At Riviera Partners, we frequently speak with founders who are exploring whether the time is right to hire their company’s first VP Product. Our job is to help break that belief into component parts to address the fundamental question: “What problem are you looking to solve with a VP Product hire?”
If the answer is yes to one of the following, you are likely not ready for a VP Product:
“We are pre-product-market fit and need a visionary to help us identify the right product(s) to build.” (you are likely too early for a VP Product.)
“We don’t have any PM’s, so we need someone to come in and hire the team in a short time period because I don’t know how to vet PM’s.” (If you don’t have any PM’s, you don’t need a VP.)
“We just raised our Series A and want to capitalize on the press to make a splashy hire.” (Timing search outreach with a funding announcement is helpful, but only if true need has been ID’d.)
“My investors told me I needed a VP Product.” (We hear this more than you’d think.)
Responses like these immediately send up red flags because the problems that a company is looking to solve for are not fully defined by the above reasoning. The most successful VP Product searches that we engage on begin when a company achieves some level of traction, raises external capital (at least a Series A), and has built out their Engineering organization to 12-15+ people (usually including a VP Engineering). This is when structured product management becomes essential and is also likely the point at which the founder (who presumably has been running product), is running out of bandwidth to be in the weeds assigning bug fixes, writing PRD’s, and pow-wowing with the engineering team for hours at a time.
Letting go of day-to-day product oversight and focusing on the business can be tough, but is is one of the first major growth steps for founders. And although they might seem like the same thing, especially for a software company, the savviest founders (typically) are the ones who realize that the product and the business are two different things, and that both require full-time focus.
*Note* - there are exceptions to every rule, and some of the best founders are product-led CEO's who have maintained their involvement in product throughout the existence of their company (Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg come to mind). However even with that elite tier (and there are many others), over time as their companies grew, they reduced their time spent on individual product decisions, but still maintained the product vision and enforced the quality standard that users had been accustomed to.
Once that realization takes hold, and it becomes clear that the most value for the company will be created by the addition of a full-time product leader, the question becomes: “What do I need this person to do?” First and foremost, the founder needs someone to do the tactical work of product management. And, by the way, this person should likely be able to do a better job than the founder in this regard (because they should be more experienced at the function). This includes things like creating specs/product requirements documents/road-mapping, coordinating and setting the right cadence with engineering and design, putting KPI’s in place, making tough decisions on prioritization, and going extremely deep with customers/users.
If you feel like you have a good sense of the problems you are looking for your first product hire to solve (a need has been truly identified), the following are the next set of key questions:
Question 1: Do I need a VP, or is a strong PM enough for now?
When going to market for your first product hire, it’s critical that the framework for the role is carefully considered so that you evaluate and ultimately hire someone appropriately experienced for the current stage of your company.
Quite often, founders believe that their first product hire needs to be a VP who has set vision, strategy, hired big teams, and been the single-most differentiating factor in delivering a product that can win in the market. But here’s the reality––this person is probably not right for an early stage company and is likely not get-able either. VP-level product leaders are no longer as operational or hands-on as an early-stage company needs them to be. They are accustomed to managing larger teams with broader resources. Most importantly, they expect to own the entire product vision to even be interested in the opportunity. The success that your company has had thus far has been due to the vision that has been implemented by you, the founder. It’s important to not give that up too soon by hiring someone who will only be excited by the role if they are the owner of that vision.
This is why clearly asking: “What am I solving for?” is such an important question. Rather than shooting for the moon by trying––probably unsuccessfully––to hire the most experienced and seasoned VP possible, founders should be looking for an exceptional hands-on product manager who is comfortable following their lead on the vision, and who can help buy time back in their day by excelling at the day-to-day PM activities. Someone who has shown the ability to manage a small team, knows how to vet product managers, and has seen success (i.e. they have worked on successful products), and can work in resource-constrained environments under the direction and vision of the founder.
