5 tips on how to get started as the first Product hire at a startup
Congratulations! Well done 👏🏻🎉 You have landed yourself a product management role at an exciting startup which is ready to shoot for the moon. A product management role is typically introduced when a startup reaches 20-30 people, but I have increasingly seen PMs now coming in at the 10 person mark. A good product manager can really lift the trajectory of a startup by bringing experience on how to deliver product, fast. I've written about this before.
You might be an experienced PM from a large company, looking for that excitement and thrill of being there at the start, really having an impact on direction; or you could be new to Product, moving in from a developer or customer facing role. I know you are bursting at the seems with big ideas on product strategy, hiring a team, implementing these great processes you have read about from the gurus at Mind the Product or Marty Cagan's Inspired. All I say is hold up 🛑
From my experience having joined a bunch of early startups as their first product manager, and building my own thing now here at Intalayer, here are the first 5 things I recommend you do as the first product manager for a startup.
Steady wins the race
We all want to impress from day 1. It's natural, you're on probation, you want to stay around. But you won't be fully up to speed as a product manager in a new business for at least 90 days. There is a whole lot of learning to do. Set out a learning plan and stick to it. Here are the general areas you will need to learn about:
- First off, get inside the heads of the founders. They have been working on this business for years, they have intimate knowledge of the market, of competitors, of the different versions of the messaging they have tried, the various pivots in USP and product they have taken. Absorb this as much as possible. Remember, the founders are handing over their baby to you, it can be hard for them to let go.
- You may be working in a completely new industry. Get familiar with industry jargon, market forces and competitors.
- Learn about the startup you work in, the main customers, the main messages used by Sales and Marketing to attract customers, meet the team.
- Most critically, and one I see a lot of PMs miss (🙋🏼♂️ guilty), you need to learn how to use the product! Sign up to the product, read the knowledge documentation, go through any training programs your company has set up either online or delivered by the CX team. Genuinely try to use your company's product like a customer would (establish real word scenarios to achieve this).
Set expectations with the boss
Ideally on the first or second day, you should have a 1:1 with your boss to get a clear idea of what is expected from you in your role. During your interview process, the team may have shared some insight into what the expectations are, but let's get real. No one shares the unvarnished truth in interviews.
Something to keep in mind is that in such a small company, your boss is probably one of the founders. This creates a more complicated dynamic they are emotionally invested in the business, and you need to build that trust and gain their confidence. Depending on their background, they may not be experienced in managing people or managing your type of role. Founders are constantly our of their depth, and this is where you can really help.
To begin with, let them know that it will take 3 months to be on top of everything (see previous section). This is important, particularly if your new boss hasn't worked in Product, and may not necessarily appreciate everything that you need to get your head around. Emphasise that this doesn't mean you won't be doing anything, rather you will be relying on the Founders for a lot more input into product decisions over this period until you are up to speed.
After that, ask what skills gaps, or what problems arose, to trigger the need for your role. Ask how they thought you could contribute to meeting those needs. This may sound like a rehash of the interview, but now you will get genuine, honest answers with more depth and context.
Then run through what the primary goals for the business are over the long term, and for this quarter. What are the plans or growth? Do they want to start making revenue? Are they planning another raise in 6-12 months?
After the meeting, you will need to do two things:
- Based on the information you have just gained, are you still excited by this opportunity? Does it suit your career goals? It's important to be honest with yourself, review the situation, don't feel obligated to the your new company. The probationary period is for both your employer and yourself to assess if it's a good fit.
- Develop a 90 day plan on what you will be delivering. Send this to your boss and make sure they have a chance to review and approve it, then use it in your weekly 1:1s (yeh, make sure to book in at least 30mins every week).
Don't change everything
This sounds like it would be easy to do, but in our haste to impress our new employer, we often make rushed, unconsidered, changes. You probably have a lot of great ideas coming in from your previous roles, or what you have read online as best practice, and want to start implementing things straight away.
It is good to have ideas, but keep in mind every team is different. The set of skills and experiences differ. A process that works well in one company could fail in another company. You need to listen, observe, learn how the team operates before changing things up. Which takes us to my next tip.
Learn about your teammates, build trusting relationships
As a product manager, communication and stakeholder management are key to your success. Communication, empathy, understanding builds the trust you need and rely on when you are making very hard decisions on where the product will go.
Have one to ones with all key members of each team. In a small startup this is basically everyone! Setup a regular meeting with the executive team to share what product is being worked on and what is coming up next. This is just establishing communication channels. This is not decision making as you are not yet knowledgeable enough to be making good product decisions.
Understand your customers
To increase that knowledge, understanding what your customers are saying is key. Jump on customer support, go on sales calls, work with the customer success team. Get in front of customers as much as possible. As a rule of thumb, you should spend 20% of your time talking to customers. 20% may not seem like much, but you will be surprised how quick a week can go by without seeing a customer.
In your new company, there may be ways of collecting customer feedback and tracking product usage, but probably nothing formalised. Don't get stalled by trying to bring together the perfect tool stack. Start simple:
- For customer feedback, have your customer facing teams simply share feedback in a channel in Slack. This is an easy way to centralise all feedback, and you can quickly review or export the data to a CSV for further analysis.
- For product usage data, I like tools such as Fullstory to capture screen recording. Spend time every week watching how customers interact with your product, and whether they encounter UI bugs or unexplained errors. And for analytics, there are tools like June.so and Mixpanel that are easy to get started with.
Being the first product manager in a growing startup is so much fun. It is also a huge responsibility. The founders have worked really really hard to build their business and the product to a point where they can hand it over to you. You owe it to them to be thorough in your approach. Observe, listen and learn; do not rush to impress. I hope these 5 tips help in your first days.
Good luck with the new role, it will be like a rollercoaster!