Being the first product manager at an organisation comes with a long list of challenges – among them a lack of clarity (on everything), a shortage of tools and resources, and the need to get everyone aligned fast. To help you understand what it’s really like to be the first product manager in the door, we’ve spoken to some product managers who’ve been product manager zero.
- Do stay calm and be structured – you will feel overwhelmed in the first weeks and months
- Be ready to deal with a wide range of expectations of what you will do. And be ready to explain the value you bring to the business
- Make sure you really care about the domain, it’s a great motivator when the going gets tough
- Be willing to help out anywhere and everywhere
- Do call on your support networks
- You need bags of confidence
What do the first days, weeks and months feel like?
Merissa Silk, Staff Product Manager at Onfido, has been a company’s first product person several times during her career. Onboarding can be overwhelming – like “drinking from the firehose”, she says. With probably no onboarding structure in place “you’ll likely have to spend your first days mapping out how you plan to onboard yourself”. She adds: “It can often feel like everything is on fire, so it’s really important to be calm, structured, and thoughtful in how you tackle the large list of to-dos.”
Karen Rawson, Head of Product Management at GL Assessment, says that the only product experience the company had before she joined was a product consultant troubleshooter. It had left some people wary of her role: “I was told a few times ‘I’ve experienced product managers before – they take over’.” Some people were curious and wished to collaborate and adopt a newer way of working as it ‘made sense’. No one fully understood the value the role could bring. Many times, I felt like I had come from Mars and was talking Martian. In fact, I was often asked ‘not to use product speak’, when tech teams were allowed to talk tech!.”
Jeremy Hooi, Founder and Product Leader at Amperfii, a startup working towards product/market fit, says initially he felt he was Neo in the chair in The Matrix – downloading a continuous flood of knowledge and context (“I think I actually said ‘I know Kung Fu’ at one point after a bit of overload”).
How do you know it’s the right role for you?
Dmytro Prosyanko, currently Global Solution Leader for the Social and Public Sectors, Cities and Infrastructure at McKinsey, thinks there’s a wide range of expectations of where a product manager can add value, and says entrepreneurship is important if you’re the first one at a business. “I would strongly recommend that you’re passionate about the domain,” he says, “the uncertainty you’ll experience will lead to a lot of frustration, and perhaps at some point, demotivation. If you’re passionate about the domain then you can overcome all the friction you get from the point where you start to when you deliver value.” Jeremy adds: “Because product management is so focused on the customer, being able to have empathy for their situation can be a great motivator to go to that next level in finding ways to help them.”
Merissa says you need to be a person who likes to bring order to chaos, and you mustn’t instinctively shy away from conflict. You need a few years of experience under your belt, ideally at different organisations, she says, so that you can leverage what you’ve learned elsewhere.
Recommendations for a successful start
Merissa likes to start by conducting casual interviews and shadowing as many people/meetings as possible. She then aggregates her observations into key themes. “Usually, the collaboration challenges are more straightforward and easiest to solve, so I almost always start with those. Once people are collaborating and communicating more effectively, it’s time to get on with the product challenges.” She also checks out the tools that the team uses and says you can learn a lot about how people do or don’t work together by observing the collaboration tools.
In his first week at Buoy Labs (which produced a Wifi-enabled water usage and leak prevention system) Dmytro went out on the road with the installation team. It gave him huge insight into customer problems and pain points. “It really helped me when I went back to my desk and went through support tickets,” he says.
Jeremy says you must be willing to help out anywhere and everywhere. He adds: “Be patient, and observe where the company is without judgement – don’t be dogmatic or preachy about instilling the right approach, but share the stories and experiences that illustrate that can excite people about what “good” can look like.”
Who to lean on for support
Being the first product manager can be lonely. Don’t only rely on your mandate, Dmytro counsels, or you’ll end up in a silo, especially in a startup. A support network, both inside and outside the business, is key. Merissa adds that while you can find some support inside the organisation – from your design or engineering counterparts for example – no one will truly understand the hows and whys of your challenges.
Outside support is vital, Karen says: “In these early days, objectivity is a golden nugget. I looked to my own product mentors and other colleagues in the Product profession. I reflect and seek advice from Product advisory platforms and channels such as MTP.”
Jeremy leans on a variety of people: his wife, peers, fellow founders, and mentors. He says: “I am very fortunate to have a couple of people who mentor me and have had a profound impact on my growth as a product manager and a leader. I believe it’s important to acknowledge that there is always more to learn, and I love that there are people who can help me see angles that I can’t see on my own!.”
Skills/experience you need to hit the ground running
You obviously need a mix of theoretical and practical skills to be the first product manager. Merissa says you should be someone who knows how things should work without being too idealistic and wedded to getting it perfect. You also need to know how to talk about the job, and be able to explain the value you bring to the business and illustrate why others should follow your lead.
Jeremy says you need a strong grounding in applying the product management mindset. He says: ”You will be challenged on this frequently, and if you do not have experience applying the thinking, it can be very hard to take others on that journey. In fact, you may even start to question yourself and lose confidence.” It’s also important to manage upwards.
Karen’s mantra is Listen, Validate, Act. She says: “Each of these builds upon the other. To truly understand what is of value you must listen and really hear the problem. Empathy drives success, only if it’s genuine.” She adds that you need lots of confidence: “You need confidence in your own experience and confidence that the PM framework really works, tools are there to be used not discarded.”
What do you not do?
Don’t rely only on what management or the board wants, says Dmytro, rather take your ego out of the equation and build up a holistic view of the organisation and all the people involved in value creation. “Don’t push your personal agenda. Try to understand what you can do to help to create additional value, together is better,” he says.
Don’t assume that everyone is on board and accepts the introduction of product management teams. Karen’s own experience taught her this: “Whatever you introduce is seen as a disruption. Don’t dismiss the impact of data on decision making. Don’t leave data collection and data platforms to develop unharnessed.”
Don’t assume everyone understands the implications of becoming product-led. Jeremy made this mistake: “As we progressed, in some areas I saw that the previous approach continued, even as I assumed it would just naturally begin to change. It took me time to realise (and I should have known this from my own journey!) that often people have to experience the outcomes of a good product management approach in order to trust it and make decisions that support it.”
Don’t suggest too many changes to ways of working or to the product too soon. Merissa learned this the hard way. “If your org doesn’t already have a continuous improvement culture, your coworkers may not be ready or open to hearing alternate proposals,” she says.