Hiring product managers at early and seed stage startups is a difficult process. This deck is an attempt to create a reference guide for startup founders who are looking to hire their first PMs. This was delivered at the “Seed to Series A – Making the Leap” event organised by SAIF Partners on 11th May 2016. I am also adding the transcript of the talk below the slide deck.

Good evening.

[Slide 1]

A few disclaimers:

  • In the absence of gender neutral pronouns in English, I will be using “he”, “him” when referring to potential candidates.
  • Though I will be covering a lot of points, this is no way a comprehensive list.


[Slide 2]

There will be one point per slide. Each slide is categorised.


[Slide 3]

While you can source candidates from friends, ex-colleagues, get recommendations from teammates, other contacts, LinkedIn and recruiters – hiring is your responsibility. You have to be the single point of contact and the person running the hiring function. I expect you will continue doing this for your first 50 employees.


[Slide 4]

It does not matter what your background is in – you are responsible for your product (especially if you are a product company and not a services company).


[Slide 5]

Don’t use standard job description templates. They have ridiculous statements like – “a candidate with 3-12 years of experience in product management”. There are a handful of people with that kind of PM experience in the country – and if you could hire them we wouldn’t be having this conversation.


[Slide 6]

In a team meeting, if you happen to be the smartest person in the room – your company is doomed. Put your ego aside. Hire exceptional people. Over time you and your company will become the average of these exceptional people. You should be learning from your first set of employees.


Also, smartness works at many levels – executional, strategic, tactical, etc. People either have great depth of knowledge in one (or a few) field(s). Or people have breadth of knowledge across multiple fields. You need both these kinds of people.


[Slide 7]

Don’t hire horses for courses. Don’t think short term. But don’t think you are hiring a lifer. Hire someone who will be able to grow with your org and make a solid impact over a two-year horizon.


[Slide 8]

If you are a tech startup then your PMs need to understand and appreciate what engineers do.


Caveat: look out for ex-engineers with a chip on their shoulder.


Back in the day – their code had the beauty of poetry – it made grown men cry and women swoon. Those days are gone. They need to have a healthy appreciation for what others do – and shouldn’t interfere in their work.


[Slide 9]

This goes without saying – your PMs are not going to code. So don’t over-emphasize past skills in a field that they are not going to use in their day to day work.


[Slide 10]

… before the interview. The assignment should either be based on your product or a product in the same domain. It does not matter how senior the candidate is. You solve a couple of problems with this activity – you get them interested in your product(s)/ domain. You get more minds to think about the problems that you are facing. You can gauge their communication skills (and these are very important). PMs who can’t write well – don’t make good PMs. As an early stage PM you will require him to write documents, descriptions, marketing copy, etc.


At Zynga, every PM (all the way to GMs and directors of product) went through an assignment process before their interview.


[Slide 11]

Founders, advisors, investors, team members from different fields– clearly define the purpose of each interview to each panelist.


[Slide 12]

In some interviews you are selling (pitching your company to the candidate), in some they are pitching to you. Some are to gauge competence, some to figure out culture fit and some for negotiating. Pick the right panelist for each. Don’t waste a candidate’s time.


[Slide 14]

Given a problem, most product managers are able to answer the following two questions:

  • How are we going to solve this problem?
  • What is required to solve this problem?


Only good product managers are able to answer:

  • Why do we need to solve this problem? Why would our users/ customers care?

First-principles thinking requires a mind unencumbered by past lessons, experiences and biases. As Feynman once said – “I would rather have questions that can’t be answered than have answers that can’t be questioned.”


All product managers develop heuristics over time. These thumb-rules are essential survival tools. But good PMs know when to put these tools aside.


Good PMs spend a lot of time in the problem space.


[Slide 15]

Every experiment has three crucial steps:

  • Setting up the experiment
  • Measuring the results
  • Using the results to improve the experiment


Setting up the experiment involves a clear understanding of the purpose and the desired result of the experiment. This is where most PMs falter. Products/ features are built without a sense of expected results or what constitutes success or failure.


Measuring involves clear instrumentation and a firm grip of what needs to be measured and how. The actual act of data collection is equally critical.


Finally, comparing the actual results to the expected results and drawing inferences based on this comparison is what leads to learning. This learning goes towards improving the product/ feature as well as future products/ features.


A good PM is a master of all the three steps.


The assignment + the questions you ask should look for this trait.


[Slide 16]

What are their favourite products (mobile, desktop, mobile web, consumer, enterprise)?

  • What works and why?
  • What doesn’t work and why?
  • How will they improve the product?


[Slide 17]

Run a brainstorming exercise. Build wireframes together. Solve a problem. Would you enjoy working with this candidate? Do they have the smarts and the competence?


[Slide 18]

For candidates still in college or freshers – internships are the way to go. Internships should always be paid. This works for both parties – gives the candidate a flavour of the work. Gives you a sense of how they can create impact. Give people a highly focused short-term project with clear deliver-ables.


[Slide 19]

Do this after the interviews are done – so that you don’t get biased by the opinions of others. Speak directly to previous managers, advisors, mentors, professors, colleagues.

Explain the role to them. Do they think the candidate will be a good fit. Is he a great chap but a wrong fit for this JD? Given a chance, will they hire this person back and work with him again?


[Slide 20]

Thank you!

How to Hire a Product Manager
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