Making your first product hire

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:

  • You have the first signs of product/market fit. There is some validation that you’re solving a real pain to a defined part of the population.
  • The technical team is starting to deliver.
  • You (as part of the founding team) can’t keep up the pace. 

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.

What characteristics should you look for when making your first Product hire?

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:

  • Capacity to execute on the founders' vision.
    You don’t need a visionary, your first PM has to want to get her hands dirty, and if there are big gaps in your product, she will have to understand these to build solutions that inspire the team to move faster.
  • Zoom in & out capacity.
    You want someone who has a systematic approach to re-think the problems your product solves, the current solutions, and how everything sums up to build your product vision. Someone who loves going deep on problems, but enjoys making them easy to explain and solve.
  • Focus on delivering value (outcome vs output).
    It’s important to find someone who moves faster than you. A person who fights hard to test and ship value continuously. Someone that assumes that 80% of the time things will need iteration, either to grow the product in a stable position or to improve the solution until solving the problem right. Someone that uses data to understand problems and validate its solutions.
  • You don’t want an office rat.
    Understanding your end users is key to come up with the right problems to solve and the best solutions for them. You need a person who loves going out and talking to users and customers.
  • Good writing skills.
    Writing is key to communicate nicely and communication is key to build the right things at the right pace.

Hiring your first PM

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.

  • How do you drive execution within your product? Define a day in your current job.
    I find this especially useful for evaluating the execution capacity of the candidate and her level of accountability. At this stage, she should focus on making things happen even more than on defining solutions and problems.
  • What do you think about quantity vs quality in an early stage company?
    This is a good question to see how much of her focus is on iterating fast and finding the right balance between a prototype and a pixel-perfect solution.
  • How do you break problems? Tell me about a very complex problem (in one sentence) and how you’ve solved it.
    You should not only look for a great problem statement, but also about how clear the target persona and the sub-problems are defined.
  • How do you test value? Tell me about a couple of hypotheses in previous products you’ve launched and how you later validated them.
    Quantitative information is very useful but when starting things from scratch, qualitative feedback is even more valuable as well.
  • How do you prioritize features?
    This is a tricky question since prioritization is very particular to the company’s nature but I tend to look for people prioritizing the problems they have and discarding those that are still to come.
  • Choose any product you’ve built from scratch. What were your north-star metrics?
    Behind a great metric, there is always a great understanding of the market, the customers, and a good explanation of how it was calculated. If the candidate struggles with this, try to go deeper on why.

The technical test

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.

Summarizing

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.

Photo by cottonbro from Pexels


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