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Aditya Agrawal | May 6, 2021

Scaling Product Management Beyond the Founders

“In our early days, I wouldn’t announce my work travel plans in advance. I would just disappear. This way, I was able to uncover areas where I was in the critical path and holding up important decisions as a founder. The first time I saw release schedules put at risk for want of timely decisions on otherwise small product design tradeoffs, I knew we needed to bring in dedicated product management. — Bill Magnuson, Co-founder and CEO of Braze

What is a product manager supposed to do? When should fast scaling startups make their first product manager hire? These were some of the compelling yet elusive questions explored in the recent ICONIQ Ideas: Growth event “Scaling Product Management Beyond the Founders” moderated by ICONIQ Growth Partner and former-Dropbox CTO Aditya Agarwal. Aditya was joined by an all-star panel that included Manik Gupta (former chief product officer at Uber), Miki Kuusi (co-founder and CEO of Wolt), Bill Magnuson (co-founder and CEO of Braze), and Dean Sysman (co-founder and CEO of Axonius).

According to Dean from Axonius, the choice of the first product manager hire in a company may depend on the company strategy. If the company strategy is to “run,” the company’s direction is already decided and the question becomes how fast it can go. This dynamic requires a product manager who can execute with speed. However, if the company strategy is to “navigate,” the direction of the company remains undecided and the question becomes what step a company should take next. This is a more open-ended terrain that requires a product manager who can work with uncertainty.

Manik cautioned against the first product hire having the chief product officer title since that sets expectations for a C-level role at the very outset. Instead, he recommended that the first product hire be given titles such as head of product or VP of product, leaving a company with some wiggle room for the future. For example, if a company grows 10x very quickly, it might want to hire someone more experienced as the first chief product officer.

Several of the panelists noted that there could be some tension between the first product hire and the founders since letting go of the product can be difficult for some founders. Miki said that it is critical for founders to maintain the right distance from the product management function in the company’s early days: you don’t want the CEO to feel left out, but you also don’t want them involved in making the day-to-day decisions about the product.

Manik said that he would prioritize a dynamic between the founder and the product manager where they would sit down weekly for the first three to six months and rather than regular 1:1s, they would hold “retro” meetings to discuss what went well and what could have gone better with regard to the product development. Through these retros, the founder and the product hire could develop a mutual understanding of where the boundaries stand between the two job functions. Bill underscored the importance of developing an onboarding plan where the PM hire is given the opportunity to build trust with the founders over the first few weeks. Once this trust has been established, the PM can start expressing their vision with independence.

All the panelists noted that the product function should be a partially open-sourced function, especially as the company scales. Miki noted, for example, that Wolt conducted half-year updates on product roadmaps and sought inputs from the entire organization on what to prioritize. During our conversation, Manik double-clicked on the importance of doing just that: At Uber, he explained, people on the ground like support staff and drivers often had strong opinions and wanted to have a tunnel for their voices to reach the product managers.

Ultimately, the role of a product manager is truly critical to the continued success of a startup. As Dean from Axonius put it: If customers knew exactly what they wanted, there would be no need for startups. It is product managers who must generate products that customers do not even know they want.