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What Product VPs At High-Growth Startups Have In Common

Editor’s note: The following post was written by Mike Belsito, a co-founder at Product Collective. The article surfaces common characteristics of product VPs at growing startups. Looking to hire? This should help.

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“I think that the number one hiring criterion for a vice president of product management should be someone who’s done it before—who has executive-level product leadership experience—but I’m often outvoted.”

— Rich Mironov, author of The Art of Product Management and co-founder of Product Camp.

Reading those words from a post he had written about the role of a VP of product management made me think. Do most hiring managers of high-growth startup technology companies feel that way? How do these fast-rising organizations value ‘product’ within their companies, and what do they look for in hiring a senior-level product person? What does a VP of Product for a high-growth startup actually look like?

With that, I went on a mission: To dissect the senior product roles in the highest growth startup technology companies in order to understand who these companies bring on board to entrust product vision and execution.

I learned that Forbes 50 Hottest Startups of 2015 is right – in a way. But before we get to the actual findings, I want to describe the process that I used.

1. I started with the Forbes 50 Hottest Startups of 2015, released just last month.

2. Given that the companies vary in size and scope — is Uber really a startup now that it’s over 6 years old and has raised billions? — I whittled this list down to those that employed between 100 – 300 people to attempt to enforce more parity.

3. I used LinkedIn, Twitter, and other platforms to seek out which of these companies employ a non-founder that is solely in charge of Product Management. It was important to me that this was an actual hire and not a founder, as I was interested in seeing companies that value product enough where they’re willing to hire an outside resource to manage it (and are willing to spend the money to fund a salary, benefits, and everything that comes with making a full-time hire).

It should be noted that the actual titles were most commonly VP of Product, Head of Product, or Chief Product Officer. However, I did also accept Director of Product when it was evident that this person had overall product responsibility.

4. From the original list of 50, I ended up with information from 18 companies. 21 actually qualified (by having 100-300 employees), but I was unable to track down clear product leaders at 3 organizations in particular: Expensify, Theranos, and Greenhouse. It’s absolutely possible that the information is available, however it seemed to elude me.

There are a few themes that emerged, which I found particularly interesting:

1. Senior product leaders at high-growth companies have paid their dues.

All but two of the product leaders I was able to identify had more than 10 years of real-world work experience. Not all experience revolved around product. In fact, it was common to see people who spent some time as an engineer, marketer, or even as a management consultant.

The two product leaders that didn’t have 10+ years of professional experience aren’t exactly newbies. They each had six to seven years of professional experience.

2. Engineering backgrounds are optional.

I’ve been a part of more than one debate on whether or not a real ‘product person’ can thrive without an engineering background. And there are certainly different schools of thought here. One of the leading voices in product management today, Ken Norton, notes in his classic essay on hiring product managers that he often favors product managers that have had technical roles in the past. Yet, even Ken admits that a Computer Science degree isn’t absolutely necessary for a product person to thrive. But what about people leading product for the entire organization at a high-growth startup company?

Apparently, it’s not a ‘must.’ In fact, fewer than half of the product leaders identified from these high-growth companies had technical backgrounds or degrees. Although, 8 of the 18 product leaders did possess this skill, so while it’s not necessary – it’s obvious that it’s still something these companies care about.

3. Product leaders at high-growth startups are pretty darn smart.

While formal education isn’t always a fair indicator of actual intelligence (at least not for everybody), let’s just say that this is a very well educated group. Just over half of these product leaders have advanced degrees like MBA’s or law degrees – and nearly one third of them have at least one degree from bay area institutions like Cal and Stanford. In fact, those two schools tied for the number one most attended academic institutions by these 18 product leaders.

Other academic institutions frequented included Harvard, MIT, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Humboldt State, Georgia State, and elsewhere. In other words, while academics seem to be a strong suit for these product people, the types of institutions attended did vary.

4. These product leaders may be ‘CEO of Product,’ but most have never been a CEO.

It would make sense that one track of getting into Product Management is to have had experience running a startup in the past. In full disclosure, the previous two product roles that I had were preceded by my experience running a startup company of my own. However, I learned that I’m the exception and not the rule.

Of those product leaders identified, only three had started or run businesses in the past. This is not to say that having run a startup company couldn’t be beneficial or even be seen as a benefit by hiring committees at these high-growth companies, but it’s obviously not a requirement.

5. Rich Mironov was right – not everybody cares about hiring someone with executive-level product management experience.

While everybody on the list had real product experience in their past, only 4 of the 18 product leaders had actually led product management for an organization before. So rather than find people who have proven track records as overall product leaders, it seems that these organizations favored rising stars in their field.

This isn’t to say that 14 people had no management experience at all. In fact, several of these folks had managed product lines or had run a portion of their company’s product offerings. However, I was specifically looking for people who had sole responsibility overseeing the company’s entire product line.

6. And *sigh*, yes – most of these product leaders are men.

It’s true that of the 18 companies that met my requirements, only 3 of them had women at the helm of product leadership. However, a couple of considerations should be made here. First, only 1 of those 18 companies has a woman as CEO (and even when expanding the field to the original 22, the number only increases to 2). So female representation in ‘product leadership’ isn’t much different than overall leadership within these companies.

It should also be noted that the female product leaders who were leading their product organizations are very well respected in their fields. A great example of that would be April Underwood at Slack – who is perhaps one of the fastest rising stars in the field of Product Management.

It doesn’t change the fact that this number is way lower than it should be. I happen to know so many amazing female product leaders that I’d be very quick to try to recruit to lead product if I was personally building a high-growth technology company.

To summarize, product leaders at high-growth startups are smart, have deep experience, yet while many are technical, there are fewer true technical product people leading product organizations than you might have expected.

If you thought that you had to be an engineer to lead a high-growth startup’s product organization, you’re wrong. It’s also apparent that you don’t have to have a Silicon Valley pedigree or fancy MBA. But don’t expect to just play around for a couple of years after college and find your way into a product leadership role at a high growth company. It’s probably much more likely that you’ll have to build your portfolio as a product manager – or as a professional, in general – for at least 10 solid years.

For more research, thoughts, and commentary on all things related to product people, visit productcollective.com or join me in person at Industry – the conference for people who build, launch, and scale world-class products. The first ten people to use the code Mattermark when registering will save $100. 

Mike Belsito is a startup product and business developer who loves creating something from nothing. Mike is the Co-Founder of Product Collective, the Creators of Industry: a conference for people that build, launch, and scale world class products. Mike also wrote the book Startup Seed Funding for the Rest of Us, which debuted on the top of Product Hunt.

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Featured Image via Flickr user Richard Masoner / Cyclelicious under CC BY 2.0. Image has been cropped.
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