the time a smart decision.
Once you know that you are ready to make your first product hire, you need to figure out the right profile. Product is a role that is central to the life-blood of the company. It is responsible for so many decisions, most of them with high levels of uncertainty, so trust will be essential. I normally recommend finding a builder, instead of a maintainer. A Product Manager who has built a product from scratch. Someone who focuses on outcomes rather than outputs. Someone who likes to deliver results, instead of giving explanations.
The list below defines what I believe is the essential criteria for most of the cases. Of course, depending on your product, market and team, some of this might change, but in my experience these are common in 99% of the cases:
Finding the perfect person for the role isn’t easy at all, so having a great interview process is essential. As you interview, focus on how a candidate thinks about a problem and not so much about if the answer is right. In my experience, more questions about the problem is always a good sign. The first PM should also report directly to you, so ensure also there is a great founder-candidate fit.
Below you will find a list of a few questions that I find very helpful every time I look for first product hires. I normally ask people to respond to these questions (and a few more specific ones) in a written format during the first half of the interview to go over the responses later.
A very important part of the interviewing process is to check if the candidate focuses on outcomes and not just on implementation. A good indication you’ve found the right individual is when the candidate articulates what success might look like and defines what needs to be achieved with the product. And for that, I always recommend asking the candidate to write a press release mimicking the announcement of its latest product (this is highly inspired by Amazon’s Working Backwards).
Look for clarity, outcomes, a great explanation of the problem/solution and enough market context. If the PR doesn’t excite you, there must be something wrong.
The first PM is one of the most important hires you can do. This could be a super senior product leader who remembers building something long ago and wants to do that again, or a junior PM who has amazing potential, but the most important things to look for are trust, accountability and focus on outcome (not output).
These kinds of profiles tend to learn by doing, so finding somebody who comes from a Series A+ company, or someone who has been a founder before (no matter how far her venture went) could be a good way of getting started.
If you do it right, as your company grows your first PM will be able to scale with you and become a true leader within the organization.