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Adding More PMs in the Early Startup Phase

Product Team

21 October, 2020

Sameer Kalwani, Director of Product Management at Amazon Lab126, explains how to grow a team in the early startup phase by adding a few more product managers.

Problem

The problem of adding more PMs during the early startup phase has four key aspects:
 

  • When you should add a new PM to your team;
  • What is the right profile for a new PM;
  • How do you mentor them;
  • How do you hand off things to them?
     

Actions taken

I started and founded my last company in 2014 and didn’t hire our first PM until 2017 -- until we were over 40 people (30 engineers). As Marc Andreessen says, “Product-Market Fit is the only thing that matters” when you’re an early-stage startup. As a founding team, it is your responsibility more than anything to establish that.
 

It took us 3 years to find it. While many people have a different measure of saying they’ve achieved product-market fit. In general, it is selling the same product (no customization), to the same buyer persona (the same type of person wants to buy it or use it), with the similar contract terms (one is not a consulting agreement and the other a software product, all the same pricing). Once we figured this out, it became about throwing gas on the fire to grow quickly. I finally felt comfortable bringing on a PM who could take over some parts of the product.
 

Before bringing on a new PM, I did an analysis of what my strengths were and how I could complement them. I was looking for a PM who could complement my efforts and contribute to a more balanced approach. What I was looking for was someone who was less of a product manager (PM) and more of a technical program manager (TPM) and who could successfully manage programs while also being a product owner. More precisely, I needed someone who would be less focused on the product vision but excel in putting in the right product management operations.
 

I would be happy to personally mentor the right person. If they would have a TPM background I would be willing to coach them and help them acquire PM competencies. As a result, I would be able to offload much of my responsibilities, particularly those relating to story writing, Scrum management, and developing the vision for the epics, while I focused on the product roadmap, product analysis and outbound product management.
 

Additionally, as a startup, our second PM needed someone who could help us scale. Ideally, we were looking for someone who had been a PM at mid-sized to later-stage startups and could help us move from an early-stage to mid-sized phase.
 

Lastly, for both roles, we were looking for a person who would be a great culture fit and would resonate with our values.
 

To find that type of person we used a service called Hired, that allowed us to state what type of profiles we were looking for. I would reach out to people who were actively looking for a job via Hired thus bypassing expensive recruitment services. This also helped us better target people with specific domain knowledge and knowledge of our segment of the industry.
 

Lessons learned

  • I found a person who was a great fit but they had mostly worked as a startup TPM in the past. As a consequence, they were leaning more toward a project management approach and my next hire had to be someone more of a technologist at heart but knew scale - whereas the first PM did not.
  • With your first hires, you should try to create a full-stack product management set of requirements, and ensure that your specialization complements the next PM’s specialization so that there is depth in all areas of product management. This includes analytics, processing of information, creating a product vision, program management, etc. As you scale you won’t be able to do it all by yourself. Therefore, hire people with different skill sets that fit neatly together. If your former PM worked at Google, make sure that your next PM doesn’t have a corporate background. Build your team to be versatile and have diverse people complimenting each other. Whenever you feel there is a weakness within the team, bring someone to fill in that gap.

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