One of the most impactful decisions we see Founders struggle to make after securing their Series A round is, Do I hire a Product leader for what we need today? OR do I hire a Product leader for the company we want to be in 3-5 years? This is a valid question and one which has implications across the business.
Typically the Founder/CEO is the product visionary and the keeper of the dream and the roadmap. The problem they are solving may be rooted in an industry they are considered an expert. Or rooted in a purpose/missional cause to improve the life of a specific persona. Whatever the origins, when the business started, it started with the Founder(s), and is often deeply personal.
However, there comes the point in every Founder's journey when they need to release their baby into the arms of the next person. Enter: The Product Leader. As a recruiting firm with 20 years of experience and a dedicated Product Practice helping tech companies make strategic product hires across North America, we have recruited for both of these scenarios.
Here is what they often look like as well as their potential pitfalls:
Hiring for Today:
When a Series A backed startup determines they wish to hire for the needs of the business today, it often means the Founder will continue to own the long-term product roadmap and the strategic decisions that will determine the path to monetization and growth.
Therefore the candidate persona is most often a Senior or Principal-level Product Manager who aspires to have a career track that includes leadership. Additionally, the level of strategic decision-making this candidate persona has is limited to decisions to realizing the roadmap and process/delivery decisions that drive towards a specific outcome.
These candidates are often the VoC in the business and champion the user in product meetings. They don't typically sit in the SLT/ELT level meetings but work closely with an Engineering counterpart ensuring timelines and deliverables are met.
While this candidate persona might report to the Founder/CEO, they often report into a CoFounder/CTO or even a VP of Engineering. Yes, you read that correctly, Engineering. Unfortunately, that last report structure is often the case when the Founder hiring for today has often not "fully" brought into the value of standing up the actual Product Management function.
The bottom line is this candidate persona is all about the VoC, prioritizing, action, results, and delivery. Sounds like a dream hire - what Founder isn't interested in action and results?
While the benefits of this candidate persona are many, the other considerations include:
- The Founder must remain more involved in product decisions - often more involved than investors would like. At some point, Investors need assurances that the Founder/CEO is running the company, not the product.
- Good intentions/directions may unintentionally undermine the Senior or Principal Product Manager's feelings of leading the product.
- A Founder's limitations could become the product's limitations, which could mean missed opportunities or expensive pivots later on.
- Another product leader will often need to be hired as the person hired for "today" may not be able to upskill fast enough for the product growth, roadmap of tomorrow.
It's possible the person you hire for today will become the person promoted into the top product leadership role and begin to take on a more strategic role, but it’s not always a guarantee. Which brings us to…
Hiring for the Future:
When a Series A backed startup determines they wish to hire for the business they want to become, it means the Founder is willing to hire a product leader who will take over responsibility, not only for the product but also for the functional organization of Product Management.
This persona of candidate will have a seat at the ELT/SLT. They will report to the CEO and be the voice of the product to the Board of Directors. They will take a long-term point of view on both the product(s) and, more importantly, the business. They will own the path to monetization, scaling as efficiently and cost-effectively as possible, and be the lead in identifying acquisition opportunities that complete the roadmap and ecosystem.
The CEO should consider this relationship like a partnership. They are both committed to the business and an eventual outcome which could include an exit.
This role is less hands-on in the execution tactics and more focused on the development of the strategy that will drive scale through the product management function.
Product management, leadership, and hiring. Sounds like a dream hire - what Founder isn’t interested in strategic growth at scale? While the benefits of this candidate persona are many, the other considerations include:
- Attracting a true product leader to join a Series A startup will take a lot more than selling a dream.
- This candidate persona is one of the smartest people in the room and is highly sought after, so be assured many Founders are also interested in hiring them.
- For those reasons, most Founders will need another type of partnership, a search partner.