Startup Hiring

I’ve been helping a few startups with hiring, have hired large teams and have been a candidate on the other side. Labor is getting more and more competitive and the best candidates have lots of options so it’s important to have a good process.

To hire the best people you need to see a lot of good people (top of funnel), select the best and win them over the other options they may have.

Here is how I recommend you run your interview process regardless of the role:

  • Leverage networks: The best way to get quality candidates is to leverage your network of investors, advisors and existing employees. Good brands (team/investors), good PR and good written content can also attract candidates.
  • Screen: Arrange a screening call with someone on your team who is directly responsible for running the recruiting process. This could be the hiring manager or a recruiter/HR lead depending on the size of your company. If you’re going to scale quickly, then someone who can lead recruiting and HR is a very good investment and takes pressure off the operators. Skip this step if the candidate comes from a trusted source or you need to move fast.
  • Clarity: Once candidates pass the initial screen (skills, fit) then provide clarity on the recruiting process. What skills are you testing for? Who will the candidate meet on the team? I suggest doing this via a templated message with a bit of character. It displays organization, transparency and builds trust.
  • Skills: Decide what skills are important for the role and explicitly agree (in writing) on them as a team . Each interviewer should know what skills they are assessing and multiple interviewers should assess the same skill (to find disagreements). Look for candidates that have at least one “A” skill. “ABC” candidates are better than “BBB” candidates because it’s often easier to build complementary teams than move someone from a B to an A. You should bias towards candidates with a “high ceiling” over relevant experience especially if you’re doing something new – experience becomes outdated faster than you think.
  • Questions: Pick questions that test for the explicit skills you are looking for and ask the same set of questions to each candidate (reduces systematic bias, and helps calibrate). Don’t be afraid to ask challenging questions. The best candidates will enjoy this process and it will help with closing if candidates feel they will learn from and enjoy working with their colleagues.
  • References: Use references (backchannel or formal) as a confirmatory signal. Ask more open ended questions (gauge depth of relationship, strengths, areas for development) but also understand the candidate’s percentile relative to others in a similar role and if the referencer would work with the candidate again.
  • Offer: You have 5 levers to use when making an offer: title, salary, equity, responsibility, and one-off payments (e.g. signing bonus or relocation). Ask candidates what they value and why before making a specific offer, as it’s another opportunity to build trust and tailor the offer for the candidate. Title is a cheap lever unless you are recruiting for a “head of” position, as it’s harder to hire above this person. I prefer candidates who pick equity and responsibility over anything else as it aligns long term incentives but also understand that everyone’s circumstance is different.
  • Winning: When a candidate has multiple offers winning can be challenging. If you have a organized, transparent process with smart, kind interviewers it’s a great way to build a trusting two-way relationship even before the candidate joins your company. You should leverage your network of advisors and investors to close candidates, but this is not a replacement for running a really great recruiting process.

This was designed to be a general recruiting post, but read this post for more detail on hiring product managers, if you’re interested.

Hiring Product Managers at Scale

In this post, I summarize a process that I recommend for hiring product managers at a midsize or growth company, adapted for a distributed hiring environment (most applicable to a company that will hire multiple product managers).

I’ve hired and trained over 40 product managers over the course of my career, and this draws on my experience as a product hiring manager and team lead.

Internal buy in and scope of role

When hiring product managers (PMs) at a mid size company the most important thing is to have internal support from the executives and the design and engineering partners. There should be strong alignment to hire PMs to help build better products and to bring in more structure to the product development process.

I prefer a matrix structure (although has tradeoffs) where PMs ‘own’ each of these areas in partnership with a design and engineering lead (with around 5-10 engineers per PM, depending on the project). I also suggest that engineers and designers report into their own functional leads and PMs direct the scope and priorities of the projects.

Hiring process

It’s essential to have a clear hiring process and system both for the sake of your internal team and for the candidates. Most companies are incredibly disorganized about hiring, but a little bit of work can save a lot of time in the future, especially when hiring many folks for the same role.

Internal Team 

  • Recruiter: There should be a consistent point of contact for the candidate during their application process – ideally a recruiter. The recruiter communicates with the candidate, lays out the hiring process clearly, and moves them through the process. They act as a liaison between the hiring manager(s) and the candidate. They often do the initial resume screens and have an essential input into hiring because they get to know the candidate so well. 
  • Hiring Manager: The hiring manager is the person that is hiring for the role. They are the person who ultimately makes the decision to recommend the candidate as a ‘hire’ or ’no-hire’. This is typically a senior product leader.
  • Interviewers: Each interviewer should have a clear set of criteria that they use to evaluate the candidate. The interviewers should be excellent at the functional areas that they are evaluating candidates and hold the quality standard for the organization. The best people should be involved in late-stage interviews and this should be a core part of their job description.

