Hiring Product Managers: When Should You Hire Your First Product Person

October 29, 2021

There are two core aspects of a product, and you need both of them to get anywhere. The first is product vision, which usually comes from the founder. The second is product management, which is what brings the founder’s vision to life.

Without the vision, you’ve got nothing. Without the product management, you won’t be able to actualize that vision, because there’s no one  to handle research, logistics, and all the other elements that go into successfully building and marketing a product. So, again, you’ve got nothing. 

This is why, even for early-stage startups, the sooner you hire your first product person, the better. But when, exactly, should you make that hire? Who should you hire? And how on earth do you find this person?

On a recent episode of the BUILD Podcast, Blake Bartlett spoke with Nikita Miller about best practices for building an early-stage product team. Nikita has a lot of real-world experience, having led stellar product teams at Trello and Dooly. She is currently SVP, Head of Product Management at The Knot Worldwide. She points out that long-term success often depends on getting certain product-related practices into an organization fairly early.

Integrating Product Management into Your Organizational Structure

“The founder is the keeper of the vision, but you want to complement that vision with what’s being called the professionalization of product managers,” Nikita explains. “This adds critical rigor and process to what’s already happening.”

Many founders, for instance, need help setting concrete goals and milestones. They also need help defining exactly what success looks like. Founders who leave these important tasks to chance, or do them without the appropriate due diligence, may suddenly find themselves forced to hire consultants as the company grows and matures. 

Because product managers can often help with goal-setting and establishing success criteria, Nikita strongly recommends hiring one sooner rather than later. But she also cautions against putting the cart before the horse. “There can be some tension around the role of the first product person,” she says. “Are they a project leader, or are they not? Are they influencing the vision, or strictly about execution?” It’s very important to clearly define roles and responsibilities upfront so that everyone knows what to expect. 

Defining Your First Product Hire

In a perfect world, you’d have a full-fledged research department, UX team, product operations group, and growth team. But early-stage startups don’t live in a perfect world. Reality demands that you be strategic about each and every hire, especially the first one. 

In general, Nikita recommends that the first couple of product hires are more senior folks. They should probably still  be independent contributors, but fairly experienced ones. “You only have head count for a few people, so that first product org roster is super important,” she says. “You need at least a couple folks on the team who are experienced—not necessarily in the startup process, but with product management or even just business operations.”

Nikita’s Non-traditional Recruiting Approach

Instead of crafting a job description in a vacuum, Nikita starts by evaluating the current team to identify strengths and weaknesses in the organization. This strategic and non-traditional approach is an especially effective way to find quality candidates in today’s complex job market. She creates a skills map to document the core competencies of existing team members, where capabilities are lacking, and also what’s needed to close the gap between where the organization is today and where it hopes to be tomorrow. 

From there, it’s easier to develop an accurate profile of the kind of person who can either establish or round out the key competencies—research, data analysis, product marketing, growth, etc.— that are important as you get started, and will be increasingly important as your organization grows. 

Create a Profile of Your Ideal Product Manager

The strategy Nikita recommends for making the most of your first hire is to look for people with multidisciplinary experience. Your budget may not accommodate a full-time researcher, for instance, but you can hire a product person with a research bent—someone who has experience and enjoys that aspect of the role. The same goes for data analysis and growth. Your first product hire doesn’t need to be someone who has led an analytics or growth team, but if you can find someone who at least has those areas in their background, you’re that much farther ahead. 

Along similar lines, Nikita warns against overlooking the value of the product marketing skill set, “I’ve come to really, really value the role of the product marketer as the person who can help bridge a lot of what’s happening, not only within the product team, but also with marketing, sales, and customer support.” Someone with product marketing know-how will be instrumental in helping you develop an effective product narrative, which is crucial to driving adoption and otherwise supporting sustainable growth.

This approach of focusing on multidisciplinary hires allows you to cast a broader net. Because you don’t need to look for the “perfect product manager,” you can explore a much wider range of potential solutions. Looking at candidates this way also gives people the opportunity to exercise autonomy and ownership of certain spaces, which—Nikita points out—is really helpful for overall growth

Finding and Recruiting the Right Product People

But, how do you find the right people and get them to join your team? Hiring right now can feel like an almost surreal task. It’s important to approach it from the right perspective. 

