Product Managers & early-stage startups
Communication with the co-founders
You find a new PM role for an early-stage startup. You go into the first interview with the founder, and you realize that you are the first product hire. Do you take the job?
You are an experienced PM, and you realize that to move forward you need to join an early-stage startup, ride the wave of growth, and get your chances to advance your career.
How do you handle such situations? I’ve been there, I’ve done that, I have failed some times and I can share with your my learnings so far.
Communicate your Expectations
Why did you join this company? How do you expect to have an impact? What learnings do you have to apply early on? Thankfully you will join a company with an experienced product guy; if not, you have to work it early on.
Build and present your handbook and way of working before joining. What I did right was to present my way of working (back in 2017) during the interview process, where I presented how I expect to run the product, and what I can bring in. One Greek startup I was interviewed to join dropped me because the CTO didn’t like a customer-focused approach, he considered the company tech/IP-driven; it was OK, at least we agreed there is no fit. Orfium bought in my plan, and I am still here growing our team.
Gain Trust with quick wins
Go for some quick wins that will gain trust. Don’t communicate your view about the product when you onboard, you must understand the problem that the company tries to solve and its customers first. So, initially, you should communicate more about processes, how the team should work, what frameworks you want to apply, and how you will align with thems, and when you are ready you can talk about an update on the Product Vision. Topics you can find useful to bring up: Agile processes, OKRs, Design Sprints, Documentation of the business, Customer focus Group, Agile Tools, UX tools, Lean Analytics, validating with mockups. You should avoid overhyped terms like Lean Startup, A/B Testing, Product-Led companies, Growth Hack, etc.
Timing is important. If you are not an experienced and well-proven product guy, wait for the proper moment to communicate your Product vision, which typically is when a problem emerges and gets the attention of the organization, or when you have some proven learnings to share with the company.
Onboard with workshops
Don’t expect to find documentation about how the business and the product work, as things change fast, it is possible that no one has documented it. Start with a Design-Sprint-like workshop, to understand what problems the company tries to solve, and to find out how the co-founders understand the customer flow, which is their vision. Do similar workshops with the core engineers that have built the products. At the end of the process, present your findings to get feedback. Then document it for everyone that is going to join after you.
Manage their Expectations frequently
You should discuss frequently what they expect from you, as a startup changes a lot in the early stages. Do they want to run the communication with the clients? Do they want you to change the processes? Do they expect you to run some marketing activities? Do you have to set up the hiring process? In an early-stage startup, you may have to do a bit of everything.
Agree on their expectations, and re-align frequently with them. Communicate what you need to do and if they believe that what you do adds value to their company. Run frequent alignment meetings with them, as the startup environment changes instantly. Only through discussion, you will get the required alignment. Forget about the job descriptions, if you need to share why you were hired at a startup, you have lost the game.
Don’t forget, that early hires should be generalists, and growth hires should be specialists. This is what the entrepreneurs need. So, if you stick on your job description, you are not a fit for a startup.
Show empathy for the co-Founders
Don’t forget that this is their kid, their own company, and they may be emotionally attached. Also, it is quite common that they know (or they think they know) more things about the Business than you; If it is not a fancy, social media idea, they have either worked in the industry or found the problem before. They have already invested time and money, so they are vested with their idea.
Don’t forget, you are a PM. You need to understand the customers and their problems. So why don’t you start with the co-founders, one of the most important stakeholders?
Ride or leave
No matter what, until you have proven yourself or go into a growth stage where the size of the company has made the co-founders irrelevant, you have to find a way to live with these people. Be humane in your communication. If you can’t stand it or they are toxic and stubborn, just leave, it will be better for everyone.