Joining as the first product manager
And surviving it to tell the tale
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Q: I'll soon be starting a new role at a startup (Series A, 40 people) as their first product hire. I've read your past advice on what to focus on as new PM, however do you have any specific advice for someone joining as the first product hire?
First of all, congrats on the new role! This sounds like an amazing opportunity, particularly at a time like this.
I’ve been getting this question often recently, so I’m excited to dive in. Since I personally haven't been the first PM at a company, I used this as an excuse to do some new research. I reached out to a bunch of smart friends and friends of friends who have been first PMs, along with putting out a call on Twitter. Taking all of these insights, including input from the first PM of Superhuman, Lyft, Airbnb, Front, Patreon, and many other great companies, I’ve synthesized the most concrete and consistent pieces of advice below.
Here’s a summary:
Listen and learn
Become the expert on the product
Form your own opinions
Build trust with the CEO
Build trust with the team
Before we get into the concrete suggestions, let’s look into when to hire your first PM, and what to expect from the role.
When to hire your first PM
Ken Norton (early PM at Google):
“When do you go from PM Zero to PM One? Many of the founders I’ve worked with are surprised when my recommendation is often not yet. Usually I discourage them from hiring until they’ve found product/market fit. But even when you’re hitting your growth phase, the danger of having too many cooks in the kitchen exceeds the cost of being overworked. A starvation diet when it comes to PMs is preferable to being overstuffed.
Surprisingly, your team may tell you when it’s time, although not in so many words. Here are some signals they’ll send:
“You’re slowing us down.”
“You’re detached from the details.”
“The rest of our business needs you.”
Jonathan Golden (first PM at Airbnb):
“My advice is that it’s time to hire your first product manager when all three of the following are met:
You’ve achieved product/market fit and need to scale
Your engineering team is greater than seven people
You are mentally ready to let someone else control the roadmap at some level
This stage normally happens right after a Series A financing. The team sees the work ahead of them and the founder realizes that her number-one priority needs to be hiring for and building out other functions of the business.”
Tim Wood (first PM at Patreon):
“The less experience founders have building products, the sooner it should be. On the other hand, if the founder is an ex-PM and the engineers and/or designers are product-oriented, a company could get by for quite awhile without a dedicated PM.”
What to expect as a first PM
“The first PM is an extremely challenging role. You’re gonna have a lot of tough battles, and the second PM is gonna owe you a ton for how easy they’ll have it”
“The amount of ambiguity facing a 1st time PM is tremendous. Often the founders/execs are still extremely hands on and aren’t comfortable sharing ownership. So there’s a lot of tension. Your job is to bring clarity and focus (i.e. decrease ambiguity) yet stay extremely flexible to changing things all over again every six months. PMs help get ambiguity under control in critical areas + let it exist in others.”
ー Ben Erez (first PM at Abstract)
“Roll up your sleeves, be a team player. I had to wear many hats – QA, user research, API documentation, marketing, BD – to move the team fwd. While in other companies, you have someone in each role, you have to do it all at early stage. I loved it, but it's not for everyone.”
— Karan Ahuja (first PM at Tally)
Now, let’s dive in.
How to succeed as the first PM
1. Listen and learn
“First, take time to observe, listen, learn how & why things are done. You have but a short time to just be there before you need to do things. Make the most of it!”
ー Ketki Duvvuru (first PM at Superhuman)
“Spend your first month really focused on developing understanding and empathy. Sit down with as many of your new coworkers as you can, and understand:
How does the product development process work today, and how can it be improved?
Who has been serving as the PM to date? Was it solely the CEO, or has an engineer or salesperson been calling some of the shots without a PM in place?”
ー Evan Goldin (first PM at Lyft, Chariot)
“Don't upset the apple cart. You're joining a company that clearly has had some success: they are growing and as you say, have PMF with a core product. Your instinct will be to quickly change things, both because there's improvements that seem obvious but also because you'll want to show value (they hired you for your product expertise, right?!). This is a mistake I see many executives who are hired into smaller companies make.
These bigger moves upset the apple cart and because the product leader (or executive) didn't generate the trust from the founder, or made mistakes in these bigger moves because of lacking context, it ends up as a disaster. Move slower than you think.
While many of those things initially will come to pass, instead of focusing on what isn't going right, look to what is working and why: can you build upon those process and make them slightly better/more efficient? Can you expand into something that's closely related (process or features)? These initial successes will both engender trust from the founders as well as give you more context and confidence to make the bigger changes you want (and likely will need) to make after your first 3-6 months on the job.”
— Nate Abbott (Head of Product at Front)
2. Become the expert on the product
“As for any product manager, invest deeply in getting to know your customer really really well”
— Ketki Duvvuru (first PM at Superhuman)
“Understand your product, your customers and your competition. Within 3 months, you should know about all the nooks and crannies of your product, and you should know it better than anyone else at the company. Talk to your product’s top fans, and really understand why they use the product. Screenshot and document the key flows and features your competitors offer.”
ー Evan Goldin (first PM at Lyft, Chariot)
“OWN the product... live in it. Live with the support staff, observe customers using it, help with QA and test it. Know it better than everyone else.”