Hiring your First Product Leader

Photo by Joni Ludlow on Unsplash

Blog post written by Seedcamp Venture Partner, Andy Budd, with support from Carlos Espinal, and edited by several guest editors.

Tech founders generally start a company because they have a vision for a new product; a product that will solve some meaningful problem at scale. They’ll set that vision, assemble a team of makers, and help bring that product to life. As such, the founder is almost always the company’s first product leader.

Knowing When to Replace Yourself

In the early stages of a start-up’s life, founders tend to be heavily product focused. They’ll spend their time exploring user needs, coming up with usage hypotheses, figuring out what features to build next, and testing them out on the market. As a product person myself, it’s a super fun stage, so it’s not surprising that founders want to be driving product decisions for as long as possible.

However being a good CEO involves more than just building a great product. It’s about building a great company around that product. So as the company grows, founders will find themselves having less and less time to devote to product decisions. Instead they find themselves doing a tonne of other things like raising money, hiring teams, setting culture, putting new processes in place, finding customers, cutting deals, and a whole host of other things.

Sometimes this shift in focus can happen quickly. Especially if the company gets early traction or after a large fundraise which necessitates an explosion in hiring. However I often see founders feeling a little reluctant stepping out of this role. While this is totally understandable — the product is their baby after all — founders can quickly become a delivery bottle-neck. When this happens, it’s often time to hire your first product leader.

The Typical First Hire

Often that first product hire is administrative in nature. The CEO still holds the vision and makes most of the decisions. They just need somebody to help deliver that vision. As such, founders are often looking for somebody who can gather requirements (what the founder wants to build), organize workstreams (who’s going to do the work, how are they going to do it, and by when), structure and communicate priorities (creating backlogs, writing user stories, running meetings and feeding back progress), and ensuring the work gets delivered in time and to the right quality (which generally involves a lot of coordination).

There’s a surprising amount of inter-team coordination and document wrangling needed to manage a modern product workflow, and it doesn’t make sense for the founder to do this work. In the “olden days” this would probably have been done by a project manager. In the modern tech world, that first hire is more likely to be a “product manager”.

Trusting your hires

When you look at the characteristics of a good product manager, they tend to be fairly systematic and process oriented. They want to talk to customers to understand what they think. They want to analyze the usage data to understand how customers are actually using the product and whether what they’ve built is working. They want to build up a picture of market trends, come up with their own hypotheses and test them out in the market. They also want to involve other stakeholders like engineering, design, sales and marketing, knowing that those teams will also want input into the road map.

For a busy founder with a strong product vision, all this new process can feel overkill. So there’s a tendency for founders to tell early product managers what they want them to build. However good product managers want to be more than just order takers. Instead they want to be involved in driving — or at the very least informing — the product vision. As such, hiring your first product leader often requires founders to give up a certain degree of control. Something which may not come naturally and may feel both uncomfortable and inefficient.

Letting go of Ownership

If you’ve hired a good product manager and the company is growing at a comfortable rate, founders are often happy to cede control of day-to-day product decisions as it means they can work on the business rather than in the business. Especially areas like partnership deals, fun-raising and customer acquisition. This doesn’t mean they give up owning the product vision, but it does usually mean that they give more control over how that vision is implemented.

Ideally this means giving the product team specific targets (through OKRS or KPI) or areas of focus (through a North Star Framework), rather than telling them what to build next. It also means having product partners who exude a sense of confidence and keep everybody up-to-date with progress, so you’re not constantly chasing folks for updates. So for this new relationship to work there needs to be a high degree of trust.

Where Early Hires go Wrong

Unfortunately the first product hire can easily become a source of tension for the founder and CEO, as they negotiate new boundaries and have a polite quarrel for control. This is especially true if the founder is still driving the vision and wants to be involved in all the details, but lacks the necessary bandwidth.

I often see big culture clashes between founders and product leaders. Founders often have a strong gut feel for what they think is the right approach, and may see research and experimentation and an unnecessary hindrance. By comparison, good product managers have been taught that in order to do a good job they need access to the customer and the ability to run experiments and learn.

As a result you often end up with founders feeling frustrated that their new product partners are bringing in too much process, slowing down or questioning the roadmap (when from the CEOs perspective they feel it’s obvious what needs to happen) and trying to wrest away some of their vision, or worse, drive the product in a different direction. At the same time the new product manager will very likely feel as though they aren’t being given the space to do a good job, or having to manage too many competing inputs, with little actual ownership.

How to avoid the deadlock

Early product hires often lack the political heft to push back on founder expectations, and can find themselves in a really challenging position. In fact I believe product management is one of the hardest jobs in tech as they generally find themselves having to satisfy a bunch of different constituents (founders, sales & marketing, customer, designers & engineer) without having the authority or power to mandate compromise. As such I often see early product managers burn out, and get replaced by more senior execs.

To avoid this drama, you sometimes see other members of the founding team step into the product leadership role instead. Sometimes this will be the CTO/technical co-founder. This is especially true if it’s a very tech heavy product. Other times the lead designer will step up and start owning both design and product.This works especially well if there’s a lot of “interface” to the product.

One of the good things about having co-founders take on the product leadership role is they’re likely to share the CEOs vision, and have built up enough trust to be given the space to execute. However designers and CTOs don’t typically have the operational or administrative experience to execute the role particularly well, so will often bring in a junior product manager to support the operational side of things (ticket writing, backlog management, comms etc) pretty quickly.

Product is a Key Hire

For all of the above reasons, finding the right product leader is super hard. You’re looking for somebody who can work closely and collaboratively with the founders, often having very robust and opinionated discussion, while doing so in a way that doesn’t threaten or undermine the founders vision or sense of control. As such you may find yourself going through several product leaders before you find the right fit, and it’s often as much about the founders own personal learning journey as it is the skills and talent of the product manager.

If you’re going through this process of hiring your first product manager, don’t hesitate to reach out to Andy and he’d love to help. Here are more resources from his website: https://www.andybudd.com/

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