Succeeding as the First Product Hire in a Startup

Priyanka Naik

Principal Product Manager at Discover Financial Services



Previously in my career history, I worked as the first product manager at a startup. Usually, startup founders start with a business idea, but they do not know how to execute it. I’ve found startup founders to be knowledgeable about their business domain but not about building a technology platform to accomplish their goals. The founders are domain specialists and are looking for a product team that will implement processes and structure. When I was hired at a startup, this was the case. I was given the founder’s ideas and I had to build it up from scratch. Since I was the first hire, I had nobody to guide me. I needed to be a self-learner and utilize my previous knowledge. Secondly, many responsibilities fell onto my shoulders. Product management encompasses many different functions such as customer service, engineering, and aligning with leadership. Each of these outlets encompassed its own problems, and I struggled to expand and develop the product individually.

Actions taken

Before creating a plan or framework, I began my process by understanding my role and the situation. The startup had a lack of structure, and I concluded that I needed to build a concrete plan to work out the project. I settled on a 30/60/90 day plan, incorporating each action I would focus on within these periods. In addition, I added each step required for me to execute this project -- including product processes. When coming up with a new product, I set a product vision, execute a strategy, build a roadmap, and finally execute. By understanding my process, I decided that my first 30 days would be spent planning.

I conveyed my plan to my manager and, at the same time, asked for any resources that would be essential for me to execute my plan. For example, I asked for the opportunity to hire other product managers to share my bandwidth. Another step I took was to meet with the engineering lead to discuss their views regarding the engineering side of things. After bringing my manager up to speed with my plan, I validated and revalidated my ideas as well as ensured my vision was aligned with the founders. Once our company had a single aligned vision for the product, I created a roadmap that would lead us to success.

In the next 30 days, I immersed myself in the details of the roadmap and each outlet. I decided what my MVP will be; which details will be developed first, how the product will scale up, and what marketing strategy I will use. The next 60 days were used to finalize and flesh out my roadmap before the final stage of execution.

In the next 30 days, I began execution. I aimed to ship the MVP as quickly as possible using the bare minimum resources. I tried to get early feedback from customers, founders, and stakeholders regarding the product. After that, I rolled out new features, to see how it could be monetized, and overcome any roadblocks.

Lessons learned

  • If you have less than five years of experience, I would advise you against joining a startup with no prior product experience. In the initial years, learning the ropes formally from a mentor or multinational company is always desirable.
  • If you do end in a startup, try to actively network internally and externally. Join slack and Facebook groups of Product managers, share your problems to receive help from others because there is a high possibility that someone has been in your position. YouTube is also a good source for getting informed content.
  • When overwhelmed in a startup, ask for help as soon as possible. Do not think * you are supposed to know everything, as it is okay to clarify and inquire. Ask the founders to give you initial help with their domain expertise.

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Priyanka Naik

Principal Product Manager at Discover Financial Services

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