When should you hire your first Product Manager?

Building a Product Management practice (1/3): In this first post of the series I will share when to hire and what to look for in your first PM

Almost exactly five years ago I started at my current company Roam (no, not the note taking product) as their first Product Manager. At that time the company was around 20 people, a mix of extremely talented designers and developers. I wasn’t there to code, or to create designs, so a lot of people were wondering what I was actually here to do. It was on me to help people understand how Product Management adds value to product teams.

Since then I have been busy building the Product Management capability, as well as growing a team of currently 17 amazing product people. I was recently asked to talk about my experience of growing this team from scratch in a webinar for product mentoring platform Product League, and I actually realised that I had almost forgotten what the first steps felt like. This was a great way for me to reflect on the past five years and share some of my most important learnings with others who may be at the start of this journey at their company.

Some of the questions I’ll be asking will be: what is the right time and trigger to start building a product capability and team? What kind of skills or people do you look for in your first hires? Are there any foundations you have to think about early on, or can you just wing it at first and then worry about scale later? 🤔

This first article focusses on the first step when the company is evaluating if and when to hire their first PM.

Stage 1: zero Product Managers 😩

When should you hire your first PM?

One thing I’ve learnt talking to various companies over the years is that Product Management is often hidden in various roles. A company might not necessarily have a dedicated Product Manager yet, but the founder, tech lead, delivery lead or a mix of multiple people are carrying out at least some of the typical responsibilities of a Product Manager.

This may work for companies for a quite a while if all the various areas from initial product strategy, feature prioritisation, driving delivery, measuring analytics and other customer insights are well handled within the business. Lenny Rachitsky shared a fantastic article recently (sorry only for paid subscribers of his Substack, although worth every cent!) that highlighted that many successful companies like Shopify or Stripe have not hired their first PM until several years into the startup journey.

Those are of course very successful companies today, however I would like to remind people that since those companies have started we have also learnt a lot about the importance of Product Management. The Product Manager’s role has grown significantly from just managing a backlog, to driving both discovery and delivery as well as focussing more and more on how the product contributes to business success.

If you look at the wide range of responsibilities I mentioned before - from product strategy through to product analytics - you might realise how much a strong PM typically contributes in a team. My main advice is that unless you are very intentional about distributing product responsibilities within the company, it is very likely you’re missing out on critical activities to build a successful product.

The risks of not having anyone focus on measuring product success, gathering customer insights or defining clear product goals are way too big to just assume someone in the company will pick them up.

Consider hiring your first Product Manager early on with the ultimate goal to establish close collaboration between Product, Design and Engineering. You might be able to achieve this with a strong product focused founder who hires a Product Designer and Developer for example, but as soon as the team grows and the founder might get distracted with business development, partnerships, raising funds or hiring, a lot of of the critical Product Management activities might suffer.

My system to evaluate the need for a PM

When I hear companies or teams say that they don’t need a Product Manager, I always like to ask some simple questions on who is doing x, y, z at their company. It usually doesn’t take long to find an area that doesn’t have a clear owner or enough focus.

I created a simple overview of key responsibilities you should have covered within your company. Like I said in the beginning, founders or other team members often pick up some of those tasks at first, but whether early stage or not - be honest whether other roles are filling those responsibilities effectively.

While this checklist may not cover all the various nuances of the gazillion jobs we do in the day to day as Product Managers, it is a helpful start to ask the right questions and identify high level gaps. I have also included a link to my Notion page that you can reuse to run this exercise in your organisation - and to potentially convince your stakeholder that it may be time to look for your first Product Manager. ✌️

The high level areas:

The checklist:

Reuse Notion Template

Who should you look for in your first PM?

On the contrary to waiting too long, I also often see startups who have a VP or Head of Product but no other product people to manage. While this title may be needed to attract the right talent i.e. to find someone who could grow a team in the future, this person also needs to be prepared to do the doing for a while first. I will explain why this is so important in a second.

