Hiring Startup Product Managers: What Top Talent Looks Like


Hiring startup product managers can make a huge impact at a startup. Essentially the executive of the product, this person puts the dedication and focus towards the product that is needed to fight through the early stages of the company. Naturally, filling such a high-impact position means finding the right person for the job, which can be daunting. Effective and successful product managers have a wide breadth of skills and traits. Knowing what these are, why they are important, and what they look like can help your startup identify the right person for the job.

So what do top startup product managers look like?

Refined Communicators

Above everything, product managers must have superior communication skills. Communication is at the core of everything that this role involves, making it essential at all times. Product managers have high-level discussions with the founders regarding the company’s vision and direction. They must then take this information, assimilate it correctly, and break it down into the detailed needs of the product, delivering the correct details and instruction to the technical, marketing, sales and customer service teams. They must then take the results and summarize, simplify and report. Product managers are in constant communication with partners, early adopters, customers and users as well, taking critical feedback and translating it into business and product needs. And after all of that, they must report this back to the founders, have conversations around moving forward and about course corrections, before starting the process all over again.

Effective Managers

As the name implies, management skills are also essential. When we say product management, we mean everything product. That most often includes its ideation, planning, design, development, launch, marketing, sales and customer service. If anything touches or affects the product, then it is the product manager’s business, making it their job to manage. This job includes the planning, creation, execution and delegation of the product roadmap. Product managers are often brought on to take the management of these things away from the founders to clear up time for bigger fish like fundraising and hiring.

Tech Savvy

I recall seeing an article listing product management as a startup position that requires no tech skills. This statement is far from the truth, especially at a startup. The reality is that product managers, while not bracket deep in code all day, must have an understanding of what technologies and tools the product is being built with, how it will function, how it can expand and how the technology and language is limited. After all, their role is to plan, execute and delegate the product roadmap, and this includes interfacing with the technical staff. Utilizing customer feedback to prioritize projects would be very difficult to do without a clear understanding of how the tech works. On top of that, understanding technical issues that arise is critical to figuring out their solutions, something a product manager is sure to encounter.

User Focused

The initial ideas and direction come from the founders, but every successful startup has quickly turned to its users and customers for direction. Feedback, especially from early adopters and users, is critical for shaping the direction of the product and pivoting to suit the needs of the product’s market. Today’s product manager must put a sharp focus on users, collecting feedback as well as user data around the product to locate shortcomings, identify opportunities and increase the product’s user base. Their roadmap should revolve around the user and its demands.

Data Driven

Product managers should focus on users, but must rely on data to make decisions. Quality data is a product manager’s most valuable asset at a startup, giving them the ability to quantitatively prove their hypotheses and move forward quickly. It can also help them disprove these same hypotheses, learn from these failures and do so quickly. Gone are the days when these professionals could rely on intuition, gut feeling and experience alone. Today’s product manager must have data structuring, collection, and analysis skills, and must understand what the data means and how it can be used.

Business Acclimated

Ultimately, everything that the product manager does must result in growth, revenue and  business success. This means that they need to understand the company as a business and the model that it employs. They are ultimately responsible for creating a product that will attract and retain users and customers, and must understand how they can affect the company financially.

Product managers for startups must have all of the above skills and traits to be effective. Ultimately, needs from product management will vary among startups based on the business model, product and existing skill sets within the organization. Before beginning your search for a product manager at your startup, figure out exactly what it is that you need, what the profile for an ideal candidate looks like, and what experience, skill sets and expertise they must bring to the table. Role definition is not easy, and not always straightforward, so get help defining this role for your company. Get feedback from your existing team to better understand your needs, ask your investors and advisors for help and get the assistance of an executive search firm with experience in placing product managers at startups. However you go about defining the role and hiring your product manager, make sure you find the right person for the job the first time.

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