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You've been hired as the first Product Manager in a start-up, these are the 5 things to do

What does the first Product Manager do in an early stage startup? In this article I'll explain how to organize the first months of work if you join a startup where the product department doesn't yet exist and you are the first Product Manager.
Giuseppe Costanza

VP of Product, Amitree

What does the first Product Manager do in an early stage startup? In this article I'll explain how to organize the first months of work if you join a startup where the product department doesn't yet exist and you are the first Product Manager.

As the first Product Manager, you'll take under your wing responsibilities that until the day before were handled by the CEO or one of the founders. In the following paragraphs I describe the five priorities you'll need to focus on to bring value from day one. Let's start with how to define and validate the Product Vision and then define a Product Strategy and finally measure progress by defining the North Star metric and secondary metrics.

The context

You've been hired as the first Product Manager in a fast-growing startup, congratulations! This is a classic situation that Product Managers find themselves in at tech startups.

Typically, the product has been defined by the CEO and founders without following a structured process and without adequate documentation. What can you do to take the reins of the product while ensuring continuity with what has worked well so far?

My advice is to bring clarity and some structure without overhauling existing plans. If the team has reached the point of being able to hire a Product Manager, it means they've done a good job so far, allowing the company to grow.

Focus on analyzing what works well and what can be improved.

Try to answer the following questions:

  • How does the company work?
  • What are the main communication and decision flows?
  • Who are the main stakeholders?
  • What is the strategy?

Priority #1 - Start from product objectives

To define a product strategy, it will be necessary for the CEO and team to align on the company's core values.

Defining ambitious product objectives shared by the team will increase motivation and stakeholder engagement, ensuring significant results are achieved. I advise you to spend a lot of time with the CEO and founders. Ask the right questions to understand what has already been decided and planned and what has not.

  • What are the business goals at 12, 24 and 36 months?
  • What is the business model?
  • What are the growth targets?

If management can't answer these questions, don't panic! It's an opportunity for you to offer your help in defining high-level alignment and, in doing so, thoroughly understand how the business operates. Your goal at this stage is not to make decisions but to bring order to management's ideas. To take a structured approach you could use tools like the Business Model Canvas

When the CEO can clearly answer all your questions, the next step is to ensure this information is well shared and clear to the whole company. Using a framework like OKR can help formalize business objectives and transform them into concrete actions for all team members. 

Priority #2 - The Product Vision

The Product Vision is a concise description of the fundamental product characteristics and how they support the business strategy.

Here is a template you can use to define a clear, well-structured product vision:

For [customer]

who has [problem to be solved]

[product/service name]is a [product category]

that [main benefits, why use/buy it]

Unlike [main competitors]our product [key differences].

To clarify, here is an example of how I structured the product vision for a platform I worked on recently:

For junior web developers

who have the problem of finding their first full-time job

our productis a minimalist recruiting platform

that allows submitting an application in a few minutes with a playful approach.

Unlike LinkedIn or other recruiting platforms

our platform is not based on sharing your resume but demonstrating the candidate's actual skills.

Priority #3 - Validate the Product Vision

Now it's time to challenge the the Product Vision and ensure there is a real match between the target's needs and what you are offering. The hard part is maintaining a good balance between confidence in your product and awareness that you can improve the product-market fit, i.e. offer a product that perfectly solves a problem for its target. Check what research was conducted before your arrival and propose others to help further understand and refine the value proposition.

Here are some tools you can use to validate the target and value proposition:

  • Competitor analysis
  • Secondary research (Desk research)
  • Statistical survey
  • Qualitative research (UX research)
  • Definition of “Personas”
  • Identification of “job to be done” and analysis of main competing solutions.

Priority #4 - Product strategy

With an understanding of product objectives, Product Vision and Value Proposition you can define a product strategy and a roadmap.

You may be wondering: how can you combine an Agile process, where everything changes quickly, with a medium-term roadmap?!

In an Agile development context, the roadmap defines a strategic vision for the medium-long term direction while the backlog provides guidance on features to develop in the short term.

The roadmap should provide a clear 12-18 month plan to guide prioritization. An agile roadmap does not remain fixed over time but is updated based on changes in the scenario. Agile teaches us to be reactive and to test and validate quickly, but this shouldn't become an excuse for not giving ourselves long-term goals.

Everyone in the company should know where we want to be in 18 months, it is essential to allow anyone to make autonomous decisions. Plans are made to be changed and sometimes even upended. What matters is that the change is always planned and shared internally. Tools like OKRs are useful for this but also serve as a reminder that if we can't maintain priorities defined for at least 3 months, something is wrong.

Priority #5 - Identifying key metrics

Identifying and measuring key metrics will allow you to validate alignment between Vision, Strategy and Results.

Defining metrics

The first metric to identify is the North Star, the key product success metric. The North Star must reflect the value your service/product brings to users and business profit goals. Choose a North Star metric that is easy for everyone in the company to understand and that allows measuring progress towards business goals. Ideally, each product release should drive increases in your North Star.

In the recruitment platform example above, the North Star is:

Number of developers finding jobs through the platform each month.

Once the North Star is defined, you can define secondary and process metrics that will guide day-to-day decisions. In our example:

number of unique and returning visitors,

applications submitted,

number of candidates contacted by companies per month.

From theory to practice

In this brief article I provided to you a framework for bringing structure to the chaotic, creative context typical of many successful early stage startups.

I believe bringing alignment and a bit of structure to the team is the first task of a good Product Manager. This is in fact the first step to developing a product capable of delivering value to its customers.

I wish the 5 steps outlined could be implemented and completed in the given order, but reality is different! Sometimes you'll find yourself having to define metrics or roadmap before reaching consensus on Product Vision and Value Proposition. You'll often work in a context of uncertainty and sudden changes.

Don't be daunted by the complexity, that's what makes the product manager's job absolutely interesting!

Note: This is a translation of an article I wrote in Italian for Product Heroes. You find the Italian version on https://www.productheroes.it/product-manager-startup/ 

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