The other option is to start with a strong individual contributor Product Manager who is used to being on the tools. You can then hire a product leader on top who can grow the team at a later stage. Just be sure to set clear expectations that the first PM might not be the one to automatically take on this leadership position, and someone else might come in to grow the team later.

Either way I have found it to be absolutely crucial to focus on doers at the start. The early stage of establishing a role and product function is all about building trust. If your first hire is not hands on and detailed enough to work out all the right tools, frameworks and processes you may be lacking a critical foundation later on and not setting the right tone for the company as to what a Product Manager should take care of in a team.

I started at my current company as a "normal” Product Manager. My first goal was to identify the biggest gaps and pain points within the product teams and that’s where I got stuck in. At the start, I focussed a lot on getting delivery right to help the teams deliver on key priorities. Once the delivery processes were set up and working, I tried to build out discovery processes to help the businesses make more informed decisions of what to prioritise in the first place.

Only after a while did I shift my focus to hiring and growing other Product Managers, so unless you’re about to grow like crazy and need a product hiring manager first, my advice for the first hire is to find someone who is prepared to be on the tools for a while to set strong foundations.

How do you effectively establish Product Management as a capability?

Unfortunately Product Management is still implemented very differently at most companies, so the level of maturity and knowledge about the practise can vary a lot. I don’t believe there is a one size fits all approach as it does depend on company size and overall maturity. However there are some guiding principles that I think most will find helpful.

Coming into a fairly small early stage company as the first PM I focussed mainly on the doing first. I am convinced that shiny presentations about the value of Product Management would have sparked little interest at that time. So rather than preaching to the top I tried to build trust by doing good work that helps the teams. This way I found advocates within the early product team and as the company grew, those people spread the word from there.

If you’re entering a larger and overall more mature company, for example an engineering or sales heavy company, a more educational approach may be required. This may sound more obvious than it sometimes is, but I highly recommend to focus those sessions around how you’re making everyone’s life easier by introducing better prioritisation processes, data driven decision making and more customer focus to the teams.

Unfortunately I still hear about stakeholders or other departments fearing a loss of control with the introduction of Product Management, so we really need to show that we’re not here to make product decisions for everyone, but to help the company make better product decisions.

Whether big or small, it does pay off to not only focus on evangelising to the top, but also finding supporters within the company. Think of it as investing in organic growth or word of mouth. This really comes back to my point from the previous section around building trust by doing great work, and it will spread in the long term.

Summary on starting a Product Management practise

😌 Be honest whether all product responsibilities are carried out effectively in your company - if not, it’s time to start hiring your first PM

👩‍🔧 Focus on doers at the early stage to build trust and strong process foundations in the organisation

👬 Don’t just evangelise to the top - find advocates within the teams so they can help you spread the word organically

Final 2 Cents

While some companies or teams may have gone through more radical growth in a shorter amount of time, growing a team over five years allowed me to truly experience the different stages, especially in the early days. The latest research from Lenny’s post actually showed that it also took many years for a lot of today’s successful companies before they grew their Product Management teams.

I truly believe we have stepped up the game and expectations of Product Managers over the recent years though, so the value of introducing Product Management from the start should be more clear now than it was when a lot of these companies started.

Finally, if you don’t find that your first PM is making a big difference, you might have not found the right one. But if your teams start to be more aligned, stakeholders are more in the loop, people are working on more meaningful work that is clearly linked to business goals - congratulations, seems like you struck gold with your first product hire! 🤩

If you have gone through or are about to start a similar journey, I always love to talk to other product folks and exchange wisdom / tips / sorrows. Comment below or reach out over the usual channels.

Coming up in the next posts in this series:

  • You have your first PM, when and how should you go about growing the team?

  • You have your first ~5-10 Product Managers, how do you scale effectively from here?

If you would like to keep reading about growing a Product Management practise or other product topics I like to write about - subscribe to get an email with the upcoming articles!