By Andy Budd, Designer and Expert in Residence at Seedcamp
So far in this series we’ve discussed why a good designer should be one of your first hires, and how to go about sourcing potential candidates. In this article we’re going to be looking at how to judge which applicants might be a good fit. The most logical place to start is with the application itself.
What Does Their CV Say About Them?
A typical application includes a cover letter explaining why the applicant thinks they’re suitable for the role, a link to a portfolio outlining their work, and some sort of CV. When hiring designers, the portfolio tends to be the main point of focus, followed by the cover letter. CVs tend to be used as a tool to whittle down a large number of candidates into a more manageable pool. As such most hiring managers tend to give them a cursory glance at best, in order to spot trends and identify red flags. However there are some things I look out for.
When it comes to designers CVs I’m perfectly happy with something minimal and text based. However, if the applicant has decided to “design” their CV, I’m looking for a clean layout with good information hierarchy and a readable typeface. There have been a few occasions where a CV was so well designed that it immediately went on the top of the “Interested” pile, but that’s kind of rare. It’s more common to come across badly designed CVs that immediately put the candidate at a disadvantage.
Assessing Their Career Background
In terms of content I’m generally looking for a few different things. First and foremost I’m looking for their job history to tell a story of how they got to where they currently are, and how the role we’re advertising makes a logical next step. If people have jumped around a little, that’s fine. They just need to put a bit more work into their cover letter explaining the journey, their skills and how this role fits in. I also don’t mind if the role they’re applying for is a bit of a stretch as I’m usually hiring for potential rather than experience. This is especially true if their portfolio looks good. However you can usually tell from their career journey if the role is going to be too big a leap.
For your first design hire this may be as simple as noting that the designer has always worked as part of a larger team, with an already well established design system, on a fairly constrained part of the product. While it’s tempting to hire a designer with experience working for a much larger brand, you may find that they struggle with the slightly scrappy nature of early stage work. So it’s a good idea to see whether they have the pragmatism and flexibility required to take a product from zero to one, or whether they’d be a better hire a little later down the line once things are more established.
As well as the ability and experience to develop new products from scratch, your founding designer will probably find themselves leading a team before too long. As such you’re probably looking for somebody with leadership potential, so is there anything in their career journey that talks about leading projects, mentoring peers or being involved in the recruitment process. Not vital, but all helpful indicators.
Skills and Capabilities
It’s really common for designers to include a list of skills they claim to have on their CVs. This will usually be a mix of software tools (Figma, Sketch etc) along with a list of activities (usability testing, prototyping, customer journey mapping etc). I say “claim”, as it’s really easy—and annoyingly common—to create a list of things you’re aware of based on reading a few Medium posts, but that you’ve never actually done yourself. As such, when I’m talking to the candidate and reviewing their portfolio, I’m often looking for evidence that they’ve actually done the things they claim to be able to do. For instance it’s super easy to claim you’ve done “usability testing” having sat in on a study somebody else organized. However, can you demonstrate that you’ve written a screener, done candidate recruitment, created a script, moderated a test, and written up your findings? Have you done this once or multiple times? Have you done it in a cafe or meeting room? How about in somebody’s home, in a lab setting or online?
Sometimes these lists will include a scale, claiming that they’re an 8 out of 10 when it comes to “prototyping”. I’m not a huge fan of these ratings as the best people tend to know what they don’t know and under score themselves, while less experienced practitioners turn everything up to eleven. So if I do see ratings here, I’ll want to dig into these in the interview stage. What does 8 out of 10 really mean? Why have you given yourself an 8 rather than a 6 or 7? What would you need to learn in order to push it to a 9 or a 10?
On the tools front, I generally don’t mind what tools they’ve used, as this is generally set by the companies they’ve worked for. However I do like to see a range of tools being used, as this tells me they’re comfortable exploring new tool sets and aren’t using something as a crutch. Tools change regularly and I’m looking for designers rather than Figma operators.
The Cover Letter
I think a good cover letter can really pique a hiring manager’s interest. Especially if it tells a story. So I’m generally looking to see whether the candidate has read the job spec, understands what we’re looking for, and has been able to explain why their particular set of skills and interests fit the role. I’m also looking for somebody who has done their research and seems to care about the role, rather than sending off a pro-forma application full of [Insert company name here] fields.
