Startup founders: how to hire your first Product Manager

Whether you are a startup founder or a legacy MNC trying to disrupt your existing processes, hiring a Product Manager can be a daunting task. There are no Ivy League courses you can hire from without a second thought. Also, who is a PM really? Whilst you get your head around the basics, many businesses begin with an employment background check to have a criminal record lookup and other essential information for potential new employees.

There are many small and major errors you can make in hiring PMs. First the basics:

  • Is the PM a technical guy? Maybe, but likely not. Think of it this way: a PM may be technically knowledgeable, but not all technically knowledgeable candidates are PM-worthy.

  • So, the PM’s a generalist? Glad you asked! Most often, PMs will be generalists. But it could also be that the PM has been a specialist in many functions before moving to a product management role.

  • How senior should my first hire be? A lot of the PM’s job is to influence and convince stakeholders across the organization to converge on a coherent product. Being a senior guy helps. Also, if (s)he is your first hire, it’s better to hire a smart senior person and let him/her build a team when the time is right.

Product management is fast becoming a coveted route for fresh MBAs, according to WSJ (paywall) . This means once you go out into the market looking for a PM, you could easily be drowned in a deluge of interested candidates. Unfortunately, this is one role where the CV is not very helpful as an elimination – PM CVs are likely to be very impressive across the board. They are likely to be great at presentation, concision, and contain a showcase of impressive products. So how do you choose the right PM for your organization?

Prioritise referrals.

The PM community is small and, especially among startups, most PMs network very well. Remember, experienced PMs are probably the smartest group of people you will ever meet. If you are hiring, spread the word among your peers and on LinkedIn, Angel List, and other forums. Other job search sites such as EmploySee ( can also be beneficial, in that it allows you to select only the people who you think are good for the job, enabling candidate selection from a small pool of qualified people.

Talk to them. Don’t interview them.

Once again, smart PMs are judging you when you’re judging them. Senior PMs across the world are valued highly and they want to be motivated by the product or service you are trying to build. Talk about your product and the product vision. Talk less about perks of working with you. If the product you are building is not worth their interest, the perks (or the money) won’t matter. Sell the role to them: don’t assume that just because they applied to a role they are dying to work with you.

Ask to take them through the product journey.

Chances are very high that their portfolio of work will show the final products they’ve built. While that is a great way to start, time is better spent understanding how they arrived at the final product instead.

  • In subsequent meetings, ask them to share work-in-progress materials, process maps, vision boards, and product requirement documents they have made. See how deep they were willing to get into the problem before they solved it.
  • Ask them about the top challenges they faced across the process.
  • Once they launched said product, what process did they follow to continually improve upon the product? Where did they get feedback from? What data did they look at? Where did they get data from?

The final product of a great PM and an average PM might look similar. The rigour they applied in arriving at that final product won’t be.

Assess how well they critique you.

If you have a product up and running, then get them to critique the existing product. Ask them what they would change. Serious PM candidates should already have reviewed your product (unless it is behind a paywall) and come prepared with their points.

See how deep they were able to go in critiquing your product and which areas did they critique the most: some might focus on design, while others may focus on deviations from standards, and still others might question certain decisions to determine why they were made. Don’t get defensive about your product – keep in mind, they are interviewing you too. If they feel that feedback from them will be handled defensively, they may not be excited about coming to work for you.

Avoid standardised tests.

Hey, isn’t testing on IQ supposed to make this easy? You are not going to like the answer, but – in the context of hiring PMs – this is a resounding no. If the candidate knows what his IQ scores are and believes that somehow makes him/her better, stop the interview right away and go grab a beer. Your time will be better spent.

Don’t believe it? Take a look at the average IQ scores around the world. By these standards, we should only be hiring people from Hong Kong and Singapore. But PMs are not average, you say? Maybe. But it is reasonable to believe that the PMs are similarly above the average.

The above extends to personality tests too, to an extent. Although we are better at avoiding the use of personality tests to create biases in the interview process. Sometimes, personality tests structured for one part of the world simply do not work in another. For instance, one (global) personality test we tried in the past gave the exact same assessment for 124 individuals tested. A fat lot of good that did us. That’s not to say there isn’t a place in the interview process for a select few tests. A suitable cognitive ability test can be helpful when trying to narrow down your pool of candidates. If you are looking to discover a candidate’s ability to learn, adapt, solve problems, and understand relevant instructions then a cognitive ability test might be the perfect solution. This leads us on to our next point.

Discuss ways to solve a real-world problem.

The best way to figure out how a PM candidate thinks is to ask them to solve a problem you are facing. Even if you don’t hire the candidate, you at least have a good sense of how to solve your problem. Meet in person to discuss a problem you are facing. Do not use vague, irrelevant, or abstract problems: it is insulting to a senior PM candidate if you ask him to solve a problem involving circles, squares, and triangles. Better questions involve:

  • Take a look at our product page. A lot of people appear to be coming to the product pages, but very few are clicking on the Add to Cart button. What could be possible reasons?
  • We are considering adding a dashboard for our SaaS clients to use. How would you determine which metrics to show on the dashboard?

Hire for decision-making rigour, not analytical chops.

This seems another counterintuitive tip, but guess what people on the hyper-analytical side of the MBTI don’t do too well:

  • They take longer to determine a course of action.
  • They don’t handle ambiguity very well.
  • They like structure.

Of course, a certain level of analytical chops is essential, but don’t overvalue that too much. A PM has to be immensely comfortable with ambiguity – she is unlikely to have all the information to make a decision in majority of the problems she is facing.

Keep in mind: if your PM can’t make decisions in an ambiguous environment, then you are going to have to make them for her.

Add an extra point to candidates with cross-functional experience.

I have found that PMs that have been in a couple of different functions before moving to a PM role are generally more adept at building products that work for the business. They have a more holistic approach to the product and tend to find it easier to put themselves in the shoes of the user. So, take the “10-15 years of Product Management experience” bullet off your job description. You best PM candidate probably only has 5 years of PM experience.

The above points may or may not provide you with the best PM for the role, but will help you avoid rookie mistakes when hiring your first PMs. The fact that you have earned yourself into a situation where you can afford a PM is a great achievement, so pat yourself in the back first.