How to Hire the Right Kind of Product Manager for Each Startup Phase

Every startup needs a great product manager. But depending on what phase the startup is in, the definition of “great” can vary considerably. Different phases require different skill sets and sensibilities.

You can easily find a product manager who’s a great fit for a startup at the validation phase but a terrible fit for one at the scaling phase. Picking the right one for your company can be a slippery slope. But it’s definitely possible to line up the right ones at the right times.

To make this easier for you, here are six phases of startups and the type of product manager that best corresponds with each:

1. Ideation Phase: The Entrepreneurial Spirit

At this phase, it’s not uncommon to find founders who also serve as product managers. They’re still brainstorming, mulling over problems, and evaluating market opportunities. While this may work for some startups, not everyone can get away with it. So find a product manager who possesses a similar entrepreneurial spirit and is experienced enough to provide much-needed early feedback.

Whether you’re new to building products or just more comfortable with the business side of things, there’s no better time than now to speak with an experienced product person. Why? He can tell you whether your ideas are feasible. This is especially true if you’re developing hardware products. Even the most seasoned entrepreneurs can be caught off guard by the fickle world of hardware.

2. Concept Phase: The Experienced Veteran

If you skipped talking to a seasoned product manager during the ideation phase, make sure you do so now. The right one will have started a company before, will have built teams and products from scratch, and will be used to excelling with few resources. A resourceful product manager is the best kind of product manager.

But make sure he’s not coming from a giant company. A senior product executive from a Fortune 500 company will be of no use to your startup at this early stage. He’ll possess a different skill set and expect to have access to way more resources than you’re able to provide.

3. Commitment Phase: The Culture Builder

At this phase, your startup has a clear vision, has secured some funding, and has started developing its product without needing to rely heavily on external resources. Now is the time to find a product manager who will help you stay focused and build the right culture.

Your best candidate at this stage is one who knows the ins and outs of the startup world and has thrived in startup-like environments. He understands the importance of setting and achieving goals, sticking to budgets, and developing an overall culture of success.

4. Validation Phase: The Researcher

By now, it’s all about calculating your market opportunity. You’ve already demonstrated initial growth and traction, so now you need a product manager who understands business models and how to monetize products.

The right candidate for a startup at this phase will have experience conducting qualitative and quantitative user research. He’ll be comfortable leading analytical exercises and soliciting feedback directly from consumers. Consumer feedback is key to the validation phase, so be sure to find a product manager who actually loves this part of the job.

5. Scaling Phase: The Growth Wizard

It’s time to explore ways to scale up your business. No one does this better than a product manager who takes pride in being a “growth hacker.” Due to the number of database queries and the amount of data mining he’ll need to do, a strong technical background is also highly desirable. He should know enough about statistics to be able to accurately measure product usage, and he should know how to drive traffic using social media and digital marketing techniques.

At this phase, your product manager still doesn’t need to have senior-level corporate experience. But it’s probably time to hire a senior executive such as a VP of product management to oversee the product manager and the process.

6. Establishing Phase: The Stabilizer

Now that you’ve scaled up and are thriving, it’s time to switch to maintenance mode. In your earlier phases, you needed self-starters and people who knew how to build something out of nothing. Now, your product manager needs to know how to maintain a well-oiled machine.

You don’t need a “maker” anymore. Makers want to challenge the status quo and shake things up. Your startup already did that. Now, you need a high-level candidate who’s not trying to reinvent the wheel.

Next time you’re on the hunt for a product manger, let the stage of your startup be your guide.

Do you need a maker or a maintainer? Do you need a culture builder or a growth hacker? Do you need a research guru or a well-rounded senior executive?

Knowing the answers to these questions will make your product manager selection process crystal clear.


Image Credit: Samuel Zeller

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Written by:
Matthias Wagner is a serial company starter and product manager, using creativity and technology to disrupt the status quo with products that people love. He has built more than 10 companies, founded We Create Stuff, and consulted for a number of innovative companies, including Node, KeepSafe, and Ranku. Matthias teaches enterprises how to be more innovative and startups how to launch products that customers love. Connect with Matthias on Twitter.
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