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STARTUPS: WHEN (AND HOW) TO HIRE YOUR HEAD OF PRODUCT
An Internet darling acquired my first company when I was 25. Our band of 14 joined forces with this rocketship only to find that the chief executive and chief technology officer could no longer stand each other.
The CEO had an ambitious vision but was typically on the road talking to reporters, raising funds, and enjoying the Internet celebrity of being a dot-com leader. He needed help addressing the company’s product needs. He’d often return to the office to find that the CTO had gone in a direction with which he completely disagreed. He asked me to become his vice president of product, balancing his vision with the CTO’s initiatives.
Since then, as a founder and a head of product, I’ve learned that successful heads of product see their role as bridging the gap between the founder’s vision and the company’s products. They facilitate good communication between you, other executives, and engineering.
A company’s product or service is a manifestation of its founder’s—your—vision. To come up with something novel and disruptive, you need to lead the effort.
At some point, however, the initial product charge gives way to other concerns. Some founders aren’t process-minded or patient enough to see their vision through to a finished, marketable product. Others are better marketers or salespeople than operators. And as your company grows, no matter how good you are at leading product development, other things––talking with reporters, fund-raising, managing a growing team––will start to spread you too thin.
This is often when it makes sense to hire a dedicated head of product, someone who can extend your vision while also freeing you up to focus on other tasks. Getting this right is challenging for several reasons, not the least of which is your instinct to maintain control. (More than once, I’ve seen a founder clash with a head of product because the results of the product team didn’t match the details of his vision.)
Here are some specific things you can do to ensure a good relationship with your head of product:
> Travel together. Visit customers with your head of product so that you receive the same customer input and stay on the same page.
> Directly communicate your vision. Create opportunities to help all of your product managers understand and appreciate your founding vision. Doing this will empower them to make good decisions. On a related note, hire a head of product who encourages you to meet regularly with his team. DocuSign founder Tom Gonser attended a recent off-site with our product managers. The benefit was bidirectional: It helped him understand how the company’s demands and priorities had evolved, and it helped the team better understand his vision and outlook.
> Make sure that your head of product prioritizes her relationship with the development team. Your head of product and your head of technology should be good friends. If they’re not, you could end up babysitting them as much as providing a vision.
> Hire a head of product who thrives on a startup’s fast pace. I once worked at a startup where a CTO who had come from a big, established company maintained his old company’s lifestyle. He showed up at 9:30 a.m. and left at 5 p.m., without a sense of urgency. At a startup, people have to be willing to pull all-nighters when critical. They have to be all blood, sweat, and tears at these times, or the company may fail. Make sure your head of product is a good fit.
> Encourage your head of product to implement an operations-planning process. At DocuSign, product managers craft long-term and short-term strategy plans for the company and for the product, prioritizing and listing their goals for both. They present these plans quarterly to different sections of the company (sales, marketing, engineering, and operations, among others) and invite feedback. Product managers outline these priorities in cloud-based tools that give employees space to add suggestions.
> Don’t fear “personas.” Customer profiles, or personas, provide a shortcut to discussions and focus all teams on building for and empathizing with the customer. If Uber were to create them, employees might hold discussions around personas such as “Jimmy, a student,” who uses UberPool, or “Janet, the CEO,” who requests Uber SUVs. Personas can sound a little cheesy to a founder who didn’t conceive of a product this way, but they serve as launching points for focused product discussions and give the entire company a common language to discuss various customers’ needs.
There’s a saying that a founder is an optimist, an engineer is a pessimist, and a product manager is a realist. A great head of product intuitively knows how to merge the founder’s optimism with the engineer’s pessimism to help the company grow nimbly, without discord among its leaders.
Disclosure: I’m an advisor to Founders Circle, where heads of product from #breakawaygrowth companies get together to discuss topics like the one above. Some of this POV was discussed at one of these get togethers.