Placing Product People

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From experience, finding awesome product leaders has taken the most effort and experience to know what great looks like. Let’s explore the impact they have and how to think about evaluating them for your search. 

Product People are Priceless

While founders in the early days have product ownership, hiring experienced product people can bring a new level of discipline. Product people help define the problem, break it down, prioritise, set goals, and define what success looks like. They help with the discovery part before the product is built. For example, you might have a hypothesis about the opportunity but need help fleshing out the size of the opportunity, the barrier to adoption, and what else might be in that opportunity space worth looking at. They can also work out if one product can fill different needs. This skill set is critical when new products are popping up all the time, presenting customers with more product choice and low barriers to switching between them.  

Product people provide clarity to what the user needs are and the user requirements for teams. This partnership with founders is great for those who have not led product before. A dedicated role will be helpful if you have varying sets of customers and/or you’re dealing with conflicting customer needs. Avoid the trap of committing solely to tech ‘projects’ because someone will need the discipline to look at the economics and how to sell the thing you’ve built.

Product people can impact culture positively too. In previous roles we’ve leveraged their skills to codify the purpose of the company we worked in at the time. Founders are great setting the vision and mission, but codifying the problem statement, end user needs, and the ‘why’ we’re building something can be challenging. The ability to define these things well are key enablers for building strong culture, ensuring more teams understand their purpose and feel a shared sense of impact. 

Probing Product People

Poor product execution can damage credibility, stall growth, and impact in the market.  The stakes are high, and as such we’ve calibrated on the key areas to evaluate against during an interview.

At the highest level, we recommend you assess for the potential, track record, and skill, based on the criteria below.

1. Strategy

At the highest level, the more senior candidates must be able to define a product vision, build a roadmap, and can measure impact against the outcomes required. 

  • Are they able to turn a mission and vision into an actionable plan? 
  • What considerations, investments, and risks are involved?

2. Leadership

Product people need to have great influencing skills, be proactive, able to collaborate with different functions, and have awesome communication. 

  • Are they able to listen to viewpoints, evaluate, bring structure, story tell, explain the value and the why?
  • How do they typically work with Engineering and Sales?

3. Execution

Traditionally, Product people need to be good at the long-term value for customers. If their focus is on product led growth, they also need to have strong understanding of the commercials and go to market. 

  • Are they short or long termism in approach? 
  • Are they multi-faceted enough to work on product market fit, growth, scaling, and feature specification? 
  • What’s their view on product quality? 
  • How fast do they operate?

At the more granular level, we recommend evaluating against the below

4. Problem solving

  A start-up is always learning about its customers. A great product person needs to think ahead, be analytical, and make decisions. 

  • How do they talk about the problem and aspects or considerations of it?
  • How do they approach something they may not be familiar with?
  • Can they translate user needs into features and discuss the trade-offs?

5. Customer focused

A product person needs to be obsessed with customer research, data, and facts. A great product hire recognizes they are not the customer but bring the customer voice into the company. They display empathy for the customer. 

  • How do they make decisions?
  • How do they dig into defining the user needs?
  • How do they do discovery and research?
  • How often do they talk to customers?

6. Outcomes over outputs

As operators we once inherited a team where a product was launched at speed and received poor feedback from customers. We asked one of the product managers what the objective of the product was and they admitted they were told to just ‘get it live’. This is a not a good situation to be in. Great product people will align teams on outcomes over outputs to deliver value to the customer. They recognize it’s not the number of products or features built that’s success, it’s the outcome of them.

  • How do they measure success of a product?
  • How does the solution solve the problem and (where relevant) fit into the wider portfolio?
  • How do they talk about value?
  • What’s their experience with the product lifecycle? Have they iterated on the feature(s) they’ve built, or do they keep building more features?

7. Passion

You’ll want passion in every hire for sure. But this is especially important for product people. Passion will inspire everyone around to build amazing products and delight the customer.

  • What books have they read recently in this space? 
  • Are they able to talk at length about their favourite product?
  • Can they talk deeply about what’s going in the market in a domain they know most about?


And finally, to be or not to be technical? This brings up different responses in the market. All product people need to be great at working with engineers. They should all be able to discuss how they balance addressing technical debt and new features. In our experience product people who are not ex engineers are great if you evaluate well against the points mentioned above, but a technical background may bring interesting insight around technical capabilities delivering value to a customer. Happy hiring!

Recommended Reads:

Badass: Making Users Awesome by Kathy Sierra

Continuous Discovery Habits by Teresa Torres

INSPIRED: How to Create Tech Products Customers Love by Marty Kagan

More To Explore

So, you want to work in a seed start-up?

It’s interesting to see how quickly candidates realise this stage isn’t for them (which is perfectly fine). Below shares common exchanges we’ve had, so candidates