I also think personality is important, especially in small teams. So I’m looking for somebody me and the rest of the team will enjoy working alongside, and will add to the culture of the company. As such I’m often actively looking for people with different backgrounds and life experiences than my own.
That all being said, a good portfolio can cover a multitude of sins, so this is where I focus the bulk of my time.
What to Look for in a Good Portfolio
A lot of portfolios—especially from less experienced designers or those working on smaller projects—rely heavily on finished visuals. While these can give you a good sense of the designer’s visual range and craft skills, they often leave me wanting more.
I generally prefer case study based portfolios instead. A good case study will explain what the featured project was trying to accomplish, the process and steps the team took, what the designers role was on the project, some of the challenges they faced along the way, and what the final outcome was. Generally a good case study will include examples of the activities they undertook along the way. For a simple case study this may be limited to a few early “wireframe” sketches, some interface explorations and some low or high fidelity prototypes. For more involved projects this could also include photos of the candidate leading workshops, doing field research or facilitating a usability sesion. It could also include examples of other documents like user journey maps and process flows, user personas and jobs to be done schematics, or anything else they mention in their CV.
By reviewing these case studies, you can get a much better idea of their breadth of experience, the way they approach projects, and how they go about problem solving. Do they have a super limited tool set, or a rich and diverse set of tools they can call upon when necessary? Do they focus on the first solution they come up with, or do they spend time exploring alternatives? Maybe they spend too much time exploring alternatives and end up getting bogged down in the details? Do they actively consider user needs and think through the challenges users are likely to encounter. What about business needs, or technical needs? Do they actively collaborate across disciplines or do they feel more comfortable working in a bubble?
When it comes time to interview candidates, I’ve already made notes on what I perceive to be their various strengths and weaknesses. So I use the interview process as an opportunity for the candidates to fill in some of the gaps. For instance, maybe they claimed on their CV that they were experts at user research, but this was only touched upon in their portfolios. I’ll ask a bunch of questions to understand the depth of their learning. What sort of research activities have they done before, and where do the limits of their experience lie? What tools do they like and dislike using? Are they focussed on formative or summative research? Do they favour qual or quant? If they wanted to understand what features to prioritise next, how would they go about answering that question?
In terms of interview structure, I generally keep things fairly simple. I’ll usually start by giving them an introduction to the company, the role, and what we’re looking for, and then ask them to tell me a little about themselves and their journey. I find people are generally comfortable talking about their work, so this is usually a good time to ask them to walk you through a project or two. Once that’s done we’ll start to talk a little more about their past experience, and how that fits with the role. This is where I’ll usually ask more behavioral questions to understand how they approach their work. Things like “Can you tell me about a time when you missed an important deadline?” or “Can you tell me about a time where you had to convince a stakeholder to do something they disagreed with?” and ask them to explain what happened.
The questions and scenarios you pick will be heavily tailored to your culture and past experiences, so it’s important to know exactly what sort of designer you’re looking for. Are you a company that values speed over quality or vice versa. Are you looking for an independent thinker, or somebody who will ship the CEOs vision? If you are looking for independent thinkers, how do you want to see that manifest?
Be brutally honest here. There’s no point positioning your company as something it’s not in order to hire a great sounding candidate. I know too many start-ups who painted a vision for where the company wanted to be in two years time rather than where it currently was. They hired super senior designers, but gave them too little space and flexibility to execute. As a result, they found themselves having to rehire 6 months later, with a much longer list of what to look for in a candidate and what to avoid.
It’s worth remembering that a good interview is a two way conversation, so I like to see candidates who show an interest in the company and ask insightful questions. After all, they’re judging you as much as you’re judging them. I generally keep my interviews fairly loose and don’t mind if we depart from the core structure if it’s proving useful. The key is to make sure that you give the candidate plenty of options to address any of the gaps, outstanding questions or concerns you may have about them, in order to ensure there is a good fit on both sides.
Dodging the Design Task Bullit
While I’m seeing an increasing number of job ads specify a design task, this practice has largely fallen out of favour amongst the design community. For a start, it requires a significant amount of effort from the part of the applicant. Much more so than hiring for other roles. Often design tasks ask the applicant to solve a real problem that the start-up has. However without the right level of background knowledge, the solution is usually going to be fairly ill-informed. As such, you run the risk of running a beauty contest, where you’re drawn to the solution you personally like, rather than the best solution. This can also feel like designers are asked to do free consultancy. In fact I’ve heard plenty of stories of designers not getting jobs, only to find the thing they designed in the interview go live a few weeks later.
