Early Product Managers (PMs) don't leave startups. They leave founders.
For a PM to be successful, they need to forge a good relationship with the company founder.
A great Founder-PM fit is when the PM and hos team own 80% of the product, and the founder owns the remaining 20%.
This might sound like an impossible arrangement. But trust me, it’s not. With a bit of work, and a lot of respect and understanding, it can happen.
In this post we’ll explore some ways to nail the PM-founder fit, with some practical tips for both founders and for PMs.
Why Do So Many First PMs Leave?
When we talk about the “first PM”, we mean exactly that: The first product managers hired at a company. It’s a very special job. PM’s exist to bring order to chaos. Their job is to make a founder’s vision a reality.
Unfortunately, too many of these early PMs find themselves forced to build only the specific things that the founder wants. And these things aren’t always the most important priorities for the company’s future.
The main reason first PMs leave startups is because of a bad fit. But this is rarely a bad fit with the rest of the organisation. It’s almost always a bad fit with the founder.
A Company’s First PM Can Be a Sacrificial Lamb
A company’s first PM will be the first person to take sole responsibility for the product. And this is never an easy role.
Why? Because a company founder has a special relationship with their product. They've spent a lot of time developing it, and they likely have an emotional attachment with it.
On top of this, founders usually feel like they understand their users like no-one else. They've spent months collecting user feedback, after all. And it can be hard to accept that anyone else has so much insight.
Founders also have strong visions. It's such visions that brought them to where they are today, and they're pushing hard to make this vision happen. Of course they'll feel reluctant to delegate this to someone who might feel differently.
For all of these reasons, it's only natural that founders can be worried about delegating their product management to someone else. And this is why a company's first PM almost always struggles - and why they so often leave.
Founders – Something Has to Give
If you’ve founded a startup, then your gut instinct for what feels “right” has already got you so far. So too has your contrarian vision.
But now things need to change.
As a startup founder, you’ll be far too busy to handle all responsibilities for your product. You’ll have so much on your plate. If you don’t let go, your startup will flounder.
2/ "Your role as a CEO is less about being the chief everything officer (...) and becomes about giving direction": pic.twitter.com/svgMhk3BPE— Enzo Avigo (@0zne) September 8, 2023
So it’s time to let go.
A Great PM-Founder Relationship is Built on Respect
Respect is earned. And for PMs and founders, it can come from seeing the other person doing a great job.
To get to this position of mutual respect, there are five things PMs need to focus on doing well, and five things founders must focus on doing well.
5 Things PMs Need To Do Well To Earn Their Founder’s Respect
- Talk to customers. The founder feels like they understand your product’s users better than anyone. Talk to customers and you too can develop an understanding as deep as your founder’s.
- Bring up customer feedback. Share the good and the bad, to ensure that everybody’s on the same page, and so as to make it clear that you’re working to understand the product.
- Be honest about what customers want. Don’t embellish the good feedback, and don’t sugarcoat the bad.
- Structure and share user’s problems. This way, you’ll know exactly what to focus on so as to improve the product in a way that meets user needs.
- Enable horizontal connections. Between engineering, design, marketing, and so on. This way, you can ensure the founder’s vision, and your plans for improvement, can get shared across the entire organisation. Working towards open and trusting collaboration will help drive the mutual outcomes that everyone wants.
5 Things Founders Need To Do Well To Earn Their PM’s Respect
- Lay down a clear vision. Everyone needs to know what they’re working towards, and why.
- Set priorities. This way, your various teams will know where exactly to focus their energies.
- Set the pace. Establish ambitious yet realistic timeframes for each of your goals.
- Raise the quality bar. Work towards a culture of continuous improvement across your organisation. Ensure that velocity never comes at the expense of quality, and vice versa.
- Enable vertical connections. Between the founders, the management, and the teams. Aim for clear communication, shared values, and buy-in across your whole organisation.
For both founders and PMs, these should be the priorities. Anything beyond this is less important. But these things are non-negotiable if you want to nail the PM-founder fit.
A Great PM-Founder Fit Relies On a Good Culture Fit
If the first PM and the founder think too differently, or if their personalities or values clash, then forget it. That relationship just isn’t going to happen.
So it’s important to establish that you’re both on the same page as early as possible – ideally, during the recruitment process. You need to ask some hard questions upfront.
During the interviews:
- First PM – You need to ask, “Are you ready to let go?” Or to put it another way, “will you trust me enough with your product to allow me to do my job?”
- Founder – You need to ask, “Can you challenge my vision while still respecting it?” This is a way of asking whether the PM will support you in achieving your goals, while using their unique insights as a PM to guide your organisation down the right path.
In the early days of a startup, your PM should be more of a partner than an employee. You need someone who’ll have your back, but not someone who’ll be so totally subordinate to you that they’ll need constant supervision. So during recruitment, look for someone experienced and confident enough to take ownership of the product while challenging you constructively and respectfully.
A Good PM-Founder Fit is Based on Mutual Understanding
Founders and PMs need to respect each other. But they also need to develop a mutual understanding:
- Founders must understand the risk a PM takes in joining a new venture. They must respect that risk, and ensure the PM has everything they need to do the best possible job. This involves giving them full ownership of the users’ problems.
- PMs must understand where the founders are coming from. It’s not easy letting go of something you’ve worked so hard to develop. Nor is it easy to carry the weight of a startup on your shoulders!
Starting from this position of mutual understanding can help PMs and founders reach a position of mutual respect. And as we’ve seen, respect is crucial to nailing the PM-founder fit.
Conclusions – How to Nail the PM-Founder Fit
- Get ready to let go. Your gut instinct, and your deep understanding of your product and your users, got to where you are today. But if you want to get any further, you’re going to need somebody on your side.
- Delegate product responsibilities little by little. This way, it won’t be so much of a scary shock, and you can gradually get used to letting go.
- Understand that your product can work without the need for you to constantly look after it.
- Understand where the founders are coming from – how hard they worked to get to where they are today, and how stressful it can be to keep all those plates spinning.
- Develop a vision for the product you’re managing, but ensure the founders share your vision.
- Prove your value. Start small, then work hard to build up trust and respect.
A good PM-founder fit is critical to establishing a functional and profitable startup. Getting there takes hard work and a lot of skill, sure. But it also relies on showing and earning respect and trust. And like all good relationships, it takes commitment. Both the PM and founder need to want to make it happen, so they can actively work towards achieving the company’s goals, together.