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How to interview for your first product hire

I have been helping few of early stage founders figure out how to get their first product person onboard ,and the general do’s & don’ts of this. Before you read this, I would encourage you if you went through this article, that touches on when to hire your product person? Or should you even. (Mostly the answer is NO!)

Anyway if you are still looking to hire. Here are my top points:

  1. Understand what role to hire for :

Within the product teams itself, there is so much to look into. There is a lot that this function can do. I would say ask what you want. Some questions I typically ask the team or myself are:

Can we hire someone with no product experience? Typically done, when the founder/team knows what needs to be done. Just needs mostly execution. Someone savvy enough to project manage but also eventually get to doing more product related things as they grow in the organization.

Can we hire a junior PM? Someone that understands the fundamentals of PM, has done this for a year or so. Understands the whys clearly when needing to scope. But, probably needs a push in the direction/theme.

Can we hire a senior PM? Has done this for quite a while now( say 4 years/ relevant experience) and knows what to do. Can manage most tasks alone. Does not need to check in & will be someone you see growing onto becoming Director/ VP if they understand what needs to be done from a strategy perspective.

Director/VP or above: Hire for this role, if you can afford this person. Usually brings a lot of clout( therefore helping your hiring funnel), experience and probably expertise in the domain you are building for. However, you have to know that this is a more managerial role - So this person will build up a product team, give a strategy to them but will typically not do day-to-day running of features.

So think very carefully who this person is to you & what your expectations are here. There is no wrong answer here, it is just answering your WHY more clearly.

  1. From your domain expertise or not?

One thing you have to know is - Do you need this person to know your domain really well or not. Are you also just building for masses, or do you need a certain sense of market understanding.

An example of this would be - If you are a fintech consumer facing app, you may need someone that understands B2C space more than fintech. Because your team has enough domain knowledge to cover the spots. A counter to this will be - You are a DTC brand & you know all about your customers but don’t know enough about the ecommerce space. So you need someone that has domain expertise.

Always hire a complimentary person vs someone just like you, so you can cover more depth.

  1. Ok now you know who you want & with what skills. How do you test this?

A lot of people ask, how do they hire if they have no technical/design knowledge. How do they test their PMs on these things. I would say perhaps you either have someone on the team that can cover these skills & ask questions on them or you don’t need this expertise yet. If you are early in the startup I would say you should have the following rounds at least ( add your own flavour to it though)

  • A typical Get to know me round : Ask about previous work, why product, favourite apps, typical understanding of the product space etc.
  • A case study : Lot of people have opinions on if it should be a problem the startup is currently facing, or a random case study to understand the product thinking. I don’t know what is right here. I would give the person a problem we are currently at a high level facing ( not too many real data points) and let them think. My argument here is that - there are absolutely ZERO new solutions, so it will still help evaluate their thinking, plus as a new company - you understand your problems the best vs everything else. So best to keep thinking about things you are facing. If you like their case so much, but the hiring does not happen, it will be a great ethical practice to pay them for their time. I know a lot of founders might not think this is useful, however that goodwill will make hiring & culture much better in the long run.
  • Meet the team round : As your first PM - this person will work with a lot of people - You need to make the team meet them (could be a group interview) and carefully consider what your team is feeling. It will help a lot if you know also what kind of qualities your team expects from the product person as well.
  • HR/Finance/Negotiations : Close on the salary front in this round. Unless you have external stakeholders, mentors, advisors that you would like for this person to meet. I would say as the experience of the person increases, they should meet with more people at the stage , because the cost of this hire will be high too. However, for someone in a junior position - You both know there is room for improvement so you should close & begin working on the product as you can.

That is pretty much all I can think of at this point. Let me know if there is an area you think this post should elaborate more on!

Published 28 Dec 2020

Always looking for learning opportunities in product and life.
Vindhya C on Twitter