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How to onboard your first Product Manager
Quick tips for startup founders on how to help their first product hire succeed
Congratulations, your first product manager is starting soon! This is a big step for the team, because a good PM can make a serious difference in helping you, the founder, to achieve your vision.
Here comes a question, though. If you’ve never hired or managed a product manager before, how do you onboard them and set them for success?
As of 2022, I’ve been working in product for about 8 years. My journey spans startups at different scales and big tech companies. On top of that, I advised several startups on hiring their first PM.
Here I want to share with you a few tips which will help you to empower your first PM to do their best job.
Help your team understand what PMs do
Step one toward onboarding your first product manager happens before they join.
Even though software product management as a discipline has been around for forty years, only in the past decade we’ve seen an exponential growth in the number of jobs and the availability of talent.
Throughout the years, I met plenty of seasoned engineers, designers, sales folks, and operations professionals who have never partnered with a product manager in their life. Chances are, some of your team members have never worked with a PM either.
It falls on you as a founder to help your team understand the role of a product manager and how fits in the organization and in the product development flow. Don’t expect your engineers and designer to know how to work with a PM — and don’t place the burden of explaining that on the new product manager herself.
Instead, aim to bring clarity about the role and to set expectation around how you see the team working with the PM. Some resources that can help you are below.
Give them time to learn
Whether your new PM worked in your industry vertical before or not, you shouldn’t expect them to hit the ground running. Your PM will rely on you to help ease into the reality of your business.
As a hiring manager, you should aim for a 3 months ramp up time, during which your could help the PM onboard. Onboarding here means giving them time and space to build relationships within the team, understand how the founders think and make decisions, and to learn the business.
Resource: Make the first 90 days count, by Deb Liu
Set clear role expectations
A mistake I see happening at startups when they hire their first PM is that the PM is expected to handle everything. It might be tempting to think of a PM as someone who can pick up slack and fill unstructured organizational gaps, but similarly to engineers, product managers need focus.
You should aim for a single-threaded ownership where your PM is responsible for clearly defined product area, at least initially. Even if your hire is senior enough, you can expect them to scale their impact across multiple teams no sooner then after 6 months.
Give up [some] control
Your startup is your baby, and it’s growing up quickly. When this happens, you need to give up the custody to people who can take care of it in your absence: product managers.
It’s safe to assume that as a startup founder, you no longer have the time for operational aspects of product development: hands-on user research, feature validation, and roadmapping. Instead, your focus is on the long term business growth, marketing, fundraising, and sales. And that’s why you’re hiring a product manager.
PMs thrive when they have clear ownership of their area of responsibility — even if they are junior and that area is relatively small. So, once they get on board, you need to make the PM feel that they have full decision making power in the areas you need help with, and actively remove yourself from decision loops.
Resources: Empowered product teams, by Marty Cagan
Pay attention to strategy
Once you hire a PM, it might be tempting to take a deep dive into growth and fundraising, but don’t forget about product and business strategy.
While your PM will help to execute, they don’t know the business and the industry the way you do, and they are not in a position create a full scale product strategy for your company. Strategy is still your responsibility as a founder.
If you implicitly rely on a PM to “figure out” the product strategy, you will create a strategy vacuum. This has serious repercussions: team misalignment, product development delays, building the wrong thing.
Disagree and commit
There will be a time when your PMs will understand the customers and users better than you. They will log more customer calls than you, and will keep hand on the pulse of the market. Inevitably, they will be able to make better decisions about the roadmap — and some of those decisions you will disagree with.
I’m here to remind you that hiring a PM means welcoming them to the discussion table when deciding which customer problems to solve.
Instead of shooting down their ideas, commit.
Our 6 must reads if you're hiring a product manager, First Round
How to hire a product manager, Ken Norton