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Product manager zero: When to hire the first product manager "Product people - Product managers, product designers, UX designers, UX researchers, Business analysts, developers, makers & entrepreneurs 18 February 2022 True first product manager, Leadership Premium Content, Product Management Skills, startup product management, Mind the Product Mind the Product Ltd 1517 when to hire the first product manager Product Management 6.068
· 7 minute read

Product manager zero: When to hire the first product manager

We addressed what it’s like to be that very first product manager in a business in this article, Product manager zero: How to be number one, but how do product leaders and the management go about finding the first one? When do they hire, what do they look for, and what should they do to set their product manager zero up for success?

In brief:

  • Finding product/market fit should come before hiring the first product manager, but there’s no “right time” for that first hire
  • You’ll want someone who will own strategy, own execution, and build a team AND who’s happy to roll their sleeves up and do the work
  • It’s a difficult hire so take extra care to both define the role and make sure expectations are clear on both sides
  • Once you’ve got them, let go, don’t micro-manage, let your first product manager do their job

When is the time right to hire the first product manager?

As product coach Ken Norton points out in this article, the first product people in a business fall into a couple of different categories: a founder, usually the CEO, is the only product leader or a non-founding product person who takes responsibility for the day-to-day stewardship of the product.

In the early days of a startup, says Ken, finding product/market fit is the most important priority and only after you get to market will you eventually need somebody besides the founder to be the day-to-day steward of the product. Even when you’re hitting your growth phase, he says the danger of having too many cooks in the kitchen exceeds the cost of being overworked.

Ken has found that the impulse to hire someone else to lead Product often comes from the wrong motivation: “People think they’ll hire someone to do the grunt work and they’ll carry on being the big thinker.” It’s a very poor deal for the person who’s hired, says Ken, because they don’t own anything other than execution. “The other extreme of that is to hire somebody to hand off all Product to, so that they don’t have to think about Product any more,” he adds. “That’s a big red flag, a negative signal that the leaders of the company don’t perceive Product as being strategic.”

When to hire is a tricky thing, and dependent on the individual dynamics of the business. You need to be in a position where the first non-founder product leader can own strategy, own execution, and build a team. Says Ken: “If those things aren’t ready then it’s better to wait.” He adds that it can be helpful to think in terms of time horizons: “When you start to achieve product/market fit, the product starts to scale, the team starts to scale. And your time horizon shifts, so you need somebody who’s thinking in days and weeks, because you’re now thinking in months.”

Janelle Uychinco, Product Manager at fintech Geniusto, agrees that there may be no quantitative “right time” to hire the first product manager. She says: “Another consideration is when the product team is experiencing several setbacks or pain points where, even if the product owner – usually the founder  – has been trying to resolve them, they get stuck in finding solutions. Hiring the first product manager for the team can likely breathe in new perspectives and find better solutions for these pain points and setbacks.” Likewise, Jennifer Mazzon, an experienced product leader and currently Advisor to Merit America, says you should hire a first product manager when product definition becomes a bottleneck for your designers and/or engineers.

But maybe don’t leave it too long. Dan Seamans, Head of Product at OnBuy, comments: “While it’s tempting to wait, there’s a risk that by delaying the arrival of a product team the amount of technical debt and ‘undoing’ of previous decisions becomes a lengthy backlog in itself. In some cases there will be no option but to revisit and rebuild in order to create a better foundation for future company growth.”

What makes that first product manager special?

First product managers have the opportunity to create a product-centric culture, and as Janelle says, their attitude and management style also sets the tone of the team’s subculture and how they work together. All in all they have a huge direct impact on both short-term product outcomes and long-term direction: “With great power comes great responsibility,” Jennifer jokes.

What level of experience and what kind of skills and experience do they need to have?

There’s no doubt that the first hire is tricky, not least because you probably want someone who is both capable of selling your vision and also doing grunt work. Ken Norton thinks you need somebody who can hire, mentor, grow a team, think strategically and sell a vision. He’s seen startups make the mistake of hiring a “big-thinking executive”, who thinks that’s all they need to be and who doesn’t consider that a lot of work also needs to get done.

Ken thinks a ”player coach” is a good bet as the first product hire: “Somebody who has built and led teams before and wants to do it again. Somebody who has maybe been a product leader at a big company, and is craving to go back to a startup because they want to get back to rolling up their sleeves.” He says product management is an apprenticeship career that you learn by seeing how it is done, how other people approach and solve problems. He says he’s seen lots of startups where there are teams of first-time product managers who have no one to learn from, where “no one knows what they’re doing”.

Jennifer says you can hire a junior product manager only if you can commit to staying personally involved and actively mentoring them. If not, then like Ken she says you should hire someone senior – as long as they will roll up their sleeves and do the job, day-to-day. She adds: “Whether they’re junior or senior, they need to have experience building things and working well with cross-functional teams to achieve business results and create customer value.”

What should you look for in the first product manager?

Janelle comments that founders need to take extra time and special care to define the first product manager’s role as every company has a different take on the product development process.

You need to make time for “hours of conversation” between founders and a potential hire so that expectations are clear on both sides. “As long as both the product leader and the founder CEO are clear, you can design the role however you want,”Ken says. “It might be that you want them to spend the first six months focused on executing while the founder focuses on strategy and then shift the roles because the founder is going to focus on building the sales organisation – you can design whatever you want. But when expectations aren’t clear, that’s when you get into trouble.”

“Flexibility and resilience are critical qualities if you’re first through the door,” says Dan. “Life isn’t going to be perfect, support and understanding for the product function are likely to be minimal, and finding acceptable compromises will be key to achieving some level of beneficial progress.”

Jennifer points out that hiring internally from another function can be a good option if the founder/product leader can stay involved in product and mentoring. She adds that there are some key attributes to look for, including:

  • Humility
  • Curiosity
  • Empathy
  • Commitment
  • Follow-through
  • Analytical mindset
  • Collaborative approach to teamwork
  • Leading through context not control

Technical and tactical execution skills are perhaps not as important, according to our product leaders – if the person is a great communicator, understands the big picture and can lead and inspire commitment in others, then execution skills can be learned. As Ken says, current product management practice tends to emphasise tactics and tools, “but none of the hard parts of product management have anything to do with it”.

How do you ensure your first product manager drives your product in the right direction?

At the macro level, says Dan, the company goals and direction of travel must be clear. Janelle adds that there needs to be good and constant communication, ideation and collaboration between the founders and first product manager to ensure alignment on the product vision and direction. These factors should trickle down through the product team so that everyone works towards the same goals. And the founders have to be able to let go and not micromanage nor “helicopter-parent” their first product managers or they defeat the purpose of hiring: “It is essential for founders to lead with trust,” she says.

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