When should you hire the first Product Manager?

Written by
Alexandros Fokianos
Co-founder & CPO

Startup PMs, also known as “first product managers,” are responsible for setting up the very foundations of product management at a newly established company. Since they’re a crucial part of their company’s foundational team, there’s a lot of pressure involved. That being said, the job comes with many attractive intrinsic and financial perks.

Luckily here at Zefi we have many in-house product skills within the founders' team. We all worked in product or closely with founders and have a deep understanding of what means to bring a company from 1 to 100.

I specifically worked as a “first product manager” in Scalapay, the first Italian unicorn, and I have one or two things to say about the topic.

But first, what exactly does a startup product manager do? 

If you’re a startup founder or a product management professional considering a new opportunity, keep reading!

What Does a Startup Product Manager Do?

For the most part, a startup product manager has the same responsibilities as a typical PM working at an already thriving and established company. They’re responsible for creating and owning product strategies, rallying internal teams towards a common goal, managing people, and leading discussions and initiatives to move things forward.

The only difference is that a PM at a startup needs to apply a more hands-on approach and work closely with the founders.

Do Startups Need Product Managers?

Yes, most startups do need product managers. In Zefi specific case, most of the product work is covered by me - and it will be for some time.

But startups that have grown beyond the pre-seed stage and are moving fast towards creating and launching something tangible, will probably always need to give a major chunk of the product workload to experienced PMs - to let founders focus on everything else.
This kind of PM can be used as the bridge that aligns all business teams and removes organizational silos. 

But it can also easily go sideways so be wary of what you’re hiring!

Let’s check out the main responsibilities and tasks of a PM in a fast scaling startup

Owning the Product Strategy and Roadmap

Before anything else, a startup PM has to collaborate with the founders of the company to develop, own, and implement a full-fledged product strategy and roadmap with them.

This comprehends:

  • A list of the objectives the startup wants to achieve
  • Clear business goals 
  • A product plan consisting of multiple initiatives connected into a roadmap

After creating a product strategy and roadmap with the founder(s), a startup PM would then have to communicate and implement this strategy to the startup. The PM acts as the main point of contact for any queries about the product roadmap (i.e. when is this feature gonna be released?) 

If you want to avoid constant and annoying queries for your stakeholders, you might want to check out Zefi and its stakeholder alignment features.

Aligning Internal Teams Towards the Vision

The second biggest responsibility of a startup product manager is to align the internal team (regardless of how few members there may be) towards a common company-wide agenda – the product vision.

For this purpose, the product manager may hold one-on-one meetings, in addition to stand-ups, to keep everyone in the loop.

Pro of being in a startup: teams are small and often one-man-army. It’s easy to keep everyone aligned with 1to1 interactions!

Be an Individual Contributor for Every Major Business Function

Another thing that separates the job of a startup product manager from a regular product management role is the amount of individual contributions they have to make.

A typical startup doesn’t have much resources to spend. As a result, the product manager there is expected to wear many hats and directly execute some of the product strategies themselves (in addition to managing team members).

During my first year in Scalapay, even as a Product Manager, I took care of many different things, from marketing automation, to customer support to even coding and fixing bugs from time to time!

Manage the GTM Strategy

A startup PM is often asked to create a clear GTM strategy since there are no resources on the marketing side.

The two main jobs are:

  • Determining a Pricing Strategy – works with the founder to opt for a pricing strategy that aligns with the business goals.
  • Determining a Distribution Strategy – determine a strategy to reach the end-customers

Provide Feedback and Get Updates

At an early-stage in startups (and those in later stages), where the company has already launched a minimal viable product (MVP), a startup product manager has to work closely with the internal teams to analyze and act on customer feedback.

This requires a hands-on approach. A product manager has to create a process that enables the sharing of this feedback instantly with the relevant teams.

If your team is too big to guarantee this kind of instant communication, you’d like to try Zefi out!

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