The ideal product manager

It took me several years in the Startup World to fully appreciate the importance of a good product manager. In the Web World especially, product and user experience drive distribution. It’s not about marketing a crap product that no one uses (that was the old PC, desktop software era). Today, if you build an amazing product it does the marketing for you.

At the earliest stages, product should be led by the founder and CEO. That person should set the vision, translate that into product requirements and stay really close to users and their usage patterns. For this reason, I have a strong bias towards technical / product founders.

As CEO however, as soon as you’re beyond say 10 people, you should not be in the critical path of any deliverable anymore (that’s a post for another time). Instead you need to be managing, leading and enabling a team. So, that means you need to hire someone to drive product. This is one of the most important hires you can make.

I’ve been involved in a few PM hires over the years. When people ask me what the profile of an ideal product manager should be, I have always have the same answer:

The idea product manager candidate is one that you know some day will start her own company. Look for someone you know will be a founder and CEO. Someone who’s not there yet, but has all the raw materials.

Why? As Product Manager you need to have 360 degree view of the business. You need to understand the high level vision and feature level usage. You need to work across departments, motivate dev teams, speak with customers and partners. In short, you need to do many of the things a CEO does. And the actual CEO needs to have complete faith in you in order to entrust you with one of the most important roles in the company. That’s easier to do when the PM is clearly on the path to being a CEO herself.

My friends at GoInstant (which provides co-browsing technology)¬†offer a great and recent example of this. ¬†After Jevon (the CEO) and his team raised financing, he brought on Ben to drive product. Now Ben is not just a future CEO, he’s an actual one – having previously co-founded and led a VC-backed startup. He’s been through the lifecycle and sat in Jevon’s shoes. He has the 360 view and is in an ideal position to drive product.

When you’re ready to hand over the reigns of your baby and hire a PM don’t settle for anything less than a future founder and CEO. Set the bar that high and your product will rise to it.

  • Thanks Mark! This posting is added to the curation of readings for the Global Product Management Talk on the CEO of the Product Debate http://bit.ly/wbRq48

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  • Sam

    Have to disagree – as a founder you need a product manager who is business savvy and objective about business – founders often find it extremely hard to pivot, and refuse to accept objective data because love of their "idea" hope of rationality. If you have a strong product manager with solid business experience, she can tell you if its time to give up the original idea and pivot to solving a different problem.

    If you want another founder who is full of passion, get another founder – why call her a product manager?.

    • The point is to choose a PM that someday will be a CEO, not one who currently could be. In Go Instant's case they have a former CEO in the role, but that is an exception.

  • Mark,

    Great blog and I especially appreciate this post.

    That said, I disagree with the statement "today, if you build an amazing product it does the marketing for you."

    I find that marketing in a holistic sense — i.e. positioning the product's features to align with the needs of the marketplace and raising awareness of the product — is critical for many companies, even those with solid products. Couple that with different benefits for different segments and marketing does end up playing a significant role.

    After all, arguably, a technology without a business model isn't a business.

    For a B2C business with viral growth, I would agree that the product (and its business model) enable it to 'sell itself'. For other situations, I believe that a good Product Marketing Manager is invaluable.

    Aki

  • Ravneet

    Nice one!

  • Really interesting post. I would bet that this position is overlooked/under appreciated by most CEO's, creating major backlog or increased chance of failure of their business.

  • Mark – Thanks for the post and using me and Jevon as an example. GoInstant is right at that point where things are accelerating incredibly, and Jevon needed someone dedicated to product, while the responsibilities of CEO (operations, fundraising, recruiting, overall management, etc.) expand. It's a great opportunity for me to come into something that exists, has traction, has vision, and push that forward, with a keen and constant eye on (primarily) the product.

    Product Managers as upcoming CEOs makes sense. And I think for ex-CEOs it's a good step to take as well. Most CEOs love the product side of things -and as you rightly point out- should be the product managers early on. But CEOs get pushed and pulled in lots of other directions as well. As an ex-CEO, I enjoy the focus and "simplicity" of being a product guy vs. CEO.

  • Thinking of the Product Manager as a future CEO/founder is a great start, but they should also complement (not echo) the skills of the founders if there are only 10 employees.

    This could mean bringing in an extrovert evangelist marketer if the founders are all deep-thinking, technical engineers

    It could mean looking for organizational planning to methodically plan roadmap if founders are generating too many "great ideas" and pulling development off in too many directions at once.

  • Great Post. And great hire for GoInstant. These guys are going to kill it.

  • It's pretty rare that things come together and you get to hire a product guy with the experience that Ben has. He and I have built a pretty great relationship over the last few years as well so it was easy to start quickly.

    The most important thing as "CEO" is to be able to actually give up control of so much of the product side and to quickly focus on things that matter and can help get the company to the next level. It isn't about doing less work as CEO it is about getting out there and tackling the next set of unknowns.

    Your first product person has to be thought of as adding another co-founder, because they end up being involved in almost every technology, product and customer oriented decision you make, so if you can't trust them 100% to operate effectively and professionally, then you won't be much further ahead. You also have to compensate/incent them accordingly.

    At the end of the day though we are still of the size where I am going to be involved in product closely every day. There is just no escaping that (or any desire to), I just have to get used to taking Ben's lead on it more and more.