When should a company hire a product manager?

I recently had an interesting conversation with a friend about startups with underperforming products. Interestingly, though, the only reason these examples came up was that we both really liked the companies and were regular users of the product. As became clear from our chat, this seemed to be because what these companies were providing was good enough that we liked the product despite itself.

This led me to a fairly predictable recommendation (never ask a barber if you need a haircut; if all you have is a hammer, etc.): obviously they all needed to hire a product manager! Or possibly get rid of their current product manager and hire a new one.

But my friend pulled me up short on this, asking how I knew that was the right solution. Which is a very good question.

So: how does a company know that it’s the right time to hire a product manager?

And this is not such an easy question to answer, as it turns out. There’s no precise formula (although there are still some helpful rules of thumb), because different companies have different focuses. Some companies are heavily reliant on effective operations, others on an efficient sales machine, still others on nailing their marketing efforts (this is a particularly common model here in Berlin). And no company can do everything, still less any startup: you’ve got to choose carefully where you deploy your (family disks) (master builders)(terrified Arkham citizens) resources.

But there are still some signs that it’s time, regardless of your main company focus. Here’s my list of indications that it’s time to hire a product manager:

  • There are technical problems with your product that just don’t seem to go away. Beat81, I’m looking at you and the totally unreliable scheduling system.
  • A couple of ideas for obviously great new features are widely known through the organisation, yet never seem to be implemented. Sorry to pick on you, Beat81, but I’m looking at you again and the social connections feature – this is such an obvious game-changer. The only reason it doesn’t exist yet is because there’s no PM trying to make it happen.
  • Members of the C-suite are spending a non-trivial amount of time choosing what features should be built next. This one is an insidious one: initially, it is both natural and wise that the CEO and maybe CTO take the main responsibility for the product. At a certain scale, however, this goes from excellent to terrible basically overnight.
  • You sense a growing frustration from the engineering team about the effect of their efforts. They are probably still working just as hard, but you can see in their eyes that they just don’t see the unifying vision anymore.
  • It feels like your product has plateaued – it works fine, and people seem to like it, but all of the initiatives you have on the plan are only small improvements rather than anything huge.

If you recognise any of these in your company, get in touch with a product manager immediately!