Nikita takes a very thorough approach, but she doesn’t focus on traditional things like where someone went to school or where they worked last. She has found it much more effective to dive into how candidates describe their actual experience and where they think they excel. Determining whether a candidate is a good fit has less to do with what they’ve done, and more to do with how they did what they did and even why they did it. 

Blake agrees: it’s not enough to know what someone shipped, you also want clarity around how they managed the day-to-day, worked through uncertainty, and navigated pivots. It’s also helpful to dig deeper into why they made certain decisions. This approach gives you a much different perspective than simply focusing on the accomplishments that our achievement-oriented culture tends to highlight.

Hiring Product Managers: The Ideal Interview Process

Getting to the heart of a candidate’s real-life potential requires asking a lot of meaningful questions. “I tend to do the hiring manager screen,” Nikita says. “I ask a lot of questions in the describe-a-time-when vein, and then probe a little deeper with follow-up questions.”

Nikita also recommends involving as many people as possible in the interview process—from engineers and designers to marketing and customer success. “You want to have a lot of data points about how a candidate might interact with different areas of the organization,” she says. “You don’t want to rush into those decisions. It’s best to do as much vetting as possible.”

Using this process will help you find the best candidates for your specific situation. For example, you might have a candidate who works at a small company, but has had to deal with a lot of change management. Or, there might be someone who has only worked in B2C, but who has excellent platform experience.

In those cases, if change management or platforms are areas where you need expertise, those candidates might be a perfect match. And if you’d approached recruiting using traditional methods, you might have overlooked them entirely because their resumés didn’t fit the traditional mold.

You’ve Made Your First Product Hire – Now What?

To make strategic product decisions, product managers will obviously need to spend time figuring out what to build (and when, and how), and keep a pulse on what’s happening in the industry at large.

Your job will be to help new hires onboard successfully so that they can progress even faster. Fguring out how this person will work with stakeholders and how they’ll integrate with people at the team-level is one of the first things you should prioritize.

Identify Your Team’s “Super Powers”

One tactic Nikita uses to identify collaboration opportunities is the “super powers exercise,” which invites each team member to talk about their superpowers and their kryptonite. “This exercise helps us get at how we can piece everything together,” Nikita says. “It tells us where people excel and where they’re not so great, and then we can take steps to ensure we’re calling on each other for support to make the team stronger and the product better.”

Product Managers: Initial Role and Responsibilities and Team Integration

In addition to integrating with the existing team, there are a few other areas that an initial product hire will likely focus on as they are getting started:

  • Spending time with the founders. Product people need to gain a deeper understanding of the product vision so they can stay in sync with it. “Product folks need to know how a founder sees the world in five, ten, or fifteen years,” Nikita says. “They need to be able to clearly understand and articulate the vision not only to themselves, but also to the team. And they need to be able to internalize that vision so they bring it with them as they look at the market and do their research.”
  • Validating the strategy and plan. New product hires need to invest a lot of time in understanding the customers so they have a foundation from which to judge the viability of different choices and paths. At Dooly, product managers instituted a weekly company-wide meeting that always opened with direct customer feedback, so that everyone stayed connected to the customer perspective.
  • Getting a handle on data. While there may not be a ton of data early on, there is usually enough to reveal initial signals about what the product is doing and how the market is responding. Product people need to work closely with this data and share insights broadly across the organization. 

“All of these things help us build a strategy that supports the product vision,” Nikita says. It’s like the metaphor about only seeing the tip of the iceberg above the water’s surface, knowing there’s an enormous underlying structure supporting the bit that the world can see. 

What Does Success Look Like?

Speaking of shining moments, how do you know when your startup product team is on the path to success? Nikita has two criteria she looks for. One is having established a tightly-knit team that is still excited about the work and about doing it together. Second is having a team that has executed on a few really big bets and learned from them. 

“Building a team that can commit to a couple of big bets is actually a really hard thing to do culturally within an organization,” Nikita says. “It doesn’t really matter whether the bets were successful or not, only that they either validated the current direction, or forced you to change course. Either way, it’s a good sign that the team is high functioning and the product is open and primed for development.”

This philosophy echoes the one Nikita applies when considering candidates for product team positions. After all, it comes down to not only what you did, but how and why you did it. 

To hear more, tune in to catch the full episode

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