A Product Coach in a startup? Are you kidding? How does a startup even afford a full-time coach on staff?

That’s the #1 question I get when people ask me what I do at Getro!  We are, after all, only a mighty 17-people startup. How can we possibly afford a full-time coach on staff?

Ironically, my answer is: How can startups afford not to invest in a Product Coach? :)

A lot has been written about reaching product-market fit and how so few startups survive (10% exactly). Most often startup death is caused by a wishful bias on the product (if we build it they will come) and too little focus on the market (talking to potential buyers is hard).

Product-market fit is product management 101: deliver a valuable and usable solution that addresses a large enough market - so your company not only survives, but thrives.

Getro’s founders decided early on to invest in a Product Coach to avoid becoming part of the 90%. Yours truly comes into the picture. :) I started as a Product Coach at Getro over a year ago with a goal of making Getro a product-led organization. At that point, I had been practicing product management for the previous 15 years and was ready to impart my expertise to a startup eager to learn and grow.

What’s a product-led organization?

Unlike a sales-led organization (which many startups begin as in order to get traction), a product-led organization puts the product experience at the very center of the organization, making their products the vehicle for acquiring customers, driving growth, and influencing organizational priorities. One of my favorite posts on this topic: slippery slope of sales-led development.

When I started at Getro, the company acted as a sales-led organization. How could I tell?

  • We had built quite a few one-off features to close sales deals that we spent development capacity maintaining instead of building differentiating features for a large number of our customers
  • We struggled saying No to customer requests, which prevented us from preserving our development capacity to say “Yes” to market-defining features
  • We were reactive and made product decisions oriented to individual customers without asking the “whys” we needed to ask to maximize the value of the development work across many customers

What does a Product Coach do? Where do they come from?

In short, I guide all areas of the organization (not just product managers) to keep the product and the customer experience front and center and to grow the organization’s product management capabilities, including:

  • Customer interviews, as often as customers let us!
  • Quarterly planning to focus our product goals and priorities
  • Sprint planning to deliver incremental value weekly
  • Backlog refinement (grooming) weekly to get valuable work ready

The best product coaches are ex-product managers who have had a chance to learn from the best. I was lucky enough to have worked several years with Todd Olson, co-founder of Pendo.io (who just raised $100M at a $1B valuation) and author of the Product-Led Organization (a must-read for product managers).

What does a product-led journey look like?

Product strategies are great, but if you don’t have strong delivery capability, strategies don’t really matter.  So while a product manager's strategizing and responsibilities go way beyond those of the product owner (including positioning your market, understanding your competition, enabling sales and customer success with new releases), the product owner role is where we decided to start our product-led journey.

Getro’s product-led journey started by building our product team with a product owner at the helm to prioritise development work of the highest value. Our founders are bold, and like most founders, they are dreaming big.

This past year, we’ve made heaps of progress.  We now have a running engine ready to shift into the next gear of execution to deliver on our company mission: to help professionals find the best opportunities in their network.

When you reach our stage of the product-led journey, however, you need to bring on product management expertise to ensure discipline in taking successful products to market (which is what we’re doing at Getro! Check out our current Product Manager position).

Good product managers are hard to find.

What environment should you provide to attract good product managers?  

There are many product manager positions out there. Product is the new Agile. Product coaches are now in higher demand than agile coaches because product roles are so critical to the success of a company. They will make or break your company by either building a successful product or a total flop. You can attract the best product managers by providing:

  • A Product Coach on staff to accelerate your product management career. Because good product coaches have had experience as product managers, they can guide PMs as they learn on the ground in real-life situations.
  • Easy access to customers to drive your product strategy and roadmap with real market data. (Your opinion, although interesting, does not matter.)
  • High potential to make a significant impact in your users' lives. For instance, Getro’s mission is to make it easier for people to help each other find professional opportunities.
  • Passionate and curious team members. (The more questions that get asked, the more likely we get to the root of problems before working on solutions.)
  • Leaders with a product mindset. (They understand the world of trade-offs PMs live in and support them instead of threatening them.)

What to watch out for in a product manager candidate

Aside from culture fit, passion for your company mission and past experience in managing products are the key ingredients for the ideal PM. Red flags to watch out for include:

  • Lack of passion about your company mission. A good PM is driven by passion over money. They will dream about their product and how to make their users happy. Find a good PM by taking money off the table with a reasonable salary and by providing a compelling mission, a healthy work environment, compassionate coworkers and the flexibility to work when they are most productive.
  • Claims to have managed a product without evidence of doing so. You don’t really know what product management is until you try it! 10 people will give you 11 definitions for it!
  • Equating product manager and product owner. Scrum did a number on this one. Equating the two is typically a sign of overfocus on product delivery (with the development team) and not enough focus on product discovery (with customers and stakeholders). You want to hire someone who has mastered both. See Product Owner vs Product Manager — What’s The Difference?

I hope this blog made you curious about hiring a Product Coach for your startup! And hiring great product managers!

BTW - We’re hiring PMs at Getro. Getro is the market-leading job board for the VC community.When I joined a year ago, we had 200 customers. Today we have 400+ customers, including a growing number of professional communities and economic development organizations, who trust Getro to provide visibility to the opportunities available in their network. We are actively expanding our footprint beyond our job board to help the professionals in these networks connect faster and better to the opportunities we share.

If you are looking to accelerate your career in a healthy, supportive environment check out our open jobs here.