Hiring Process

  • Resume screen: Internal and external candidates should submit a Resume / LinkedIn profile which should be screened upfront (recruiter + hiring manager). Candidates who pass this phase should move to a conversation with the recruiter, followed by the hiring manager.
  • Interviews: Interviews should consist of a standard set of, very well calibrated questions that can be asked by a variety of interviewers representing the different development functions (e.g. design, engineering, product, marketing). A structured hiring guide improves consistency and calibration, and can reduce bias from the hiring process
  • Central Tool/ATS: Interview feedback should be stored in a central place/tool (e.g. Greenhouse or Lever) and each interviewer’s feedback captured clearly (with a hiring recommendation). This allows us to both evaluate interviewers and the candidates – e.g. some interviewers bias towards higher or lower scores.
  • Written Exercise: If you are hiring in a distributed environment, try to find candidates with strong communication skills (particularly written skills) and clarity of thought. All candidates should complete a written exercise as part of their recruitment process which could include:
    • Break down a product you love – what you like, what you don’t like, how you would make it better (1 page)?
    • What is your favorite technological shift and why?
    • Write a ‘product spec’ to address a specific problem that the company has (better if it is a real problem).
  • Trial: If possible, ask the candidate if they would be open to a two-way trial (which is compensated) where they try and solve a real problem and collaborate with an internal team. This is time consuming (20-40hrs for the candidate, 5-10 hours internally) so very few candidates should go through this process if you decide to incorporate trials. You may filter out some good candidates because of the time commitment, but candidates who join are more likely to be successful.
  • References: I think that final candidates should be referenced checked by the hiring manager, especially if there are open questions. Backchannel references are the best (but avoid people at their current company) otherwise, ask the candidate for references. Here are some questions that I like:
    • How do you know the person? (gauge depth of relationship)
    • What are their strengths?
    • What are their areas for development?
    • What percentile would you put them in relative to similar folks in their position?
    • Would you hire them again?
  • Decision: For borderline candidates, the panel of interviewers should have a sync or async discussion – e.g. a private recruiting slack channel for hiring. The hiring manager is ultimately the decision maker. From start to finish, try and keep this process fast (e.g. under one month, and track the throughput).

Candidate experience

Candidates should have a great experience, understand how they are being evaluated and have consistent clear communication through the process.

  • Hiring Criteria: Candidates should understand the criteria by which they are being evaluated and the steps in your hiring process – this should be a templated email or a public blog post that you can send to product candidates.
  • Point of Contact: Candidates should have a clear point of contact (ideally the recruiter), to ask any questions about timelines and next steps.
  • Acceleration: If a candidate performs very well in early interviews or comes in through a trusted referral, they should be bumped up to the top of the queue or potentially skip steps so you don’t lose great people because of slow process.

How to Assess

When hiring, it’s important to be explicit about the skills you are looking for, and get a sense for where candidates are truly exceptional.

Here are the dimensions that I think you should use to assess candidates in the interview process:

  • Analytical Ability: AB Testing, Interpreting metrics, Data-informed decision making.
  • Product Judgment: System design, UX design to solve user / business problems, User Empathy.
  • Leadership: Inspiration, Influence, Team Empathy, Communication.
  • Execution: Prioritization, Project Management, Follow Through.
  • Technical Ability: Earn trust and respect from engineers as partners. Some roles will have a higher technical bar than others.

Each person on the interview team (3-5 people) should be responsible for evaluating the candidate along a subset of the interview criteria to create a balanced view. Ideally interviewers would ask the same questions to each candidate to calibrate their answers. I suggest that each interviewer test at least 2 dimensions of the list.

I suggest looking for candidates with an exceptional ‘A’ level strength, particularly in harder to learn skills like analytical ability and product judgement. I much prefer ABC candidates over BBB candidates because it’s possible to design complementary teams with AAA skills in aggregate.

Candidates should also demonstrate strong domain knowledge, and passion for the product, company and the customer. If they have prepared, it goes a long way (and it’s surprising how many candidates are ill prepared). If a candidate teaches me something new, or helps me challenge my own assumptions, that is wonderful. 


Other resources

Google PM Hiring Criteria

Google still values technical fluency and is a more engineering-led company.

  • Product Design: User experience, Design driven problem solving.
  • Analytical ability: Fluency with numbers, Using data to drive product decisions, dashboard design.
  • Technical ability: Understand technology and fundamental computer science principles.
  • Strategy: Go to market, Competitive analysis.
  • Culture: Googliness, Kindness, Leadership, Empathy.

Facebook PM Hiring Criteria

Facebook values analytics and execution and is a more product-led company.

  • Leadership and Drive: Influence, Self-starting, Motivation, Persistence.
  • Execution: Goals, Metrics, Prioritization. Understand, Identify, Execute.
  • Product Sense: A design exercise to solve a specific user or business problem.
  • Engineering fit: Do engineers want to work with you?

Product Manager Articles

Here are a few articles about product management that I pulled together, in case they are useful.

Hiring your First Product Manager

When you’re running a small startup, you may ask yourself when to hire your first product manager and what you should look for in the candidate. This is a question I get from founders fairly often.

Startup founders in technology companies usually are great at least one of the following things; making stuff and selling stuff. Few individual founders are great at both, but most successful founding teams are excellent at both.

In the early stages of your startup, when you are trying to find product-market fit, you do not need a product manager. As founders (at least one of) you should be the product people at the company – obsess about the product, spend time with customers, drive the product roadmap, etc.

When you have found product/market fit and you are starting to scale, is when you should hire your first product manager. This person can run the day to day product development and allow you (as the founder) to step back and focus on fundraising, product strategy, hiring, and important partnerships. This person should bring you significant leverage. 

Many founders think they need a ‘Head of Product’ first – I don’t think that is right. I would not hire a super experienced product person who expects high compensation, owning the entire product vision and strategy or brings in ‘this is how we do things’ from their background.

Instead, I would look for an early/mid stage in their career, who is a strong executor and is high potential and can grow with the company. This person should be passionate about your product, users and you should be excited about mentoring and working closely with them (as founder/CEO). 

If this person ends up doing a great job at the execution, they can take on more product strategy from you as you build mutual trust and respect. If they are not able to scale in this role, you can bring in more experienced folks to lead the organization. Replacing a product manager is much easier and less expensive than a head of product.