How should I grow my product team? When should I hire a product leader? What kinds of people should I look for?
These are 3 of the questions that come up often when CEOs and Founders are looking to build out their product function. So, we spoke to three product leaders in European tech to get their take.
David McGuiness started growing his product career straight out of university and is now the Chief Product Officer (CPO) at Billwerk+ – a subscription management and payment solutions platform based in Germany.
Rhiannon White is the CPO at Clue – a science-backed cycle tracking app. Rhiannon started her career in marketing, making her way up to Director of Marketing at BBC iPlayer before taking the leap into product.
Paul Williams built his entire career in product and tech. He is the Founder of Axis – which finished up last year – and has held numerous Head of Tech and CTO positions. Now, he is the Senior VP Product for PSG Equity.
What does a product team do?
Product, as a function, is little more than a decade old.
It started out around 2010 and, in the last years, has really gained traction. Many European tech startups and scaleups are now establishing or expanding product teams as a core pillar of their business.
So, what does Product actually do?
A product team decides what a company is going to build. Usually working in very close collaboration with tech and engineering teams, who decide how the thing will be built.
Product teams are responsible for understanding customer needs, and coming up with products and features that solve their pain-points. Then, working with sales and marketing to bring those products to market.
What about product leadership?
Depending on the size and stage of the company, the product team could be led by a CPO, VP Product, or Head of Product.
In the earlier stages, the founder is usually the product leader, and it’s a position they often hold onto for a while. But, as the company grows, there comes a point when they need to pass the torch.
“There’s no hard and fast rule”, says David McGuiness, CPO at Billwerk+, “but product leadership is a very demanding role.”
“As the company scales, the CEO is going to get pulled in a million different directions. Eventually, they’ll need to give the reins to somebody else. A good founder will recognise when the right time is.”
So, what about the other product leaders?
David explained it like this:
“At Head of level, you’re more execution focused. You’re hands on and won’t have a huge number of direct reports – just a small product team.”
“VPs have more input on the strategy and vision. They have a larger team where they’ll also be managing managers.”
“At CPO level, you’re not only reporting to the CEO, but also to the board and shareholders. You find that you’re not very hands-on anymore. It’s 90/10. You’re more focused on devising strategy and defining culture.”
Get more information on the different types and levels of product leaders in this article.
What to look for when hiring product people
David McGuiness: “I don’t really focus on technical skills because it’s assumed every product manager can write good user stories and has an eye for design.”
“I’m looking for people who are curious and empathetic. That might sound corny, but they’re important. I want people in my team who are going to be curious about everything, challenge everything, and look for new ways to do things instead of just waiting to be told what to build.”
“What I really want is a customer-focused product team.”
“Having that curiosity and empathy and being able to say, I can see why that’s a problem or actually that user experience isn’t good enough because it’s going to cause our customers pain is super important.”
“Everything else I can coach. But those two traits are hard to teach. I believe you either have them or you don’t.”
Paul Williams: “The best piece of advice I can give is to hire people who are better at the things you’re not so good at.”
“My very first hire with Axis was a Product Manager. There was more work to do with the engineering, so I focused on engineering and got Product Managers to take the pressure off on that side. Broadly speaking, you want to develop the team in areas where you need the expertise the most, or you’re weakest, or where you know there’s a clear gap.”
“Many founders fall into the trap that the product is their domain and don’t necessarily think about the need for a solid product operation early to help with that decision making process and build those kind of models or senses of value across the organization, but I can’t stress how – even if you own the vision – finding means to execute effectively and hold you to account is invaluable.”
Rhiannon White: “I really highly value product folks who are strong at collaboration and at working with others.”
“When I need to hire for a product role, I consider both options of hiring internally, or bringing in an external expert. It starts with listening to see what the strengths of the existing team are.”
“What’s the mix of seniors, juniors, middle level? Where do we have a gap?”
“For example, sometimes you might have a lot of strong product people who have great product experience. Then you can consider absorbing someone from inside the company, from support or sales or marketing. This person would really know the company’s product and the customer, but would likely be missing domain knowledge of product.”
“On the other side, if what the product team actually needs is more product domain expertise, it’s better to bring in someone from the outside who will then learn the company’s product and customers.”
“It’s too much for someone to learn both product as a domain and the product and users at the same time. They have to learn one or the other.”
“Depending on what the mix needed at that point in time is, that’s how to do it.”
Keeping the product team lean
Following multiple rounds of layoffs in tech this year (2023), many companies are focusing on building efficient lean teams, packed with key talent, rather than hiring in huge numbers.
“Size is a real two-edged sword”, says Rhiannon. “You can really do a lot with scale, but it also takes a lot to do a lot.”
“I’ve been through the painful process of having to downsize teams a few times before. The unfortunate and very difficult truth is, we’ve always been faster afterwards.”
“It’s uncomfortable and I struggle with that, but it’s true that if you have smaller communication overheads, you can move faster. Then you get to a point where it breaks and you need to grow again.”
“I’m mostly a proponent of adding to the headcount once you’re screaming for it, not in anticipation.”
Paul says: “Developing solid product teams early can make a really big difference to your ability to determine and execute on value at a point where you don’t have much cash to burn. The team doesn’t have to be big – just effective.”
“When you don’t have much money, you need to be as confident as you possibly can. That way you’re spending that money in the place that is going deliver the most value for your organization.”
How to balance experience and potential
When hiring, you have to weigh up the candidates in front of you and decide what’s the best fit for your company.
Experience means the person has been there and done that, but are they stuck in their ways? Potential means they’re eager to grow and learn, but maybe don’t have much relevant experience.
We asked Paul how he deals with this:
“At the startup stage, you have to make that assessment all the time, because generally speaking you can’t afford the top talent you’d ideally like, so you have to find ways to project how good a person will be in the future.”
“You need to assess if the person you’re thinking of hiring can pick up and build the skills you need them to have.”
Paul says the first way of doing this is making sure you have a cultural element to your process.
“For startups nowadays, having values and an understanding of cultural growth is commonplace – even at the smallest companies. You need to make sure you’re interviewing to understand whether people fit your culture and have a growth mindset.”
“The second side of it is more task oriented.”
“For product hires, I like to set a relatively simple product management task for somebody I’m interviewing. Even if they’re not coming from a pure product management background, I want to see if they have the right instincts around product.”
“I always try to guide people in the task – it shouldn’t be a trick question or anything like that – but I’m looking at know how you arrived at an idea and how you determined it was valuable. How did you break the challenge down, deliver it, and then prove that it was successful?”
“Even with less experienced candidates, this lets you see their instincts.”
“Are they data driven and value orientated? Do they understand concepts of flow and iteration?”
“If so, then you can reasonably confidently project that they’ve got the right wiring to develop into the role. You are starting from a place where they you know they’ve got the instinct for it, even if they’re lacking in experience.”