Do I need a Product Manager? (and when)

Photo by Bonneval Sebastien on Unsplash

This blog post was written in collaboration between Devin Hunt, David Mytton, and the fearless editing of Nelson Casata

I recently caught up with a long time friend, co-founder of Lyst, and Venture Partner at Seedcamp Devin Hunt about his view on the role of Product Manager. What followed was a fun deep dive into the evolving nature of the role, but also an exploration into its relative infancy in terms of what best practices are, and why this makes it challenging for founders looking to hire a PM to know what to look for. This blog post is a summarised and synthesised version of our chat, but hopefully it helps you answer the following questions:

  • What is a product manager?
  • Where can I meet one?
  • When should I hire one?

First, let’s start by defining the role of a Product Manager (PM). A PM is more than just one thing, it’s a role that encompasses several disciplines. To make it simple, I’ve broken out those disciplines into four categories: Product Leadership, Management, Design, and Sales.

Leadership, in the context of being a Product Manager, means making the critical decisions based on your team’s research and the product vision set out by the founder. In our chat, Devin shared that there are two unique streams in building product: developing the product vision, and executing on it, which he calls product operations. Whereas a founder might be hyper critical in setting product vision (at least until they trust the PM), the product operations (think customer development, iterating on ideas, tech requests, etc) still require decision-making leadership.

Typically, the blend of leading product operations and marrying that up with the product vision of the founder is what defines the key leadership attributes of a PM, especially in younger startups.

In effect, the PM will become an arbiter between product vision and product operations. They will have to understand customer development and initially do it jointly with the founders, but later manage what success looks like.

Which brings us to *Management.* Within management, a good PM is able to manage the team that delivers and maintains the product. This ranges from managing the priority stacks from both the engineering and design teams, the customer service requests, and the like. In effect, this is where the core of the confusion sometimes happens around Product Managers being perceived as Project Managers. Clearly there is some overlap, but there is more to the role of a Product Manager, than simple Project Management.

Next, comes *Design*. Whilst some of the best designers in the world don’t have a formal education in design, it helps to have an eye for what is ‘quality’, particularly quality for your customer. The PM needs to know how to calibrate the trade-off between quality of the product shipped vs. the’ speed’ of shipping. The PM needs to be able to understand what good delivery and a good user interface looks like, but doesn’t need to be the one doing it. It’s not uncommon for a PM to start recruiting a design team to support in making those design decisions, and scale those design teams as further funding rounds come. Andy Budd will be publishing a series of deep dives on around design with us at Seedcamp over the next few weeks — stay tuned.

Finally, I added *Sales* as the last ‘wish list’ attribute. Ultimately as much as the title of the book by Daniel Pink is around ‘to sell is human’, I’d argue that to build a product is to build a product around human interactions. I wrote a piece a while ago on the relationship process and product cycle and feel that a PM benefits from understanding what customers need and want and a background in some form of sales can be handy. David Mytton, who we’ve been lucky to have as an EiR with us at Seedcamp for a few years, adds that the commercial element of a PM is largely overlooked: the full go-to-market strategy needs to go alongside product functionalities.

Now… How to find a PM? Well, one of the interesting observations Devin shared with me is that in a human resource constrained ecosystem (think Silicon Valley where lots of the PMs are hired by big tech firms), there have been many lateral hires that have ended up being good product managers with the right level of encouragement. As I explored with Devin what were the key attributes that stood out for a good PM, responsibility, trust, ability to manage and communicate, and organisation stood out as strengths over intrinsic ‘design’ skills or engineering skills, for example. As such, as you reflect on people in your network that could be PMs, don’t overlook ex-sales, ex-engineers, or ex-lawyers if they understand your segment & customer. They could very well be trained to be great PMs for your business.

To conclude, when is the best time to bring in a PM? As soon as you can afford to if you are a commercially minded CEO, and if you’re a technically minded CEO, likely still as soon as you can afford, although you can potentially get away with it for much longer provided you evaluate your role as not preventing you from leading the wider organization effectively.

In the words of David Mytton: The best founder teams have two people, one commercial and one technical. They’re the skills of a PM in two people. I think startups tend to grow the engineering teams out of line with the commercial, though they should be growing together. The PM sits across both. There’s a lot of logistics in customer development in the early days, so seed stage is probably around the right time to gear up those efforts.

On this subject, Alex from Forward Partners wrote in a recent blog post of this very point which I agree with. Read his blog post, it’s quite good.

“Typically a startup’s founder will fill the role of the Product Manager for the first 12 months. This is essential as every good founder should have an intimate knowledge of both their business goals and their customers. However as the founder takes on a more focused role as CEO of the company, she will have less time to manage the product and will instead start prioritising the strategic direction of the business. Constrained by budget and often encouraged to focus on hiring support around technology or growth, she will make do until the startup is at a large enough size that she is able to afford dedicated help with her product. Yet this can often be too late. By the time that your business has secured seed-stage or later funding the foundations of good product thinking (also referred to as having a good “Product Muscle”) should be well and truly in place. This should coincide with the first 12 to 18 months of your product’s lifecycle. Being able to present a deep and meaningful understanding of your customer to investors, along with a story of increased revenue due in large part to adapting the product to better serve your customer base, will go a long way in securing future investment. With this in mind, we believe that a Head of Product should be amongst the first key hires that you make during your first 12 months.”

I’ve put together a list of resources below, in various blog posts, books, podcasts and tools to dive in on further on the topic:

Blogposts:

https://a16z.com/2012/06/15/good-product-managerbad-product-manager/

https://davidmytton.blog/product-managers-are-not-responsible-for-how/

https://www.mindtheproduct.com/

https://blackboxofpm.com/

Books:
Crossing the chasm

Inspired: How to Create Tech Products Customers Love

The Lean Product Playbook: How to Innovate with Minimum Viable Products and Rapid Customer Feedback

Product Roadmaps Relaunched: How to Set Direction While Embracing Uncertainty

Podcasts:

The product podcast (Spotify)
Build with Maggie Crowley (Spotify)

The Saeed Khan Hypothesis: Understanding the State of Your Product, Your Processes, and Your People Sets the Foundation for High-Growth Products (Spotify)

Seedcamp Product Summit:

https://seedcamp.com/product-summit-2021/