When a technical founder realises they need to hire a product manager

For four years, for better or worse, I looked after Product at Akkroo pretty much single handedly. I did this with assistance from engineers, commercial, marketing, design and customer success teams. This seemed to work relatively well, however in the last few weeks (and after months of research and deliberation) we’ve been joined by our first full time product manager and a change in how that works.

I wanted to share what I’ve learnt about this experience; what brought me to this point and what benefits and challenges have come through this change.

My experiences so far

I ran all the projects as a freelancer then eventually my web design agency for the best part of a decade (where I both coded and designed), so I have plenty of experience in making the gears turn in product and development, usually straddling both technical and aesthetic aspects of the project - so very much responsible for managing the product, though probably never identifying as a formal Product Manager.

My entire approach was self-taught, highly influenced by the cadre of talented individuals I’ve been lucky enough to extract advice from over the years, so I don’t really know how close my experience is to other founders. I’m therefore really curious to understand how others experience maps to mine; maybe I’ve beaten a curious path of my own, or maybe I’ve been walking a well trodden route by accident and was just not very aware of it.

Why I didn’t want a product manager

One of the most well known obstacles for individuals transitioning to a management role is learning to delegate. Over the years I’ve learned to pass on a whole host of duties to other team mates, and I don’t feel I’m too bad at identifying when something should be delegated. Usually it’s a simple calculation; if I gave this to someone else, would the leverage (speed, quality) of the result be better. If yes, delegate.

However, sometimes I find I just don’t have the right person to delegate to. Especially in a small team, where some roles are crisply defined, and others are still a bit of a primordial soup of unrelated tasks that soak into some roughly defined theme. Sometimes I just hit on something that seems like it should be possible to delegate, yet I have no idea to whom, and certainly hiring someone to adopt that singular task seems totally disproportionate.

As a consequence, the greatest challenge I’ve always had is understanding what person should pick up a given task when there isn’t an obvious candidate. This seems a striking weakness to me as it takes lots of effort and research before I feel confident to move (by which time a lot of time may have passed). I hope and assume some other people encounter this feeling of confusion too. As much as I know I should delegate a given task, sometimes I have absolutely no idea what the job role should be of the person who owns it.

For the four years Akkroo has existed, I had no idea what a product manager did. I don’t mean that flippantly. I assumed I was probably doing the role, and that I was doing it well enough, maybe even better than a PM could do because I had all the context of a founder - maybe I was a “super PM”! Members of my team occasionally suggested we might need a PM or a project manager; and after hearing it enough I started to try and identify tasks I thought that hypothetical individual might take over from me.

My response in the early days was this was not a necessary role, or certainly, not quite yet and “we’d know it when we hit it”. I just needed to get more organised. I could see roadmaps and project progress needed to be communicated more clearly, ordered more frequently, my reports in engineering and product design needed more of my time, that kind of thing.

But as time went on, and I stubbornly concluded that I didn’t need assistance, I only came to realise I just wasn’t able to make the progress on achieving these goals despite my best efforts.

Why I wanted a product manager

In the end, I resolved to seek more complete advice on the subject. Towards the end of 2016 I attended Canvas in Birmingham and JAM in London (conferences for product managers) and came away energised, but in the end it was my co-founder Chris who really forced the issue on me by taking me to a bar for a drink with Mark, a senior PM at WorldPay (a friend and customer of ours). He lifted the curtain on a developed product organisation, and that really helped.

Over the next few months I met more PMs for their advice (and explored many more London bars in the process), including Max at Buffer and Tom at InfoPro Digital.

This is what I learnt in those meetings:

  • Product Management is not the same as Project Management; although they overlap, they also have clear differences.
  • Product Management requires a broader range of skills including (of course) a great understanding of product, but project management is purely about the sequencing and cadence of project development. Project management is a skill in itself, but is more readily available in the market, and not valued as highly on it’s own.
  • The best product managers have both execution ability as well as strategic nouse, however...
  • ...it’s very hard and expensive to find truly great product managers.
  • A Product Manager is really the same as a Product Owner, it’s just different nomenclature, however Product Owner may well have some special meaning inside a true scrum organisation.
  • The definition of a product manager is different at every organisation...
  • ...and perhaps hence, a broadly held opinion I encountered is that the best product managers are often "home grown".
  • PMs at larger, better-established organisations than us, usually will closely with other roles we don’t yet have at Akkroo like Technical Architects and Business Analysts. I’d never understood these terms (or perhaps even heard of them) until I started speaking to PMs.

All of this started a deluge of thoughts that made me realise I could extract myself from a bunch of responsibilities I viewed as admin work that by this point was an anchor around my waist. During the research phase, I’d become slower, if not an all out drag on others trying to move their own projects forward. Making product decisions had become something I looked forward to rather than making daily as I much prefer to and had in the past. Too many plates were spinning and I’d resolved in my OKRs to reduce the number of threads we should be pursuing at once.

This was when I had my “road to Damascus” moment and realised I quickly needed to find someone to assist me.

What happened when I hired a product manager

Through some good luck, I was delighted to find someone almost immediately who fitted our ideal PM candidate profile. Khadija has been with us only a few weeks now, and has spent a great deal of her time unpicking and re-weaving what only now is obvious to me as the messy web created by a fast moving early stage startup founder at work.

We have gained a great new perspective in the product team; which in itself is a new concept as we our designer Sandro is finally primarily able focus on product work. Previously we allocated creative across the organisation as a horizontally shared resource, what we fondly used to refer to as “Arts & Crafts” while it existed.

The rest of the team is finally getting the level communication I always owed them, and I feel I can truly focus on the important business of delivering and guiding the product vision, principles and mission - as well as my other responsibilities as a founder.

Evaluating the first few weeks alone, and without being able to view the returns in the coming quarter, I feel we’re now on the right path.

What I think the future holds

This is the early stage of our journey in a business with real product management, and I’m sure there is a whole host of learning ahead of us. I am optimistic that we’ll continue to become more effective as a product organisation as a whole, and in time the structure will grow and change again. However, I feel having made this change even after this short time, the future of product at Akkroo already looks very bright indeed.

If you’re looking to hire a product manager for the first time, I found this article incredibly helpful.