At most startups, the CEO is the first product person. Typically, along with a technical co-founder, they set the vision and start to build. To help, they bring in engineers — maybe a dozen, maybe 20 — and a designer who they manage toward a (hopefully) focused product. To test the waters of product-market fit, they may hire a marketing lead. A sales lead. Everyone is working on creating the thing or seeing if people want the thing.
Then, all of a sudden, managing all these people starts to feel unmanageable. It's impossible for the CEO to be the conduit between these groups and cover their other CEO bases — fundraising, day-to-day logistics, representing the company externally. They wish they could clone themselves to keep the product on the rails — so they hire a first PM (or they take our friend Gokul Rajaram's advice and promote someone internally), and embark on what can be a thorny transition of duties, power, and trust if they don't choose the right person.
If that goes well, that's just the beginning. As the company grows, that PM must replicate themselves many times over to create a force of builders who know and care enough to execute on the founders' original and shifting vision. This sounds hard because it is.
Here at the Review, we figure it's our duty to not only surface but package the best advice we can find from experts who've been there before. In that spirit, we wanted to assemble the 6 most impactful things a startup can do to hire exceptional product managers. Our goal, as always, is to help you get smart fast and apply what you've learned to make an immediate difference in your company or career. Let's get started.
This one comes from Dropbox VP of Product Todd Jackson. If you're about to hire a PM, this article is chock full of gold from start to finish. We recommend reading the whole thing, as it walks you through the 'must have,' 'nice to have,' and 'bonus' qualities you should be looking for in a PM, actual existing LinkedIn profiles split into categories that you should watch out for (in both the good and bad sense), interview questions and ideal answers, and a script for closing the candidate of your choice. It's the best holistic walkthrough of this process that we've seen — which isn't surprising given Jackson's sweeping PM experience at Google, Facebook, Twitter, and his own company Cover.
Sounds counterintuitive, but Eaze CEO Jim Patterson — who is ex-Air Force himself, and has a track record of hiring actual former chefs to PM — swears by a list of attributes that also dictate success in the military and kitchens. As a teaser, here's the checklist he suggests:
Being able to lead without authority.
Always taking blame while giving credit away.
Strong decision-making with imperfect information.
Valuing intense preparation.
Methodical in how they recover from mistakes and crises.
Operating optimally under extreme pressure.
Read the story for more on how to suss out whether the candidate across from you embodies these traits or not. And if you see 'short order cook' on a resume, maybe consider moving it to the top of the pile.
This hiring system from Koru CEO Kristen Hamilton isn't PM-specific, but it's so insightful about how to test for the qualities that high performers share, that we put it in the required reading category. We love how simply she boils down the traits that hiring managers often think they're looking for — grit, teamwork, rigor, ownership, etc. — but don't know how to truly gauge in a series of hour or 30-minute long interviews. In this piece, she walks through exactly what to ask, what you're looking for in people's responses, and when to cut bait. There's a reason it's been shared over 13,000 times.
Sure, we know you're not actually out there in the forest with nothing but an axe and a pocket knife — but we also know being a founder can sometimes feel that way. That's why we found this advice from Jonathan Golden, Airbnb's first ever product manager, so compelling. To succeed long-term, he urges startup leaders to take a long view — don't just onboard PMs to have more help. Hire specific types of PMs — he buckets them as pioneers, settles and town planners — at different phases of company development to keep iterating and growing while remaining stable (an underrated priority). His interview goes into detail about how to identify, hire, and utilize each of these PM types.
Now VP of Product at Wealthfront, Andy Johns has rolled up all his experience at Facebook, Twitter and Quora to become a master at growing startups' user bases. All of this pointed to an equation that he says every startup should internalize:
What does this have to do with hiring PMs? Johns says equation is a fundamental starting point for any conversation about growth — whether it’s to evaluate products or test the understanding and acumen of a potential hire.
“So when you’re chatting with a head of growth candidate, ask her about her frameworks for evaluating growth in companies,” says Johns. “She should at least be able to start with that growth equation, and ideally dig deeper to show a degree of thoughtfulness that you haven’t even considered yet. Have her mock it up on a whiteboard and verbalize it. Both are necessary skills.”
As a bonus, he also goes into depth on the mandatory abilities growth PMs should have, how to spot them, and make sure they'll run smart, valuable experiments.
This is something very few companies do. Instead, they hire several PMs, divvy up features and products, and have them run with it. According to Reddit's Co-VPs of Product Kavin Stewart and Alex Le, you'll go faster, learn more, and stay organized if you bring in a traffic cop PM — i.e. a product operations expert — at this point in your growth. This person should be focused on two things:
Collecting and communicating the data coming out of experiments.
Guiding everyone to build features and run tests that connect to company goals.
By serving as a central hub for test results — gathering and sharing in a way that makes them visible to everyone — this product ops PM makes sure you're constantly improving along a responsible, sane trajectory (i.e. not turning every winning experiment up to 100). Read on for what to look for to find the best person for this role.
Art by Trina Dalziel/Ikon Images/Getty Images.