Finally, design tasks are often seen to be discriminatory, as they generally favour people with more free time over those with family commitments, health issues or challenging work schedules. Because of this, many of the better designers out there will avoid applying for any job that asks for a design task out of principle. As such I’d currently advise against using take home design tasks. If you’re adamant about doing some sort of activity, consider doing a collaborative whiteboard exercise or asking them to present a simple product review instead. Ideally something that will take minimal prep.
One last spot of advice around timing. A lot of companies will have their job post live for several months, and interview people in an ad hoc manner. While this may work for seasoned hiring managers, if you’ve never interviewed designers before it’s useful to be able to compare different applicants against each other. As such I’d suggest interviewing people in tranches. So maybe running two or three interviews a day over a couple of days, and then come back together in order to compare and contrast. This is much better than interviewing one person every two weeks, only to find that the very first person you interviewed was the strongest candidate. You just hadn’t realised it yet.
It’s Tough out There
As you’ve seen through this series of articles hiring a good designer early on can really help shape the direction of your company and help you reach product-market fit faster. However it’s a sellers market at the moment, and I’m seeing lots of early stage start-ups struggle to find the necessary level of talent. With roles taking 6 months or more to fill, a lack of design talent can really hinder progress. With speed of execution being a major contributing factor in start-up success, my advice would be to start hiring as soon as possible—and probably sooner than you think.
This is a question a lot of us have been asking ourselves over the last 18 months. If we weren’t familiar with the terms async, hybrid and remote before, we most certainly are now. When the Covid-19 pandemic forced most people to rethink ways of working and how best to collaborate online and, in many cases, with people we’d never met in person before, with it came a slew of new tools and products promising to ease the transition into remote work. At this point, colleagues Haroun Hickman and Joel Kang found themselves in meeting after meeting. Their complementary skill sets meant that one would require the other for constant, but never sufficient, support.
Like most great ideas, Dala was born out of a genuine need and pain point experienced by Haroun and Joel. Their conversations around how difficult it was to constantly stay up to date with all the micro details and changes that happen on a daily basis quickly turned into a more philosophical question: why do we need meetings at all? People are in meetings typically to gain and share context; context that is missing because knowledge is fragmented, people are distributed, and communication is hard. This conversation is something many companies have been grappling and trying to solve for including the likes of fellow portfolio company, tl;dv.
As we experience a shift in market dynamics with greater power in the hands of employees who are choosing to work in organisations that best align with their own mission and whose ways of working better suit the lifestyles people want to lead, we believe there’s a huge opportunity in Dala. Haroun and Joel are setting out to improve people’s overall quality of work, enable stronger conviction in their company’s mission, and increase overall happiness.
We are delighted to lead Dala’s $1.4M pre-seed round alongside fellow members of the Seedcamp Nation including Hopin CEO, Johnny Boufarhat. On the investment our Partner, Tom Wilson, comments:
“Organisations are fantastic at creating meaningful and rich information for internal purposes. However, finding the right piece of such information at the right time is notoriously challenging. Dala solves this problem with their intelligent search tool. It allows companies to continue to use best in class solutions to create content (i.e. G Suite, Notion etc.) and communicate (i.e. Slack etc.) whilst Dala connects the dots between this information to save companies time and money. We’re delighted to be backing Haroun and Joel in bringing this vision to life.”
Read the full story behind Dala in Haroun and Joel’s own words right here. We’re excited to be mission partners on this journey with you!
By Andy Budd, Designer and Expert in Residence at Seedcamp
Hiring your first designer can be tricky, especially if you don’t come from a design background. You’ll struggle to know what to look for, where to look, and how to attract the right talent. As a result, a lot of early stage start-ups end up hiring underpowered designers that are little more than stylists; folks who are good at mimicking the latest trends, but lack the strategic depth to drive the product forward.
As a start-up advisor, one of my most common requests is to help founders hire their first designer. I see this a little like a first time car buyer asking an experienced motorist to accompany them to the car dealership in order to avoid making any obvious mistakes and buying a lemon. Fortunately most start-ups make the same mistakes when it comes to hiring designers, so this article is intended to help steer you in the right direction.
