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What it takes to become a great Head of Product

Product Matters Series: What it takes to become a great Head of Product

“The role of Head of Product is kind of a quasi-founder. Product is the most important thing that a company has. It’s the thing you are selling and presenting to customers, and that means you want someone in that role who is serious and thoughtful. They should believe in the mission of the company. They should constantly be thinking about how to make the product better, and how to get the product in front of more consumers. That’s the difference between a Director of Product/Lead PM and a Head of Product,” says Niko Vuori: Founder & CEO at Drivetime

As a recruitment firm serving high-growth startups in the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles, and New York, we are frequently asked by candidates how to achieve the coveted role of Head of Product. While every career journey is different, there are some common threads. We reached out to our network of top product leaders and founders to share their personal roadmaps to success at different Bay Area startups.

(from left to right: Aviad Pinkovezky, Chief Product Officer at Hippo InsuranceElena Patra, Head of Product(Acrevalue) at GranularDror Shimshowitz, Head of Product at Jobox.aiEdward Aten, Founder & CEO at MerchbarNiko Vuori, Founder & CEO at Drivetime, and Derek Choy, Founder at Aktana)

Being a Head of Product at a startup

If your business is still in its infancy, it’s up to your small team to make things happen— something that makes startup-life an attractive challenge for many professionals. 

“Being a Head of Product and being at a small company means that there aren't a lot of other leaders in the company, and so there is additional responsibility and expectation, and (for me) desire, to think holistically about what we’re doing as a company. I have the leeway to influence  the things that I think are important,” says Dror Shimshowitz, Head of Product at Jobox.ai.

“You have to be very willing and even excited about getting your hands dirty to get the job done. You may have a small team and you may be an IC (individual contributor) at the beginning— so you need to be a strong technically motivated PM as well as a strong leader. You need to have the mindset that you will be expected to change your role several times over while at the company,” adds Aviad Pinkovezky, Chief Product Officer at Hippo Insurance.

“You can look around, but there is nobody that will tell you or the team what to do, so it’s really important for you to provide even more leadership. It’s not just about figuring out the right product strategy, but also in setting the tone, helping shape the culture, motivating the team, and really bringing that intensity to accomplish the mission,” says Dror.

Defining user needs

Product leaders are expected to help the company better understand their customers’ pain points, needs, and preferences. A Head of Product helps to actualize and execute a founder’s vision by staying very close to the customer and creating a strategy that will serve their needs. 

“As a new Head of Product, you should be trying to surface key needs in the marketplace that aren't being filled. Be really scrappy in doing that research and finding potential users, scraping together experiments to validate or disprove various hypotheses, all at a fast-pace of execution and on a shoe-string budget. It can sometimes be a bit of a guessing game, but the more shots you take, the more you maximize your chance of finding what works,” says Dror.

“The product team needs to be obsessively focused on the end user, so they should be out there getting feedback and collaborating with customers to understand how to design features. No matter how well you design the product in the first place, the first few months that someone is using it, you’ll want to change things on-the-go. The Head of Product should have the space to do that, and founders should provide support and resources to them, acting as a sounding board when needed,” adds Derek Choy, Founder At Aktana.

“Really great product leaders have more than a tertiary understanding of the different areas and components in the company and excel at identifying problems and distilling opportunities. It should be second nature to them to review your deck or talk about the next 5 years of the company. They are great at organizing things into reasonable, actionable plans,” adds Edward Aten, Founder & CEO at Merchbar.

How to scale a team

Great product managers must be excellent communicators with a knack for turning product goals into actionable bite-sized tasks. PMs come from a variety of backgrounds (engineering, design, sales, marketing, and business development), and therefore it’s hard to spot patterns and traits of a great PM simply by looking at a resume. As a Head of Product of a small team, the challenge is to build a team of strong collaborators, each bringing a unique strength to the team. On top of that, you need to ensure these new team members meld well with existing company culture (or even better, improve that culture). 

So how did our top product leaders do it?

“A big part of any leadership role at a startup is about recruiting. You cannot be successful if you don’t build a good team. Focus on hiring and work with recruiting partners that you trust. Setting a high bar is super important. You might be tempted to make compromises but it’s always right to wait for the right candidate.” urges Aviad.

“As you start scaling you need more structure. So, having more rigor in your interview process is important. We have a structured interview guide and playbook to properly assess candidates (based on specific variables),” says  Elena Patra, Head of Product(Acrevalue) at Granular

“Once you bring those people in, focus on onboarding them so that they understand the environment, team, and processes as fast as possible. Then, help them grow. That’s the key to retention,” she adds.

Advice for choosing the right company

Alignment with founding team will be paramount to the success of being a Head a Product and here are some questions you can ask to assess if it’s the right fit:

“At this level you need to be able to collaborate well with people in the leadership team but also across the company. Having an open mind, being open to ideas, and being receptive to feedback is important. Earlier in my career I was less receptive to feedback because I had very strong perspectives, but over the years I’ve noticed that if you really listen to feedback you can grow and learn much faster,” Elena adds.

“There are startups where founders take on a product role and then it becomes difficult for Head of Product to grow and express themselves. Ensure you have alignment with the founding team and other people in the company, and make sure there is room for growth and professional development,” says Aviad.

“It's important to build your network of other product leaders and product thinkers, because you’ll have to tap into that in order to get some peer support. You’ll also want a sounding board or support group for issues that you're facing,” suggests Dror.

Titles aren’t everything

Heads of Products come from all backgrounds. Aviad Pinkovezky was formerly at LinkedIn, but before that he served in the Israeli Army. When searching for any role, be sure to ask yourself the “why” behind it. If your next role isn’t part of the career path you’ve envisioned for yourself, stay away. Join a company because you’re inspired by their mission, suggests Elena.  

“You don’t need a title to lead. You don’t need the title to make a change or have an impact. If you care too much about the title, it’s for the wrong reason,” Elena adds.

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