8 Traits of a Great Startup Product Manager



Many a startup was founded on a great idea, but it takes a great team to make sure that idea doesn’t falter before hitting the go-to-market finish line. The companies that end up with the best product and product design are those who are able to hire a superior VP of Product to lead the charge. Of course, finding this individual isn’t always easy.

One way to make the search easier is to know the characteristics that make a great Product Manager. In my early days of recruiting, I came across a list that I’ve tweaked over the years into eight traits that any recruiter should look for in a search for a VP of Product. The ideal candidate should be:

1. A Curious Being

Great product people tend to notice the sign in the airport that mostly works but could confuse five percent of travelers. The also have an idea for how the dashboard of a car could be designed better, or how a differently-shaped remote control would be easier to use without looking at it. And these are just a few examples. The best candidates are natively interested in how humans interact with everything – not just web sites and apps.

2. Understander of the Forest and the Trees

The best product people have a very good ability to see the whole forest, then pick a path, and bounce down it, making sure that the trees are as they should be. They can find a winning strategy, but also create the specs for the product. The best way to create great products is to execute the strategy and the implementation together. People who do one or the other are far more common than those who do both – you want the person who can do both.

3. Builder of All the Things

The top contenders tend to have played with Legos and Lincoln Logs when they were kids, maybe wrenched on cars or building models as youths. They may have torn apart the toaster to see how it worked, and they’re definitely the kid who made the sandcastle instead of lying in the sun. They just tend to have it in them: a curiosity for how things work, a drive to build and a desire to “leave their mark” with their creations.

4. Concise Articulator

These people also have an incredible ability to boil down an issue to the main point. Then, they are able to say it persuasively and in a way that both teammates and users find intuitive.

5. Decipher-er of Customer Input

Most product people love feedback in both qualitative (user testing, input from customer service) and quantitative (NPS, A/B, web analytics) forms. But the great ones are good at determining what questions to ask, then deciphering which input is important and what that input is actually saying. Then they are able to turn all of that into the next great product.

6. Speaker of Many Languages

The great product person in a large company has to be able to understand and persuade people from all silos – execs, lawyers, marketers, engineers, designers, customers and clients – and incorporate their feedback into the project in a meaningful way. These people all approach things from different angles and speak different “languages,” if you will. A great product person has the innate ability to get along with and to understand all of the needs, and to translate them into the winning product.

7. Charismatic Leader

Related to that, the great product person can inspire and motivate all the various team members in the previous paragraph, and drive them to build something special.

8. Incredibly Crafty Designer of Product

They make great product, period. Often it’s design, as with the Aston Martin DBS. It’s not the best car, but man is it beautiful (this coming from an Englishman). You’ll pay more for it just because it’s so beautiful. It must be said that if something looks hot, you’ll get more for it, your team will be more fired up to build it, and consumers will be more forgiving of it.  Great product people have a great design sense. Other times, it’s simplicity, such as the plastic lid on your coffee, that prevents spillage, but allows you to drink on the go. Sometimes, it’s creating a category: The early Tivo, Netflix, even the toaster you pulled apart as a kid, was a new thing at one point. Or sometimes it’s simply “the best.”

Image credit: CC by Wonderlane

About the author: Iain Grant

Iain Grant is a partner with Riviera Partners, a technical recruiting firm in Silicon Valley. Iain is responsible for managing executive-level searches for Riviera’s retained practice, where he focuses on helping companies meet the challenge of growing beyond the start-up phase by recruiting world class leaders. 

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