What Does Your Job Ad Say About You?
Founders often approach me when they’re already a few months into their search and find they aren’t getting the quality or volume of applicants they’d expected. They found it easy hiring their first few developers, but designers are proving a lot more tricky.
I’ll usually start by taking a quick look at their job ad. Now it’s my belief that talent is rare, but mediocre companies are plentiful. As such, your job ad is essentially a sales pitch, explaining why a super talented candidate should want to come and work for you rather than a dozen other companies. It’s also worth noting that it’s a seller’s market at the moment, so the role of your ad is to attract as many potential candidates as possible, rather than put off all but the most dogged of applicants.
To do this, your job ad needs to explain why your company is a great place for a designer to work, and what they’ll gain from the experience. Once you have them hooked, you can then outline the qualities you’re looking for in return.
Sadly most job ads have this formula the wrong way round. They read as though this role is the most sought after job around, and you’re lucky to score an interview. Then they’ll go on to list a dozen, often conflicting skills that are essential to succeed in the role. This idealised view of the perfect designer is usually quite far removed from what a company at that stage could command, so it’s likely to put off any but the most deluded candidates.
As well as a shopping list of competing skills, the jobs ad will usually contain a lot of “work hard play hard” type rhetoric. When you run these ads through a gendered language filter—something you should do by default—they tend to come out heavily gendered, which often correlates with their somewhat homogenous candidate pool.
Taking the above feedback in mind, I usually advise folks to rewrite their job ads to be much more focussed on what it’s like to work at the company and what the new hire will get, rather than focus primarily on what the company wants and needs. After all, if you’re looking to hire user-centered designers, taking a user-centered approach to hiring makes sense.
What Does Your Product Say About You?
As you can tell, good designers want to work for companies that really get design. Companies that will give them the respect, agency and space to do some of the best work of their careers. By contrast, a lot of designers will be moving on from their current employers because they didn’t foster that sort of environment. Instead many designers find themselves trapped in companies where they are forced to continually justify their own expertise and fight for every small decision. As a result designers will be looking for indicators that your company really cares about design. However this presents a bit of a catch-22 situation.
You’re probably hiring a designer because you know your product isn’t up to scratch. Probably because it was designed by your founder or CTO using an off the shelf UI kit. It looks professional but prospective designers will smell the templates a mile off. This will set alarm bells off in the mind of a good designer. How did this product get this far with no meaningful design resource, and what does this say about the company’s view of design? Am I going to be constantly fire fighting here, or worse, having to indulge the whims of the founders?
The irony here is that while most of us would think that it would be a great opportunity for a designer to come on board and fix all the obvious design problems, designers see this as a threat. Of having to unpick a bunch of poor decisions that are already baked into the code base, if not the culture. Instead good designers generally prefer to work at companies with a strong design culture and other designers to bounce ideas off, and more importantly, learn from.
The best way round this problem is to hire a designer from the outset, before a single line of code has been built. This clearly communicates that you value the design of the product as much as the engineering. Failing that, you’ll need to come up with a good justification as to why you’re only now investing in design.
What Does Your Recruiting Process Say About You?
One interesting development I’ve seen recently is companies outlining the recruitment process in their job ads. This is generally a good idea as it helps manage applicant expectations. Is this a relatively simple process or am I going to have to jump through a tonne of hoops? This is especially important in a sellers market, as you want to put as little friction in the way as possible.
There’s one potential “red flag” I see in a lot of these recruitment processes, and that’s the use of “design tasks”. Now I’m not going to go deep on this subject as we’d be here all day. Just be aware that they’re highly contentious amongst the design community and are likely to put many of the better designers off. Designers often see these tasks as “spec work” and the time involved can be seen as unfair and potentially discriminatory. As such, my general advice would be to avoid design tasks and focus primarily on portfolios instead. However if you insist on running a design task—maybe because you’re hiring first time designers with a limited portfolio—consider switching from a take home task to a joint whiteboard exercise or mock design review. That way you can understand their thought processes without taking up too much of their time.
