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When should startups hire the first Product Manager?

Dan Feusse

Last updated on

So, what's the debate all about?

A common question for startups is when to hire a Product Manager. So, why is this topic a debate? Bill Campbell - who coached Eric Schmidt, Steve Jobs, and Jeff Bezos - and is known as one of the best tech advisors of all time, believed a Product Manager should be the first hire. In contrast, Patrick Collison waited a while to hire a Product Manager at Stripe. A generally popular opinion is to hire a Product Manager after raising a Series A. When two of the most admired figures in tech have dissenting opinions, it's bound to create a lively debate!

As with most things in life, there's not a black-and-white answer. Annoyingly, the answer is, it depends. I will provide pros and cons to assess which situation you fall into to make the best decision for your organization.

Pros of hiring a PM

It's never been easier to be a billionaire but harder to be a millionaire

It's one of my favorite quotes from my favorite professor at Cornell. The market is so flooded with options; startups can no longer build something cool or technically advanced and expect it to sell. A product has to solve a significant problem for a clearly defined set of users. A Product Manager helps maintain team focus on solving users' crucial pain points.

Product Manager + Tech Lead + Designer = a product customers love

One of my main takeaways from Marty Cagan's classic Inspired is a Product Manager, Designer, and Tech Lead working together throughout the entire product development lifecycle vastly increases the odds of success. It doesn't seem wise to postpone the recipe for success.

Don't waste a founder's time

A series A founder will not write run ceremonies, write Jira tickets, and be in the weeds of product development. A Product Manager will. So why have a seed-stage founder spend time building that skillset? Let founders build muscles for fundraising, establishing culture, hiring, and other tasks they will continue to do in the future.

Roll out the red carpet for new devs

In my experience, a developer loves joining a team with processes in place, an established roadmap, and a backlog of tickets. Hiring a PM early provides time to develop processes and a clearly defined roadmap (To be clear, I'm talking about an individual contributor, not a tech lead).

PMs are jacks of all trades

PMs need to possess a wide breadth of skills. Startups need pocketknives - and a good PM is a Swiss Army knife. If product work is light, they should be able to tackle other needed work.

Cons of a PM

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Hiring a PM shortens your runway - or one less developer you could've had.

The Founder and PM need to be BFFs

Or at least have an excellent working relationship. In my opinion, the most significant risk is friction between a founder and a PM. For example, it's easy to have a power struggle setting the roadmap, prioritization, or other work. A founder does not need additional distractions, and a toxic relationship between the two can disrupt an entire startup.

Killing the vibe

Patrick Collison from Stripe has mentioned it's easy for product management structures to make programming less fun. This is the most thought-provoking quote I read before writing this post. It's easy to see increasing meetings and creating a never-ending list of tickets can make life mundane for a dev. My 2022 challenge is to make coding as fun as possible for my team!

MagicBell's recommendation

MagicBell has two very technical co-founders. Hiring a Product Manager to join the team has worked out well for us - at least from my vantage point! Our CEO can focus on hiring, fundraising, building an excellent culture, and the million other tasks on her plate. Hana even gets to write a little code here and there. As the Product Manager, I've set up project management tools and processes, scheduled ceremonies, established an analytics practice, written documentation, and more tasks a technical founder doesn't need to tackle. I also love working with Hana and the team. For a similar scenario, I wholeheartedly recommend bringing a PM in early. As mentioned, if you have more than two co-founders and one is not technical, I would assess your situation. Maybe you don't need a PM yet. I would recommend not writing it off, though.

I hope this blog post lays out the pros and cons of hiring a PM early in your startup adventure. Let us know if you have any questions or thoughts on the topics!

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