Marty Cagan, of the Silicon Valley Product Group, is a guy I really respect. He knows what it takes to be great at Product Management. If you're not subscribing to his blog and reading his stuff, you should.
Marty's most recent post discusses what it takes for a Product Manager to make an impact, especially in a small company. Go read the post, but here are the bullets:
- Deep knowledge of the customer
- Deep knowledge of the business
- Deep knowledge of the industry
- Reference customers
Sounds good. So why is it that, with unemployment in Silicon Valley at the better-than-before-but-still-high 8%, I see so many Product Management jobs going unfilled? You would think that, with such a large pool of available talent to draw from, finding the right Product Managers for these roles would be like shooting fish in a barrel. (Maybe it is; shooting fish in a barrel doesn't sound that easy to me, unless the fish is really big and the barrel's really small.)
The challenge is that developing "deep knowledge" takes time and experience. If I need someone with deep knowledge of the video conferencing business, I'll go see who I know at any of a number of video conferencing companies. Their hard-earned experience will be just the ticket. So finding the right people should be straightforward; getting them to leave their company for yours may be another challenge altogether.
The bigger problem is this. If you're a startup, then by definition you're trying to do something new. You're trying to create a new business, address a new customer segment, disrupt an industry. So the people you want are going to have experience in what for your company is your past--not your present or future. How do I find the right Product Manager in the online collaboration space if I'm still inventing that space?
I'd suggest two approaches. One , from Kenneth Norton, argues for the "hire smart people" approach. More accurately, hire really smart people, preferably smarter than you. Why? Because their job is to figure out the customer, approximate what the business will be, and predict who will be both partners and competitors in the emerging industry. You're not hiring them for what they know. You're hiring them for their ability to know.
The other approach is to take Marty Cagan's direction, and modify it. You need to ask, "what business out there most closely approximates what our business will be?" And ask the same about customer type and industry. If you wanted to build a company around licensing academic course content and distributing it online, who has that kind of knowledge? Are you going to look for ex-Blockbuster people or Netflix people? Or YouTube or Vimeo? The point is, you have to think about what Product Managers in what industries/companies are most likely to have the skills and experience that are going to become relevant for your company.
These approaches may feel hard and risky; that's because they are. But if you can get a good outcome using them, you've put yourself ahead of your competitors. And isn't that where you want to be?