Of course one of the biggest problems with recruiting is not being active in the community you’re recruiting from. As such, you tend to rely on posting adverts, which will only capture a small percentage of people actively looking. You can massively increase your talent pool by growing your employer brand amongst the wider design community. This is one reason why I recommend hiring experienced designers out the gate. When it comes time to grow your team, they’ll know who to talk to and where to look. In the meantime, having a design advisor like myself involved can help bridge the gap.
I’d also suggest engaging with a specialist recruitment consultancy for your first hire. They’ll understand the market, be able to advise on the suitability of the role and package on offer, and connect you with appropriate talent. Recruitment consultants can be costly, but unfortunately that’s the tax companies pay for not having a route into the talent pipeline.
How to Judge Talent
Once you have a potential pool of candidates, it’s time to review their capabilities. While it’s tempting to focus purely on their aesthetic output, design is about problem solving as much as anything else. So when reviewing their work it’s important to understand the problems they were solving and how they went about solving them. Did they jump straight in with creative direction, or did they take a step back to look at the wider user journey? Did they deliver exactly what their previous founders asked them to do, or did they try to understand what their users really needed? If they did try and understand the users needs, how did they go about doing this efficiently and effectively, and if there were disagreements along the way, how did they tackle them?
Design is very much a team sport, especially in early stage start-ups, so you’re going to be looking for somebody with strong craft skills and the ability to work quickly and effectively with their cross- functional peers. At the same time you’re going to want somebody who will champion the user and push back on bad or incomplete ideas. The key to it all is pragmatism. If the designer is too dogmatic, you’ll end up with opinion battles where perfect becomes the enemy of good. If the designer is too much of a people pleaser, you’ll end up with a stylist who’ll add little value to the product or the team. So it’s important to get the balance right.
The other thing to remember is that your first designer will often end up leading your design team in a couple of years. Maybe even moving into a product leadership role. As such it makes sense to gauge their future leadership potential. How do they feel about recruiting and managing a couple of designers? Is this something they’re eager to explore or are they happier as an individual contributor?
Like all the best hires, when recruiting your first designer, you should be looking at future potential as much as existing craft skills. So don’t focus only on what you need now, but about what you’ll need from that person over the next couple of years. Hiring a great founding design can have a huge effect on the direction of your product, so it’s worth investing the time and getting this stage right.
In my next article I’m going to look at how you start growing your design culture and scaling your design team.
This is the second article in a series on hiring for design. Read the first article on why a good designer should be one of your first hires here.
By Andy Budd, Designer and Expert in Residence at Seedcamp
For early stage start-ups, your first design hire is a super critical role. Not least because the product decisions you make at this stage will have long lasting effects which can be difficult to unpick later. So hiring somebody who has experience designing successful products is a sensible early investment.
How Designers Drive Acquisition
On a very basic level, designers are responsible for shaping the part of your product that customers see and interact with. As such they’ll be responsible for communicating what the product is, what it does and why your customers should care. If your visitors understand the value proposition there’s a good chance they’ll take your new product for a spin. If they don’t, getting folks to sign up becomes an uphill struggle.
Customer acquisition is probably the biggest challenge for early start-ups and can be the difference between raising that next round of funding or hitting a dead end. To get over this hump, founders will often spend a tonne of money driving traffic to a poorly performing site. While this brute force approach can work, it has a really negative effect on your cost of acquisition. It’s worth noting that cost of acquisition is something potential funders will be looking at closely, so making sure your marketing site is as effective as possible should be a no brainer.
As your approach to customer acquisition matures you’ll start doing some sort of funnel analysis. Examining where your customers drop off occurs and coming up with potential fixes. A good designer can have an outsized impact here; using their research, usability and problem solving skills to help plug the holes in a potentially leaky sign-up flow. This is where a growth oriented designer can add extra value; running constant experiments in order to improve the effectiveness of your acquisition pipeline.
How Designers Drive Retention and Lifetime Customer Value
Once customers have signed up, designers are primarily responsible for the experience of the product. Is it easy to use? Does the interface make sense? Can customers achieve what they came here to do? What happens when something goes wrong?
Early users generally don’t mind a bit of friction as long as your product solves the key problem they have. However as more discerning customers discover your product, they expect a much slicker experience that’s comparable with the other digital products they use. This problem is touched upon in the book, Crossing The Chasm; essentially as your product matures, customer expectations will steadily increase.
