When to Hire Your First VP Product
You’ve founded a startup, you’ve got some traction, and you’ve raised some money. That’s the easy part (trust me!) — now how do you take that early traction and turn it into a successful hypergrowth company?
This is where good Product Management is critical, but inevitably there comes a time when a founder runs out of time or experience in scaling and growing a product function. Before this happens you need to hire a more experienced product leader to take the reins.
Even if you’re one of those rare unicorns who combines being a founder, CEO, and product visionary you have to start letting go of the product so you can focus on the business. You simply don’t have enough time to do both well when the responsibilities of the CEO job — from managing other teams to fundraising and managing the board — start piling up. Great founders think about product, but exceptional founders ask the tough questions about who should lead the company vs who should lead the product.
So once you start scaling your team beyond a handful of people, it’s time to hire your first product person. But even more important than when to hire is that you hire appropriately for the stage of your company. Many first-time founders are tempted to go and find the most experienced product leader they can, but hiring too senior, too quickly, can be a mistake. You might think your first product person needs to be an experienced VP of Product but that can backfire when the VP turns up and shows they’re no longer used to being operational and building a product. Instead, they’re used to leading a large team of product managers — two different skill sets. You also risk setting your new hire — and your nascent business — up for failure by giving up too much of the product strategy ownership too early. The success you’ve had so far comes from your vision after all, so don’t give up control over that too soon.
Many European founders also focus too much on hiring from the big four — Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google — or companies of similar success and scale because of their cachet. But the skills needed to build great products at scale are very different to those required to get to scale. A product manager used to A/B testing a new feature with a small slice of an audience of millions and see results within hours will be lost when faced with a product that only has a hundred users in total.
Instead you should look to hire an exceptional hands-on product manager, someone who can initially take your lead on product vision but give you the execution chops you need to leverage your time better. A product manager who has experience managing other people and hiring a team but also relishes the challenge of taking on a promising existing product and getting their hands dirty taking it to the next level. A product manager who has built a product from scratch or at a small startup and knows how to execute with limited resources and prioritise their team’s time to the fullest.
In time your product team will need to continue to grow and hopefully your product manager can grow with it and get promoted to VP Product — but if not there’s always room to hire a VP of Product above them later.
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Stay tuned for more tips on when and how to hire your first product manager — and scale your product development team as you grow!