Hiring your first Product Manager

The other day, I received this email from a CEO (for context, this is a post-Series-B company with 15 engineers and a designer):

Hey Gokul,

We are looking to hire our first Product Manager. Can you recommend some good folks you’ve worked with in the past?

Thanks a ton!

This email is illustrative of several chats I’ve had over the past few months with the CEOs of fast-growing (but still young) companies. Their engineering teams have grown to a dozen or more engineers, and they now feel the need for a full-time Product person to do all the things that Product people do. The Product role had previously been assumed by the CEO or the engineering co-founder (if the CEO is the marketing/sales co-founder), and now neither has the bandwidth to focus full-time on Product.

The biggest mistake they all make is the same. Every single one of them wants to hire someone new to be their first Product person.

My advice to them is invariably the same: Do not bring in an external candidate as your first Product person. Instead, convert an existing employee into a Product person.

Why? Four reasons:

  1. Trust: The first Product hire at any company has a responsibility beyond just doing Product stuff. Their equally important job (though they might not know it) is to legitimize the Product function at their company. The engineering and design teams have built a great product that has likely gotten to Product-Market fit, and they have done so without a Product person. They will push back, in both subtle and not-to-subtle ways, against a person/role that they perceive to be an additional layer of bureaucracy, impeding not just their unfettered freedom to push code and launch product features, but their access to the CEO/cofounder (the former Product person). Therefore, the first Product person needs to be someone who they trust. It’s much easier to build trust as part of the team versus as someone parachuted in from the outside.
  2. Culture fit: Every new person at a small company can make or break the company culture. The first Product role, with its criticality to the company, needs to be absolutely bulletproof on the culture front — due to their company-wide footprint and impact, exiting your first Product person after three months due to culture fit is much more challenging than exiting an employee in almost any other function (including engineering). The best way to ensure this is to convert someone who is already a culture carrier.
  3. Respect: In order for a Product person to be effective, their engineering and design colleagues need to respect them and what they bring to the table. Especially for the first Product hire, engineers and designers will have a much higher bar, since they have been used to building and shipping product without them and will likely not see the need for them. If a colleague has already earned their respect with their work, it’s much easier for them to be effective versus someone who has to prove themselves from scratch.
  4. CEO/cofounder factor: Let’s be real. The CEO or cofounder (the former Product lead) is still going to be super-involved in the product. They are delegating the title but not the whole job. They want someone who can work with them, whose style they are comfortable with, who they can trust. It’s infinitely easier to do this with someone they’ve already worked with, than with someone hired externally.

These are the reasons that Susan, Salar, and Marissa were the first three Product people at Google, that Chris was the first Product person at Facebook and that Brian was the first Product person at Square. All were engineers, marketers, or analysts beforehand, and had gained the trust and respect of product development teams through their work. All were cultural icons at their respective companies. All were trusted confidants of Larry/Sergey, Mark and Jack (respectively).

A CEO asked me the inevitable follow-up question: How do I figure out who at my company is a good fit to become a Product person?

My reply: look for people who are both good at Product and interested in it. To elaborate briefly on these two criteria:

  • Good at Product: Who is the person that you approach first to get their thoughts on a new product or feature? Who engages in (and has engaged in) thoughtful debates about why a company in your space has the right or wrong product strategy, and what they can do better? Who has pulled together teams to build out new ideas within a day or a week at your company Hackathon or Hack Week?
  • Interested in Product: Who has written an impassioned note to you (or to the company) about new products or features that you should consider? Who loves meeting with customers or prospects in their day-to-day life (including weekends) and sending their insights to the company?

As you think deeply about it, it’s not going to be too hard to identify at least a couple of people in your organization who fit these criteria.

So, if you are considering making your first Product person an external hire, don’t. Instead, look within your company. You won’t regret it.

Edit 1: A couple of folks have pointed out that Ezra (not Chris) was Facebook’s first Product Manager. My apologies for the factual inaccuracy, though Ezra was an internal transfer (from the Internal Comms team, I believe), so this still proves my point.

curious optimist. quizbowl coach. dad and husband. caviar lead @ doordash. previously square, facebook and google.

curious optimist. quizbowl coach. dad and husband. caviar lead @ doordash. previously square, facebook and google.