With a constant stream of new users coming to your product, customer retention shifts into focus. What can you do to reduce churn, and increase lifetime customer value (another important start-up metric)?
There are many reasons why people leave a product but some of the easiest ones to fix are user experience related. This is where user research starts to pay dividends. Watching customers use your product, and removing the roadblocks, annoyances and frustrations they run into. As such, designers are a major contributor to increasing customer lifetime value.
How Designers Drive Product Market Fit
Another reason why customers leave your product—or fail to sign up in the first place— is that it fails to meet their needs and expectations. This could be because the product is lacking important features, or that those features are there, but they don’t work the way the user wants and needs. This is another area where designers can provide outsized value, using their research skills to understand exactly what’s missing or not working correctly, and then using their design skills to come up with a potential solution.
This is the essence of product market fit. Creating a product with the right set of features to solve your customers needs, in a way that feels natural to your users. This involves understanding your customer needs (research), turning these into a set of problems to solve (customer development) and then solving them in a way that meets expectations (user experience design). Because of this, designers play a major role in solving the Product Market Fit puzzle. In fact I’ve come across many start-ups who have run out of runway and failed to reach Product-Market Fit because they failed to invest in design, early enough.
When should you hire your first Designer?
Which brings me on to the question I’m asked the most by founders. When should we hire our first designer? Ironically this question is often asked way too late in the game, when many of the core product design decisions have been made. If you’re looking to hire a designer and your product is already out in the market, you’re already playing catch-up.
For me, this question is a little like asking when you should hire an architect when building your own home. If you’ve ever watched an episode of Grand Designs, you know that it’s perfectly possible to build a home based off the back of a sketch and a talented engineering team. You just run the risk of making a bunch of silly mistakes along the way and wasting a tonne of time trying to fix them — assuming you spot them in the first place, which many start-ups fail to do.
So my advice is always the same. The right time to hire your first designer is around the same time you hire your first developer, ideally as part of your founding team. If you forgot to hire a designer at the start, the next best time to hire one is now, before too many more product design decisions get made.
How Much Design Resource Do You Realistically Need?
While the ideal solution is to hire a full time designer from the outset, start-ups often find their design effort front weighted. You make a lot of important decisions up front, but these tend to trail off during the production phase. So if you’re struggling to find a permanent design hire from the outset, you can always get somebody in to help set the initial direction, and then have them dip in and out as the product evolves. This isn’t a good agile process, but it can be a pragmatic approach while you scale up your design capabilities.
Ideally this person would be a design co-founder. Somebody who is able to help with the initial direction, and can jump on board full time once you start getting traction (or that next round of funding). Having an experienced designer at the helm becomes even more important when the team starts to scale. One reason why your first design hire should have leadership potential, rather than the first person you can find.
Failing that, a good freelancer is often the way to go. With design hires regularly taking 3-6 months, this will give you some valuable breathing space while you search for a permanent hire. It will also make it much easier to find that permanent hire if they can see you’ve been committed to good design from the start. That’s much harder to do if you’re 9 months in and your product went live with no design input.
So to summarise, designers play an important role in setting the product vision, creating the part of the product that your customers will interact with (and therefore evaluate) and ultimately help you get to Product Market fit quicker. As such, my advice is always to try and bring a designer onto your founding team, but if that proves challenging you can always back-fill with a good freelancer to help you get through the initial upfront thinking and into production faster.
In my next article I’ll talk about how you find your first designer, and in my final article in this series I’ll talk about how you go about fostering a culture of design in your start-up.
This blog post was written in collaboration between Devin Hunt, David Mytton, and the fearless editing of Nelson Casata. It was originally published on Medium.
I recently caught up with a long time friend, co-founder of Lyst, and Venture Partner at Seedcamp Devin Hunt about his view on the role of Product Manager. What followed was a fun deep dive into the evolving nature of the role, but also an exploration into its relative infancy in terms of what best practices are, and why this makes it challenging for founders looking to hire a PM to know what to look for. This blog post is a summarised and synthesised version of our chat, but hopefully it helps you answer the following questions:
First, let’s start by defining the role of a Product Manager (PM). A PM is more than just one thing, it’s a role that encompasses several disciplines. To make it simple, I’ve broken out those disciplines into four categories: Product Leadership, Management, Design, and Sales.
