A guide to hiring your first Product Manager for startups

Jen Marshall

In March 2018, Rich Mironov visited Australia and presented to the Product Talks Sydney Meetup Group on building and scaling Product teams. This blog is a transcript of part of that meetup, focusing on how to hire the first Product Manager at a startup.

Rich Mironov presenting on why we need Product Management
Rich Mironov presenting on why we need Product Management

Let’s talk about hiring your very first product manager.

The org chart for a very early startup usually looks like this: the CEO does everything except tech.

The CTO or VP Engineering and the rest of your tiny development team build stuff, because until we have something to sell we don’t actually need sales people. If you look at the job descriptions here, you’ll see that the CEO does pitching, does funding, does HR, does real estate, does hiring, does legal. The CTO or VP Engineering usually owns architecture and code, but also is in on all the customer pitches and maybe the investor pitches.  You hope that they have some experience between the two of them. And the other 3 folks are doing the full range of development work: front end, back end, code, whatever.

Lots of shared titles. Notice there’s nobody here who could price and package a piece of software if you held a gun to their head. They are going to make a tremendous number of product mistakes in this first phase, which is will drive the need for a really good product manager.

If things go well, we’re going to scale up employees. Scale for me is usually between about 12 and 20 employees, where there’s enough people and enough confusion and enough promises made, and perhaps a first or second sales person that’s getting the company into trouble. We’re going to find that there’s N-squared employee conversations.  Everybody’s talking to everybody, which is fine when you have only 6 people. At 18 people, though, this is a problem. We’ll find that customer commitments appear in ways that we didn’t anticipate.

The CEO and sales team will start proposing costly one-off development items.  “This really, really big customer is going to open up a huge market for us that we didn’t know we were in, and make it possible for us to bring in billions of dollars that we don’t understand, so can’t we just build this one thing for them? It won’t take much engineering. I bet it’s only 10 lines of code.”

Pricing and packaging. It would be really handy if we knew what features were in the software we’re currently shipping, what the unit of pricing was and how much we expect to get, even if we give a big discount. Engineers are bad at this. Sales people are bad at this. Nobody’s doing it.

And then a prospective deal come in, with money attached.  Every sales person is trained to focus on the deal at hand… “My one customer says they need it, and I didn’t actually dig very far to understand what they meant, but I bet hundreds of customers want it so we should build it.” Welcome to the product management vacuum.

The time to hire your first product manager is somewhere between 12 and  18 total employees, perhaps 25 on the outside. The complexity’s outgrowing the ability of the founders to remember. Promises are being made that weren’t written down or are on a Post-It note somewhere. Sales pressure is starting to erode our ability to say “no” to things. In order to grow as a company, though, you need to be able to add lots more customers with less work instead of fewer customers with more special cool stuff that’s just for them. What kills startups are massive numbers of opportunities and no hard choices about which things are important. So, focus focus focus focus focus.

Here’s my stake in the ground. My point of view. My particular bugbear about hiring your first product manager. The most important thing is to hire somebody who can actually do product management as demonstrated by having done it before. This would seem obvious, but it’s never obvious.

If you were hiring your very first VP of Sales, what are the very first questions you’d ask that person?

Audience:                    How many sales you did?

Rich Mironov:               Right!  “Have you ever sold before” would be a good start.  “Do you know what quota is?”  “Did you meet quote at your last couple of companies?”  If you’ve going to hire a chief financial officer what are first few questions you might ask?

Audience:                    What’s the biggest company you’ve managed?

Rich Mironov:     “Do you know what finances are? Assets, debits, do you know what the tax laws are? How about HR policy around payroll?”  There are things you must know as the CFO, and everyone assumes that before hiring a CFO you would ask them about those things. If you were going to hire a software architect, what kind of questions would you ask? “Tell me about the last 5 or 10 big pieces of software you built and how they survived in the market and how the architected.” You wouldn’t hire somebody out with a 2-day scrum master course and say “ we can make them a software architect.”

Yet, everywhere I go in the world we find that the first product manager in the door is somebody who has a different set of qualifications. Here’s a few that I won’t agree to, but here they are. They’re subject experts instead of product management experts.

Example: “We’re doing 3 factor authentication. Nobody can really understand 3 factor authentication unless they have a doctorate, 9 years building it, so we’re going to hire an engineer who’s an expert at building 3 factor authentication.”  Wrong answer.  Also the challenge with experts is they are so expert that when they interview users they spend their time telling the user what the user needs …

[It can also be an] eager volunteer. As in “I’m not a very good developer or project manager or sales engineer or whatever. The product management thing can’t be that hard. Pick me.”  Now you might do that if you’ve got a team and you’re ready to mentor somebody and you have time and cycles, but your first product manager in the door, not so much. I think scrum masters and project managers do something really important that’s different from product. So just because you’ve done those jobs, you’re not automatically qualified to be a product manager.

Anybody have a CPSO? Certified Scrum Product Owner certificate? I think that’s great. A good friend of mine, Scott Sehlhorst from Austin, taught me that “a weekend at the dude ranch doesn’t make you a cowboy.” It’s great that you took a 2-day class, but this is life or death for my company. I’m not sure I want to hire you after 2 days of training. Sorry.

I’ve interviewed thousands of people over the years. I’ve looked at thousands of resumes, and everyone’s done something “just like product management.” Well, no, they haven’t. If you haven’t been a product manager, you don’t know how hard the job is. You haven’t spent the last 2 years saying NO to people who want things. You haven’t had to manage upward in an organisation where you have no authority. It’s hard. This is hard.

Let’s talk about the # 1 failure mode. If you’ve been able to hire a senior or an experienced product person into your company, what’s the #1 failure reason that those folks don’t thrive, or don’t succeed, or quit?

Audience:                    Micromanagement.

Rich Mironov:               Micromanagement. What else?

Audience:                    Stakeholder…

Rich Mironov:               Stakeholder management. Yes… The CEO and the head of sales insist that they are the people who represents what customers want, and you the product person are welcome to only work on implementation. Thank you. Take notes, and let us share our PostIts with you.

If you brought somebody in who’s senior enough to do product management and that’s how you treat them, and if every single day you come to them with a request that includes the word “just”…
Any time you use the word “just” in a sentence like, “Can’t we just slip this into next week’s sprint? Can’t we just bang out those 2 features? It can’t be that hard.” The word “just” is the hint that the person talking to you has no clue how to do this. If you’re a senior product person and you’re at a company where they give you no responsibility to speak for customers or decide what’s important, it can be pretty frustrating.

So I see product management lobbying for broad market segments instead of individual customers. Lobbying for outcomes.  “Here’s what our users care about and what they’re going to do with our products.”  Lobbying for low-friction repeatable products instead of one-offs. Demanding clear commitments. How do we decide if there’s a special request in the next customer contract? Your product manager will lobby endlessly for these things because they’re necessary. If they turn out not to be possible, your senior product manager may be out the door. I see this repeatedly at startups where the CEO micromanages and won’t give much ground.

If you’s like to follow Rich Mironov’s work, you can read his book The Art of Product Management, check out his website, follow him on Twitter, or see his experience on LinkedIn.

And you can read the other blogs in this series:

Why we need Product Management

How to structure Product Management

Thanks to the team at Campaign Monitor for hosting this meetup.

 

Jen Marshall

Jen Marshall | Author

Jen is CEO at Brainmates. She's interested in building the profile of Product Management and contributing to a rich discussion on the state of Product Management in Australia.