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Building your core team: How to make your first Product hire

As an early-stage startup, your first Product Management hire is critical, and can have a huge impact on the potential success of your company. 

Hiring the right person as your first PM — someone you can trust to execute projects with the same level of diligence as you would — can free up your time as a founder to focus more on the overall product vision, versus getting drowned in execution work. It allows you more time for fundraising, hiring, PR, and dealing with the numerous fires you’re going to encounter while you build a company. 

Some founders are nervous. They think hiring their first PM means relinquishing control of the product vision. That is not the case. You as the founder should still be defining the product vision at an early-stage startup. That said, you do need to be willing to give up some control of the product roadmap — especially if you hire a more senior level PM. Clearly articulate your vision to your PM, and let them own the strategy on how to execute it. 

When should you make your first Product hire?

Instead of a universal milestone, for example Series A funding, ask yourself the following:

  • Are you spread too thin?
  • Do you feel you have the time for quality conversations with customers to make sure your product is still aligned with their needs? 
  • Are you struggling to prioritize your customers’ requests on new product features? 
  • Is your product development process starting to break down? 

Who should you hire? 

PMs come from a range of backgrounds. It’s important to firstly define what you need this person to achieve, and then work backwards to create your job description. 

Some things to consider: 

  • Do they need to have specific experience in your industry? Why? Are there other industries that would give PMs exposure to solving similar problems?
  • What will success look like in the first 3, 6, 12 months? 
  • Your first PM will likely be a generalist, but to focus your search, as yourself which of the below backgrounds would be most helpful:
    • Your MBA ‘think outside of the box’ problem solver 
    • Someone with a ComSci background that can use that skill to understand a very technical end user, or communicate extremely well with your Eng team
    • A product-design leaning PM. They understand design thinking and are obsessed with creating an excellent user experience
    • The generalist whose skill set is strongest on the user acquisition/ growth/ marketing side 

Leveling for Product hires

When making your first PM hire, the Goldilocks analogy springs to mind. 

Hire too junior and your first PM is out of their depth. They don’t have the experience or relationship management skills to wrangle the team. Hire too senior — where they previously carried a big title at a large tech company and far removed from actual hands-on work, and they can struggle to adapt and roll up their sleeves.

A profile that I’ve seen work well is your PM with 4 – 8 years’ experience. An IC or player-coach that can hit the ground running with no hand-holding, and can scale the team when the time comes.  

To hire the best people, think about the career trajectory you can offer at your company and talk about this with them. 

Other considerations

  • Being at an early-stage startup can be tough. Setbacks are frequent, so you need to find a PM who believes in the vision of your product as much as you do — this is what will get them through disappointments and long hours, but still logging on with enthusiasm and determination each day. 
  • Early-stage PMs need to think defensively — they need to constantly be aware of what their competitors are doing, what new startups are entering their market, and any regulations that might impact their product. 
  • They need to be resourceful — whether it’s getting as much user feedback as possible on a shoestring budget, or coming up with unique new ways to acquire users.
  • They make decisions quickly based on the best information available at the time. 
  • They understand that perfect is the enemy of good — it’s better to ship, get feedback and refine than to create something perfect you think your users want, without actually confirming with them. 

The interview process

A thorough, efficient interview process is important for any discipline, but especially crucial for a first Product hire. 

Suggested process:

  • First interview: Hiring manager screen (and sell)
  • Second interview: Either, 1. additional conversations with other stakeholders and a live assessment or 2, If you would prefer candidates to do a take-home exercise, just have the 2nd round interview be conversations with other stakeholders 
    • Remember: for a PM hire, there are lots of things to consider. Make sure you and your team are aligned on what part of the candidate’s skill set each of you will be assessing in the interview so you can cover everything you need to
  • Take-home assessment (if you have chosen this option). It’s more likely a candidate will do the take-home assessment if your team has invested more time in the process. To ask a candidate to invest several hours after a 1-hour call, when they likely still have a lot of information they need to decide if it’s a good fit, can lead to people dropping out of the process. 
    • If you choose this option, consider basing the assessment on a neutral product – if the problem they’re solving is something related to your own product, it can be off-putting. 
    • To elevate your interview process, and show that you value the candidate’s time, offer a consulting fee for the time spent on the exercise.  
  • Third interview: final conversations and offer!