Over the past few months, I’ve been asked by several friends who are co-founders of their startups: “when should I hire my first product manager?”
It sounds as if hiring PMs in tech companies is an obvious thing. After all, several successful companies have grown up and done well without PMs. Lydia, the PayPal of Europe, or Zenly, acquired by Snapchat last year, have grown to teams of 70+ people without PMs. Product designers have a very large scope there; from problem definition to post-launch analytics.
But these are more exceptions to the rule. Most successful startups end up hiring PMs to guide the success of their products and launch new ones. So when should you hire your first product manager? Here are a few clues this is the right time:
✅ You have found product market fit
This is the case of PayFit, a startup that I joined 6 months ago. The CEO and the CPO, Firmin Zocchetto and Florian Fournier, who had been leading the development of the product, found a strong product market already more than a year ago. Very quickly, they started closing more and more customers and as a result, needed to hire more people in sales, support, onboarding, product and tech to absorb this growth. As a result, they had to grow and manage those teams, and couldn’t spend as much time being “product people” as before. Today, we are 3 PMs for a team of ~25 developers.
✅ You’re spending less and less time with your users
This one is usually a consequence of finding your product market fit, but it really depends on your type of business. At PayFit, Firmin is still in very close contact with the customers because we’re a B2B company.
But in B2C things can be different. In 2012, Frédéric Mazzella wasn’t as heavy a user as when he started BlaBlaCar back in 2006. When the company started going global in 2009, he spent more and more time doing PR, communications, fundraising, etc. As a result, the product team was born in 2012. When I joined BlaBlaCar as a PM in 2015, we were obsessed with the product and were constantly challenging ourselves to do as many rides as possible, in order to chat with users and understand their problems.
✅ You struggle to transform complex business needs into simple product features
In startups, there’s sometimes a “black hole” between business stakeholders (marketing, ops, sales, etc.) and the tech team. When I was at BlaBlaCar, I worked on a new insurance project, enabling drivers to opt in to a pay-per-ride insurance for €2. The project seemed simple at first sight, but it couldn’t have been completed without a PM, in charge of digging into legal, financial and business constraints, and providing clear guidelines to designers and developers who worked on what could be done and what couldn’t be done.
✅ You are launching new products
When you launch a new product, you need someone to lead its launch and being responsible of its success. When BlaBlaCar started working on BlaBlaLines last year, they hired a product manager. Alan, the Paris-based health insurance startup, has been growing for 2 years without product managers. Now that they’ve raised a significant round of VC money, they are looking to launch new products. I had the chance to chat with Jean-Charles Samuelian, their CEO, who acknowledges the company now needs product managers to launch and iterate on those future products.
✅ There’s room for optimization in your product
This usually happens when you’ve developed your product “horizontally” for some time, adding many features, without taking the time to develop your product “vertically”, by optimizing the existing features. This usually happens in companies that have experienced an enormous growth and realize they need to rationalize their product if they want to continue pleasing their customers. This has been the case at Airbnb: Jonathan Golden, their first PM, joined them in 2011, 3 years after and shortly after their first big funding round ($7.2 million in November 2018). He dived deep into the website that was already quite advanced, and quickly optimized many product flows including reviews, one of the pillars of Airbnb’s success. I strongly recommend the reading of his article Lessons Learned Scaling Airbnb 100X.
Here are some wrong reasons to hire your first product manager that I’ve sometimes heard.
❌ You are looking for your product vision
If you’re the co-founder of a startup and you don’t know what your product vision is (what problems your product can solve in 3 years from now?), you still need to do some work before bringing in product managers. They will be guardians of your product vision and will elaborate it, but they can’t replace you in defining it.
❌ You are looking to improve your tech delivery processes
If you hire product managers to improve the tech delivery processes, they won’t spend enough time understanding the customers’ needs and finding the right solutions, so you’ll be at risk of shipping the wrong features. PMs usually have a say in defining the interaction between product and tech teams, but optimizing the actual delivery processes should be owned by the tech organization: the CTO, the engineering leads and the engineers themselves should be responsible of this stream.
❌ Your tech teams have communication issues
PMs can be the bridge between business stakeholders and product (= tech & design) teams, but if there are communication friction between tech teams (e.g. between an API team and a mobile team), this means a layer is missing: perhaps you need an engineering manager, or a tech project manager / agile coach to better coordinate those teams. Or perhaps you need to empower some teams / hire more senior engineers to be more proactive in their communication.
All in all, the decision on when (and why) to hire your first product manager depends on your business context more than on your tech organization. Of course, there’s usually a standard ratio between PMs and developers (1 PM for 5 to 10 developers). But having found product market fit, launching a new product, hiring new teams in charge of business, marketing, operations, strategy etc.(that will need product people to speak with them) are stronger signals to hire a PM than having issues in your tech organization.
Edit 2019: I’ve joined a Product crew, Mozza. If you need some UX design or want to work as a freelancer with us, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org :)