When to Hire a Product Manager for Your SaaS Startup

Knowing when and how to grow your team requires a bit of strategic management on your side, particularly when it comes to the hire of your first product manager. How do you know when it’s the right time? And most importantly, how do you know when it’s time to hire a great product manager?

We’re ready to give you some advice on how to move forward with your first PM in this blog post.

TL;DR

If you’re in a rush, here’s a quick breakdown:

  • Understand what a product manager actually does!
  • Define roles, responsibilities, and key skills
  • Transitioning from many hats to single hats as your team scales up
  • Let go of the idea that a product manager is the “CEO of the product”
  • Align your team around the roadmap with the help of a product manager

What is a Product Manager and what do they do?

A product manager’s job is tough. A winning product team needs to focus on user problems, understand the company’s strategy, embrace the discovery process, and make informed decisions in order to build the best products. This is what a product manager is essentially responsible for.

A product manager will help your team focus on following the right path. They’re constantly juggling strategy, an endless stream of information, conversations, and segmenting that into a way forward for your team to build, iterate, and learn — all so you can build the best version of your product.

We all know hiring the right person is important, but what happens when you hire the wrong person? What is the cost for hiring managers if they hire the wrong person? According to product leader and PM hiring expert Adam Thomas, it costs the organization a whopping $240,000 per hire.

Role and Responsibilities

At a high level, the job a product manager is responsible for entails:

  • Aligning the product vision to the company’s vision and strategy
  • Help define product team objective and key results
  • Help define the product roadmap to set direction and intention
  • Speak to stakeholders, customers, and team members to understand pain points
  • Run discovery to (in)validate hypotheses and define problems to solve
  • Work with the design team to build prototypes and run experiments
  • Work with the product marketing team to communicate updates internally and externally.

It sounds like a lot to do — and that’s because it is a lot to do!

Good PMs are hyper-organized, and because of the nature of communication the role requires, they also never work alone.

Product management is a team sport, and your first product manager hire must be a team player.

However, the hiring manager needs to be aware that what a product manager does and how they do those things are entirely different. Problem-solving is something product people naturally gravitate to, but doing it with empathy is what defines a great PM from a good PM.

Kate Leto accurately described in her book Hiring Product Managers: Using Product EQ to go beyond culture and skills:

For many in product management, success comes from mastery of tools like roadmaps, MVPs, strategy frameworks and OKRs. These and other technical skills describe what a product person does to design, build and support new complex technologies for our users. But as technologies quickly become ubiquitous, it’s the human approach to creativity, innovation, decision-making, and leadership that makes the difference in whether an individual, team, product, and even organization is successful or not. These human skills describe how a product person works and must go hand-in-hand with the technical skills.

Kate Leto
Kate Leto

When hiring a product manager, it is therefore incredibly important to also look for intercommunication and interrelationship skills. A technical background isn’t the only thing you need to look out for — what you do is different compared to how you do it.

CEOs as Product Managers

It’s very likely that when you’re first starting out, the company CEO will also manage the strategy for the product. This is normal — it’s your own company, you’ve started it, and you know how you initially want things to develop.

It’s actually very common for many former product managers to then become CEOs!

The tricky bit here is when you have to — and when you’re ready — to actually let this go.

Getting your product management team going means that you’re not just ready to let go of the strategic management of the product itself, but you’re ready to have someone else take ownership of it.

Twitter Thread with Abhi

Don’t Hire for a ‘Mini CEO’ or ‘CEO of the Product’

Once upon a time, not so long ago, the term “CEO of the product” became a popular way of describing product managers.

The term in and of itself is quite controversial. It created the sense that product managers had the same level of responsibilities as the CEO to make the product and company successful. This creates a sense of responsibility and pressure unfair to any product person.

Marty Cagan says:

The key is that, like the CEO, the product manager needs to have a solid understanding of the many aspects of the business, and assimilate all of this information to make informed decisions.In an early stage startup, all of the above work is still necessary, but it’s almost always a co-founder, often the actual CEO, that does this. So in that case the same person is CEO of the company, and CEO of the product. But as companies scale, it because untenable for the CEO to perform this role for all of the company’s products.

Marty Cagan
Marty Cagan

As described earlier, if you’re the CEO of a startup and you have product ownership, you’re both the CEO and the CEO of the product — but once you hire a product manager, you are the CEO, and they are the product manager.

Consider product complexity and maturity

It’s important to consider your product’s complexity and maturity as you scale, and this is really what the product manager is there to help you with.

Some of the pain points you should find yourself encountering before hiring a product manager are:

  • Struggling to prioritize your backlog and roadmap.
  • It’s obvious you launching features and not solving problems.
  • Lack of alignment between teams, development is not focused, and there is no product ownership.
  • You need better direction as to what and why you are building things.

In other words, make sure you’re hiring a new PM to help you with a set of problems, and you’re not just hiring solely to hire. A PM (and eventually your PM team) is there to help with the complexity of the direction of the product, they’re not there just to fill a seat.

Aligning teams through product

The most important outcome to consider when hiring a product manager is that their job is to create team alignment with other teams.

But isn’t the job of the CEO?

Yes of course, but now that you’re scaling up you’re not just aligning around a single set of features, you’re aligning an entire company around a single intention and direction for the future. The CEO manages the company strategy, while the PM manages the product strategy.

How does a product manager do this?

With the help of the CEO, focusing on objectives, and sharing a roadmap. Most importantly, a great product manager should understand the customer base better in order to incorporate their feedback, as opposed to just building for requests.

Having a PM join your organization does not mean the CEO is losing touch with their team or product, it means they now have someone who is focused on product strategy while the founders can focus on scaling and growth. They are each making strategic decisions on different levels.

Good luck, and may your next product hire be a good one!

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store