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Why founders can't be PMs


They can, and many of them are doing product management, especially in the early days of their startups. It makes sense, business founders are working very closely with their customers, really know their problems and can PM the right solution to get an initial product-market fit.

Problems appear later when startups grow and founders need to ruthlessly prioritise what they can afford to do themselves. Usually, founders let go of the product rains and focus on building the business, which is where they can add the most value.

However, control over the product is not an easy thing to let go of as the fate of the entire business depends on it. Plus some founders might still think they understand customers and the market best. That can be true. And so trying to do two (or even more) full-time jobs single-handedly founders could easily burn out or end up with subpar products and a struggling business.

When it makes sense to hire your first PM?

It could be a tricky question to answer, especially for the first-time founders. Moreover, there is no single right answer here. It depends a lot on the size of the company, the maturity of the product team, the rate of growth, the market, business strategy...etc.

To decide whether to hire a PM, a founder should learn a bit more about the role. They need to understand what PMs do, what inputs they expect to get from leadership and what output they can provide in return. Knowing that founders should ask themselves: can I do all of this? And is it the best use of my time? If not both of those answers are confident "yes" - they should go and get a PM.

When founders can be PMs?

If a founder is a skilled PM, they did the job before and they like doing it more than growing the business - they might decide to continue PMing the product. This could work if they found someone else to run the business, build teams, work on partnerships...etc. In other words, founders can be PMs if they can afford it.

The real PMs

Having a product manager title is not enough to be the real PM. I wrote extensively on this blog about many possible dysfunctions existing in organisations when someone with a PM title does anything but real product management. That's the unfortunate reality of this job - getting hired is never enough, the organisational culture should support you're being a real PM, or at least don't actively oppose it.

Sadly, in a lot of places out there product management is still misunderstood which results in a lot of frustrations for all involved. One particular case of this dysfunction is when there is someone with a product manager title but the real PM is actually someone else, a senior manager, an executive or a founder. This results in a classical "two-in-the-box" problem and leads to multiple issues, disappointments and eventually burnout.

Often those sorts of situations exist due to internal politics and because of that are extremely tricky to fix. "The real PMs" are exercising their authority by making product decisions but at the same time, they avoid accountability because there is someone else with a "product manager" title. This is wrong on many levels, but most importantly - it will not lead to a successful product. The market will hold "the real PMs" accountable whether they want it or not.

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