Why You Need a Great Product Manager

by Eric Tobias - Partner

Hiring is absolutely critical to any startup’s success. I’ve personally hired hundreds of people into the startup ecosystem and the most important thing is fit and timing. We have a good understanding of the need for fit. Hiring someone who doesn’t work within a company’s young culture can significantly hurt a young, impressionable startup, and can even set a company back months if the miss is far off.

The importance of timing is less understood, especially when broken down by role in the organization. Every B2B SaaS business needs engineers and salespeople, but what about other roles, such as product management? Timing of this hire can make a huge difference in the speed to market of a startup which has downstream effects on ARR growth, funding, and overall trajectory.

Out of the many years I’ve been working around startups, it’s crazy the amount of times I’ve seen a product leader come too late or not at all. At High Alpha, I spend a lot of time with our product and technology teams making sure we have the right people leading those teams. It’s one of the most important things we focus on.

As Ben Horowitz of a16z famously says:

“The primary thing that any technology startup must do is build a product that’s at least ten times better at doing something than the current prevailing way of doing that thing. Two or three times better will not be good enough to get people to switch to the new thing fast enough or in large enough volume to matter.”

The ultimate success (or failure) of a product has everything to do with hiring a great product leader. And yet, most startup CEO’s fail to establish the proper structure to make that product leader successful. Here are a few of my thoughts on why you need a great product leader:

The CEO is the person who articulates the “why” of a good product — usually this is manifested with a deep understanding of a problem. This “why” is the vision for the company as a whole and is critical to the operation.

Most CEOs are incredibly talented, but there’s a reason why building talented teams is important. CEOs who try to take over the “what,” “when,” and “how” often are overburdened and can’t effectively manage their time. On the other hand, some CEOs delegate the “what,” “when,” and “how” to designers or engineers — which is an okay fix, but again forces the designers/engineers to lose focus on their main responsibility — building unique methods of solving the problem.

The Typical Breakdown of Product Responsibility

This is where a product manager fits in. While the CEO handles the “why” and the designers/engineers handle the how, the Product Manager should be handling the what and the when. This specialization allows for the most effective and efficient method to building good products.

The Ideal Breakdown of Product Responsibility

An excellent product manager essentially is the “CEO of the product” and should:

  1. Articulate what a winning product looks like.
  2. Rally the team to build it.
  3. Iterate on it until they get it right.

Which manifests itself in three specific manners:

  1. Strategizing — Balancing vision & goals vs. resources & feedback
  2. Execution — Writing user stories, requirements, and building wireframes
  3. Leading — Aligning the CEO, sales, engineers, designers and customers

Finding these people can also be a bit tricky because knowing the skills a product manager needs is sometimes less than obvious. Here’s a good breakdown of what to look for in a great product manager:

I would argue that some of the best product managers aren’t technical, and being technical is only a good-to-have at best. More importantly, your product manager should be obsessed with customers. Great product leaders are always talking to customers in an effort to evaluate feature prioritization and help envision the roadmap. Customers help product managers make effective trade-off decisions — their ultimate responsibility. Product Managers know they are always resource constrained and always have more to do than their resources will allow.

Great Product Managers can utterly change the way startups operate and can make the process of building great products much more efficient and allows the rest of the employees in a startup to be more focused and specialized in what they do — which ultimately leads to higher success in companies.