In reality, the ideal candidate for most Series A companies is a person who could grow into a true VP over time - after all, they will have the most knowledge of your organization and your customers. By making this profile of person your first product hire, followed by two or three more, you will move your business forward significantly. This profile of product leader matches the company stage and brings PM know-how to the organization, commitment to your vision, and is able to free up time so that you can focus on driving the rest of the business. It’s also worth noting that having multiple effective product managers on your team makes your company significantly more attractive to a potential VP Product hire in the future.
Hopefully by now you have realized the importance of hiring for both for the appropriate stage of your company and having at least one strong, execution-focused PM on your team before considering a VP. After that, the question becomes: “If not now, when?”
Question 2: When is the right time to hire a VP Product?
Though you have hired a product manager or two to execute the day-to-day product work, they are still probably reporting to you (the founder). And, because you still own the product vision, you find yourself more involved in the day-to-day of running the product organization than you would like to be. You may begin to realize that you (like most first-time founders) have probably never actually managed product managers before and therefore don’t know how to develop them into strong product leaders. In addition, your product is starting to gain more traction, and you may be considering launching ancillary product lines (where prioritization/coordination across multiple products becomes critical) and/or or moving upstream into a completely new market that represents great opportunity (i.e. consumer to enterprise). You may be hiring more PMs to focus on specific elements of the product and the ratio between engineering and product management is becoming untenable.
All of these factors indicate the need for a strong product leader to join the company.
Question 3: Should the VP Product mainly just run the product function and manage the PM’s while executing my vision, or should the VP Product own the vision and the strategic direction for the product as well?
From a hiring perspective, the more control and authority you are willing to give your VP Product, the stronger (or more experienced) a candidate you will likely be able to attract. But it’s not just about asking what’s necessary to attract a star––you have to be realistic about whether or not this is something you can live with.
To be clear, you will hopefully be owning the high-level strategic vision of the company, regardless of the VP Product. But at some point, the product becomes too complex and nuanced, the market landscape has evolved, and the customer needs have become so varied that your original vision of the product starts to become either stale, outdated, or both. Once you start losing day-to-day contact with the end user or customer you might seriously consider allowing the VP Product to own the product vision going forward. As the founder (and usually CEO), you are still responsible for strategy at the corporate level. But, if the team is spending significantly more time with customers, dealing with feature enhancements, product requests, living and breathing daily usage metrics, it’s time to let the VP Product be the one who defines the product. As mentioned above, this doesn't mean that the founder needs to remove themselves completely - there are still critical elements around quality and consistency that users have come to expect with the original vision. But the person who is closest to the end user will have the best pulse on what to build and how to deliver that product(s) to market.
There is one added incentive for you to remove yourself from day-to-day decision-making about the product: if the lead PM decision-maker is also the founder, there will be fewer mechanisms in place to prevent bad ideas from taking shape, because most everyone will obey when an order is issued. This is why the exceptional VP's of Product need to be so strong at influencing within a company. While they aren’t managing their cross-functional peers in engineering (or Sales, Marketing, Customer Success, etc.), they need to be able to collaborate effectively, and get everyone upwards, downwards, and horizontally to row in the same direction through the powers of persuasion and partnership, not authority.
Summary: Rules to live by when hiring product leadership:
- Avoid hiring a VP Product too early in your company’s lifecycle.
- Have a clear answer to the question: “What am I trying to solve with this hire?”
- Perfect is the enemy of Great: consider the opportunity cost you are facing when shooting for the most senior VP Product hire out there. Not only are you likely wasting precious time looking for a candidate that isn’t right for your company stage, but you are missing critical opportunities around prioritization, defining product success, and answering the fundamental questions like: “What should be building, and what shouldn’t we build (discovered through rigorous test/learn methodologies)?” Waiting too long to bring on strong individual contributor-level product managers, in hopes that you will land a VP, could be the difference between raising that next round or watching your competition pass you by.
This article was written by Andrew Abramson, who has placed Product Management executives at companies like Airbnb, Lyft, GitHub, Flexport, Brex, and many more. Feel free to reach out to Andrew with any questions, comments, or feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org