I was recently asked by a startup CEO how he should think about hiring a Head of Product / VP of Product at his startup. Here’s what I shared with him.
Are you ready to hire a VP of Product?
There are two points in a startup’s trajectory when it makes the most sense to hire a VP of Product:
- When the Founder/CEO can no longer dedicate the time: Few things in a tech startup are more important than the product, but there are some things that only the CEO can do – these include advocating the company’s vision, fundraising and making financial decisions that keep enough money in the bank, hiring and managing talent, and making things happen, like closing critical sales or landing partnerships. When the CEO no longer has the time to focus on product, it’s time to bring in expert help.
- When a team of junior PMs needs leadership: Some particularly product-savvy CEOs don’t hire a Head of Product when #1 happens, but rather bring in one or more junior PMs to help handle the day-to-day product work while owning product strategy themselves. Once this team has grown beyond a couple PMs, a startup may need to bring in an experienced VP of Product to help mentor and coordinate this junior team, guide strategy, and ensure the delivery of awesome products.
Other good reading about hiring your VP of PM:
- When you should hire a Product Manager – Ellen Chisa (VP Product, Lola Travel)
- When (And How) to Hire Your Head of Product – Ron Hirson (CPO, Docusign)
Defining the role
It’s important to start by making sure you know the role you’re trying to fill. I typically think of a VP of Product as having 3 core responsibilities:
- Building the Product Team: Hiring, mentoring, celebrating, and nurturing the people who make the product successful. Product leaders create a culture where people feel ownership of the products they’re building, and are constantly finding ways to improve and extend them. In my experience, VP of PM does this not only for the PM team, but broader Product (design, engineering, data, QA) team.
- Guiding Product Strategy: Leading the exploration of ideas, fostering decision making, seeking data and customer insights to inform hypotheses, and communicating strategic direction and its rationale formally and informally, throughout the organization.
- Delivering Great Products: Establishing process, sweating the details, insisting on quality, breaking down roadblocks, coordinating teams, setting schedules, and ultimately being accountable for the creation of great customer experiences.
Marty Cagan (former SVP of Product at eBay) at SVPG share his thoughts in a great summary: The VP Product Role. Ellen Chisa (VP Product, Lola Travel) helps differentiate between the responsibilities of a more junior PM and the Head of Product in The VP of Product vs. the Product Manager.
Decide how to evaluate your candidates
Next, you need to figure out how you’re going to evaluate your candidates. At TurboTax I helped a team revamp our PM hiring process around a few principles:
- Use expert assessors: use product experts in the craft to help with evaluation. In a startup’s case, that might be your board, your CTO, or even the head of product at a peer company
- Show, don’t tell: use case studies, homework assignments, and working sessions to work through realistic work scenarios, rather than talking about them. Ask candidates to tackle a strategic product problem you’re actually facing – while you’re mostly looking to understand their approach, you might just get some great new ideas
- Know what you’re looking for: At Intuit, we looked for PMs with analytical ability, customer empathy, cross-functional communication, strategic thinking, and detail orientation. I like it when startups can articulate even more concrete targets, for instance experience analyzing data with SQL, a background in computer science or UX design, etc. Given the broad role a PM plays, expect that most candidates will be stronger in some areas and weaker in others
Here are a couple good articles on the subject:
- How to Hire a Product Manager – Ken Norton (Google Ventures, Former Google Group PM)
- How to Interview a Product Manager – Giff Constable (VP Product, Axial)
There’s no single place where great PMs hang out, but there are a few places I would recommend starting your search:
- AngelList, VentureLoop, and Hired.com
- Your board and extended network (including the “Talent” lead at more prolific VC firms)
- Recruiters (some entrepreneurs loathe them, but they help you see a high volume of quality candidates quickly). A few that seem to do a lot of this kind of search: Daversa Partners, Riviera, Russell Reynolds, and Quest Groups are a few.
- Your team’s network. “Who were the top 5 contributors at your last company?”
- Your own jobs page
Have you recently led or been part of a VP of Product search? Other tips you would share?