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  • James

The Risks and Rewards of Product Management for your SaaS

When is the right time to hire for this role?

By all measures, the profession, and more importantly the role of product management is misunderstood by early to mid-stage startups. And for good reason. Unlike more linear organizational roles in technology such as developers, the role of product management and the expertise that a single product manager can bring can be as large or as small as you want them to be in scope. Because successful startup teams each have their own unique blueprint (as noted in this HBR article) it’s equally important to identify the overall team makeup, blind spots, and goals before thinking about bringing a product lead role.

So when is the right time to bring in a product manager for your growing startup (assuming you have launched and been in the market)? First, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Are you losing objectivity on what matters most to your users?

  • Do your teams appear misaligned between business need, marketing/sales. and development dependencies?

  • Has your time for innovation taken a back seat?

  • Does prioritization of bugs to new features seem like a never-ending list of tasks with no strategy?

  • Have you lost time to track broader threats like competitive blind spots and new opportunities?

  • Do you feel like there is no source of truth and communication to provide product clarity and goals?

If you’ve answered “yes” to some of these questions, or they resonate with you, you’re ready to start looking for a product manager at your startup. Now, the next step—and the single most important question for any founder or CEO—is to determine: Assuming you have been wearing several of these hats, what are you most willing to give up?

Before hiring a product manager, it’s important to recognize there are a variety of roles that encompass this position. Do you need someone who’s more technical? Or do you need someone who’s more marketing-savvy? Either way, identify what your company can benefit from up front, so you can attract an individual who not only has the right skillset, but can also manage your startup’s priorities.

Here are six popular types of roles that range within the “product manager” spectrum:

Product Owner: This person is technical, thrives in agile environments and should be maintaining the integrity of the product. He or she might not be the best at aligning and strategizing with marketing or sales, but can be great at collaborating with a generalist product manager for roadmap alignment.

Technical Product Manager: This role is not necessarily user-facing (think: DevOps, Middleware, API). He or she is likely a former architect or DevOps person, and many times is the CTO. It’s critical to have someone owning the tech stack when looking to scale—whether it’s CTO or technical PM. A great role to have when you are conquering your market.

Product Manager/Architect: This person is an intake and distribution master with knowledge and resourcefulness to create organized structure and lead cross-functional teams. He or she has a wide-range of exposure and can effectively communicate with all stakeholders. This person should have a high level of business acumen to create sound arguments on features, and should be the most objective voice in the room. This role is not a must-have in early startups, but as the company scales, it should be considered.

Project Manager: This person is an organized multi-tasker who finds and brings order to chaos and makes sure accountability, deadlines and output are top priority. Project managers are masters at efficiency. (Note: I have seen this role split as operations lead)

Program Manager: This role is typically designed for more established companies that are driving larger scale “programs” within an organization. Mostly help on strategy and execution of cross-functional teams and initiatives. This position is likely overkill for a startup.

Product Marketing Manager: This person may not be overly technical, but is most aligned with marketing on how the product is perceived, used and where it fits in the marketplace. For a SaaS startup that needs that level of refinement, it’s a “nice-to-have” role, but not necessarily a “must-have” full-time position.

For many SaaS startups, it’s very difficult to quantify a product manager level role when the founder or CEO has no experience in hiring, and doesn’t ask the right questions in order to filter out the best candidates. San Diego-based operations expert Rachel Gauvin says not getting the right person for what you need now, and for what you’ll need in the next one to three years, will not only stall you, but it will also set you back in progress. The solution? “Invest the time to critically think through what tasks need to be done now, three months from now, one year from now, and so on,” she adds. “It’s easy to think about the present and near future, but you want to hire people who can help you now and who will help amplify your growth for years to come.”

In a perfect world, a lot of your decision on hiring a product manager should be based on strategy, not reaction. Hiring on reaction may solve short-term needs to avoid technical or process issues, but the difference between a good and a great product manager comes down to how much leverage you are willing to allow this person to own and what their strengths are. Because product is such a central role for any SaaS startup, it is critical to find the right fit—someone who can help create an environment that allows the flow of information between all stakeholders to be free, but also managed in a way that controls the conversation and direction with each stakeholder. This often overlooked value helps maintain a desired course of action that yields justified decisions. You may not get everything you want in order to fill the role you need, and it’s very likely the business—and needs of the business—might change in due course. But by the time you reach that point, you’ll already be well on your way to success!

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