Leadership, in the context of being a Product Manager, means making the critical decisions based on your team’s research and the product vision set out by the founder. In our chat, Devin shared that there are two unique streams in building product: developing the product vision, and executing on it, which he calls product operations. Whereas a founder might be hyper critical in setting product vision (at least until they trust the PM), the product operations (think customer development, iterating on ideas, tech requests, etc) still require decision-making leadership.
Typically, the blend of leading product operations and marrying that up with the product vision of the founder is what defines the key leadership attributes of a PM, especially in younger startups.
In effect, the PM will become an arbiter between product vision and product operations. They will have to understand customer development and initially do it jointly with the founders, but later manage what success looks like.
Which brings us to *Management.* Within management, a good PM is able to manage the team that delivers and maintains the product. This ranges from managing the priority stacks from both the engineering and design teams, the customer service requests, and the like. In effect, this is where the core of the confusion sometimes happens around Product Managers being perceived as Project Managers. Clearly there is some overlap, but there is more to the role of a Product Manager, than simple Project Management.
Next, comes *Design*. Whilst some of the best designers in the world don’t have a formal education in design, it helps to have an eye for what is ‘quality’, particularly quality for your customer. The PM needs to know how to calibrate the trade-off between quality of the product shipped vs. the’ speed’ of shipping. The PM needs to be able to understand what good delivery and a good user interface looks like, but doesn’t need to be the one doing it. It’s not uncommon for a PM to start recruiting a design team to support in making those design decisions, and scale those design teams as further funding rounds come. Andy Budd will be publishing a series of deep dives on around design with us at Seedcamp over the next few weeks — stay tuned.
Finally, I added *Sales* as the last ‘wish list’ attribute. Ultimately as much as the title of the book by Daniel Pink is around ‘to sell is human’, I’d argue that to build a product is to build a product around human interactions. I wrote a piece a while ago on the relationship process and product cycle and feel that a PM benefits from understanding what customers need and want and a background in some form of sales can be handy. David Mytton, who we’ve been lucky to have as an EiR with us at Seedcamp for a few years, adds that the commercial element of a PM is largely overlooked: the full go-to-market strategy needs to go alongside product functionalities.
Now… How to find a PM? Well, one of the interesting observations Devin shared with me is that in a human resource constrained ecosystem (think Silicon Valley where lots of the PMs are hired by big tech firms), there have been many lateral hires that have ended up being good product managers with the right level of encouragement. As I explored with Devin what were the key attributes that stood out for a good PM, responsibility, trust, ability to manage and communicate, and organisation stood out as strengths over intrinsic ‘design’ skills or engineering skills, for example. As such, as you reflect on people in your network that could be PMs, don’t overlook ex-sales, ex-engineers, or ex-lawyers if they understand your segment & customer. They could very well be trained to be great PMs for your business.
To conclude, when is the best time to bring in a PM? As soon as you can afford to if you are a commercially minded CEO, and if you’re a technically minded CEO, likely still as soon as you can afford, although you can potentially get away with it for much longer provided you evaluate your role as not preventing you from leading the wider organization effectively.
In the words of David Mytton: The best founder teams have two people, one commercial and one technical. They’re the skills of a PM in two people. I think startups tend to grow the engineering teams out of line with the commercial, though they should be growing together. The PM sits across both. There’s a lot of logistics in customer development in the early days, so seed stage is probably around the right time to gear up those efforts.
On this subject, Alex from Forward Partners wrote in a recent blog post of this very point which I agree with. Read his blog post, it’s quite good.
“Typically a startup’s founder will fill the role of the Product Manager for the first 12 months. This is essential as every good founder should have an intimate knowledge of both their business goals and their customers. However as the founder takes on a more focused role as CEO of the company, she will have less time to manage the product and will instead start prioritising the strategic direction of the business. Constrained by budget and often encouraged to focus on hiring support around technology or growth, she will make do until the startup is at a large enough size that she is able to afford dedicated help with her product. Yet this can often be too late. By the time that your business has secured seed-stage or later funding the foundations of good product thinking (also referred to as having a good “Product Muscle”) should be well and truly in place. This should coincide with the first 12 to 18 months of your product’s lifecycle. Being able to present a deep and meaningful understanding of your customer to investors, along with a story of increased revenue due in large part to adapting the product to better serve your customer base, will go a long way in securing future investment. With this in mind, we believe that a Head of Product should be amongst the first key hires that you make during your first 12 months.”
