Startups and Heads of Product

Startups and Heads of Product

As I've taken the past few months off, I have been having a lot of conversations with startup CEOs about product and product management roles. Some of this has been in the potential discussion of my joining their teams and some of which has been in more general advice.

Over my entire career in startups (going back at least twelve to thirteen years) I have been hearing some variation on the phrase "I'm the founder and it's my product" or perhaps "We don't need a head of product, because I'm the founder."

This is a tough topic. Without doubt, many will point out a counter-example to my arguments below. There is always an exception to any given rule; what I am attempting to describe here is the common or general situation.

For some founders, it is true that they have the experience, vision, and technical expertise. (NB: by "technical" I mean the expertise or skill belonging to the particular expertise of product management, not the more general view that "technical" means able to write software code.) For other founders, however, they have the vision and the business insight, but not the core capabilities, skills, nor interests to manage product development.

There is an industry-wide perception that it is important for a founder to be a great product person. If the founder plays the role a head of product, that would be ideal. However, most founders play the roles of CEO or CTO. The definition of the CTO role can be pretty clear, but many founders who are CEOs play the role of head of product as well.

At one level, it is not surprising, a CEO of small, early-stage startups play many roles. She may do day-to-day marketing, financial management, or stocking the fridge. When you're a small company, this is OK, but as you grow, it is not expected that the CEO continues to do all these roles. She will hire a marketing lead, a CFO, an office manager. Why would she not hire a Chief Product Officer?

Yet, most startup founder CEOs do not hire a head of product. They might hire a General Manager for one thing, or a VP of product to do some of the details, without providing that C-level role. This is a mistake. The best CEOs understand that management is their job. Core management is about team selection, team development, and setting vision. A quality CPO can help a CEO tremendously with setting the vision. Any CPO (certainly any quality C-level executive) can help with enabling the CEO to focus on these three core items.

There is a compulsion and arrogance required of all entrepreneurs, to believe that they can start from zero and build a business. This is dramatically more so for entrepreneurs who think they are building billion dollar businesses. It follows that these entrepreneurs will believe that they must be good to everything and especially at product-related tasks.

It's time to let that go. It's time for CEOs (and their boards and investors) to suggest to CEOs that if they want to be the head of product they should find a new CEO. More likely, the entrepreneur should understand that if they want to be CEO they should bring in a head of product, someone who is a technical expert at product management and who can share in the role of vision and roadmap.

If you were going to ask, yes, I am planning to pursue this path in my next entrepreneurial adventure.

A debt to Marty Cagan at SVPG for his "The VP of Product Role" which crystalizes many related important notes on the head of product role.