I’ve put together a list of resources below, in various blog posts, books, podcasts and tools to dive in on further on the topic:
Good Product Manager/Bad Product Manager
Product managers are not responsive for “how”
Mind the Product
The Black Box of Product Management
Crossing the chasm
Inspired: How to Create Tech Products Customers Love
The Lean Product Playbook: How to Innovate with Minimum Viable Products and Rapid Customer Feedback
Product Roadmaps Relaunched: How to Set Direction While Embracing Uncertainty
The product podcast (Spotify)
Build with Maggie Crowley (Spotify)
The Saeed Khan Hypothesis: Understanding the State of Your Product, Your Processes, and Your People Sets the Foundation for High-Growth Products (Spotify)
Seedcamp Product Summit:
We are incredibly excited to announce our first investment in Africa as we back Jess Anuna and her vision to build technology for cross-border commerce with Klasha as part of a $2.4 million seed round led by Greycroft. We’re delighted to participate alongside a number of close friends including Seedcamp Expert in Residence and former Marketing head at Wise, Joe Cross; Gumtree Co-founder, Michael Pennington and First Round VC, Practical VC, Plug and Play, Expert Dojo and 2.12 Angels.
Not every partnership happens overnight. We first met Jess back in 2018 and were incredibly impressed with her experience at the likes of Shopify, Net-a-Porter, and Amazon and stayed close as she’s since pivoted and evolved Klasha to take on the massive undertaking of building technology for cross-border commerce to enable the 400 million+ internet users in Africa to more seamlessly transact online.
Africa presents vast opportunities for scaling quickly in commerce, with the total value of e-commerce expected to reach $29 billion by 2022. Still, the ability to pay online with African money methods including cards, M-Pesa, bank transfer and mobile money is challenging for consumers on the ground. Klasha believes that consumers in Africa should have built technology to facilitate the same frictionless access to the goods they want regardless of their geographic location.
“By 2025, half of the world’s population will live in Africa. At Klasha, we’re building the technology to facilitate frictionless cross-border payments and allow international businesses to scale seamlessly into Africa through our API,” Jessica comments. “Equally, we’re giving consumers in Africa the same access to the global e-commerce economy experienced on other continents. It is imperative that African consumers are able to remain globally competitive, which includes having access to the goods they want without payment or delivery restrictions.”
The appeal of Klasha’s core technology is that it allows African consumers to pay international online and offline retailers in African currencies through their preferred African payment method (card, bank account, USSD, M-Pesa, Mobile Money), while the retailers receive payouts in their dominant currencies, such as USD, GBP, EUR. Klasha has built several plug-in integrations for WooCommerce, OpenCart and BigCommerce. They also offer several other features such as checkout, payment links for merchants with no e-commerce front, wire transferring and a mobile app to allow for payments across friends and family.
In the past few months, Klasha has continued to power international businesses with the tools they need to grow and expand into Africa. Within five short months of launching, Klasha has already processed more than 20,000 transactions across Africa with an average 366% MoM growth rate.
Our Managing Partner, Reshma Sohoni, comments, ‘’As Africa continues to undergo digitisation, there’s an increasing opportunity for online businesses in Europe and the US to garner market share quickly by accepting payments online in African currencies due to the nascent stage of commerce on the continent. Klasha is our first investment in Africa which will allow frictionless scalability for merchants into the continent through their cross-border payment technology, enabling billions of underserved consumers to access their services.’’
With this investment, Klasha will expand its technology to help international B2B and B2C businesses such as ASOS, Zara, Amazon, or Zoom to receive payments seamlessly online in African currencies from consumers across Africa. Klasha’s core technology allows African consumers to pay international online and offline retailers in African currencies while the retailers receive payouts in their dominant currencies, including USD, GBP, EUR. Klasha is currently available in Nigeria, Ghana and Kenya and will invest in driving more revenue, growing its current 10,000 customer base, and expanding into new markets with three more African countries set to go live by Q4 this year.
We are incredibly excited for the journey ahead with Jess and the Klasha team.
If you’d like to join Klasha and are building an early-stage business that has the potential to radically change how we live, interact and buy, let us know what you’re building here.
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