How Indian Startups should Hire Product Management Function?

Product Management is quite an unkown career in India and while many companies are still not sure of what Product Management really means, some of them even confuse it with Project/Program Management.

If you are of the type who still thinks Product Management is about Program/Project Management, read this 101 article on Understanding Product Management Role.

Coming back to the topic, I was recently helping a startup (rather, a small business) in hiring a Product manager. We interviewed almost 15 candidates (startup is well funded and can afford folks from G/Y/MS) and finally chose one.

The whole exercise was interesting because we met a few high-on-jargon product guys who had no visibility in technology space and a few hard core geeks who weren’t able to rise above their geeky thought process. Apart from all this, there was a generic lack of ‘questioning’ ability, which really irked me.

To me, Product managers should question everything. Every piece of data. Every piece of marketing message. And not for the sake of it, but for going deeper into the philosophy behind the product. And substantiate every question with data/insights.

First things first- If you are a startup, you shouldn’t hire a Product Manager till you have reached a scenario where it’s becoming difficult to handle the success of core products and you need somebody else to take care of the new products you plan to launch,

To a certain extent, Product Management is a support function and as a startup, you should only do two things – build and sell. Everything in-between comes later and needs attention when you have built enough and sold many!.

If you built enough/sold many and decided to hire Product Manager, here are a few tips.

Look for Insight

Ask the candidate one industry he knows best and grill him/her on that. Go beyond regular questions (‘where do you think is Internet headed in India?’) to something more meaningful (Is Rural India really driving Internet usage? Or is it a false positive?).

Should the candidate have domain expertise on the industry you operate in as well? Yes and No.

Some of the most interesting/lateral ideas will come from people who aren’t part of the industry and can think out of the box (even before they get inside the box). So do measure people on their ability to learn.

But if you are looking for somebody to do-as-I-say, you probably don’t need an independent thinker.

Talk about Execution

Product Management, even though it looks sexy is quite a boring job. Lack of authority adds to your woes as you need to constantly keep negotiating with engineering/sales and marketing team.

How will your product manager execute it? What’s a typical MRD->PRD->Release process? Grill candidates on this extensively as the last thing you wanna hear is ‘I want a deputy PM to handle the dirty job of bug triaging’.


One of the candidates (from a top B-school) referred to using Gartner reports when asked questions like ‘What kind of research will you conduct before we start working on this product?’.

Startups are about uncertainties, about shooting in the dark and you would need people who are used to such uncertainties. Look around for this ‘expertise’, i.e. of ‘assuming data’ when there is none.

Only somebody with insights can make correct assumptions and keep (in)validating them.

In my personal observation (open for debate), people who read too much often fall into a gullible trap of ‘This expert said it must be true’. I find it difficult to work with such folks, especially when the market is uncertain and you don’t want to rely on an analysts’ prediction of what the world could turn into.

Leaving my observation aside, I’d advise startups to go for people who have lived in an uncertain environment – helps the company in the long run. Most importantly, a DIY approach helps immensely.

Hear them Ask ‘Why’

With one candidate (from mobile industry), we asked him to build a fictitious product roadmap for ‘creating an iPhone App for a bus ticketing site’ – ‘What kind of UX is important etc etc?

The guy didn’t even question the task given to him. Ideally, one would have asked ‘Is iPhone app more important than a Symbian App? Java App?’.  Instead, he went around defining the app UI etc.

Sorry. But if you can’t question, you are fit to be just another cog in the wheel.

As far as startups are concerned, my sincere suggestion would be to go for people who can question gods and have a solid depth behind their questioning. At the same time, entrepreneurs should be open for being questioned – though I am not sure how many entrepreneurs are comfortable with this.

Hear them Answer ‘Why Not’

Startups are all about ‘Why Not’ and a creature you need to avoid is the guy who sees problems in everything big.

In my last organization, there were too many nay sayers who were scared of taking that big leap.

Competition came in (Vini Vidi Vici) and even though all was lost, the company failed to take any substantial action.

As an entrepreneur, you probably have the guts to start off with ‘Why Not’, but when you hire a key function like Product Manager, ensure that the candidate is open to Why nots.

During the interview process, give them a radically different viewpoint and hear their reply. Is he/she coming up with more radical viewpoint or just (dis)agreeing to what you say.

Why title says ‘in India’

All of the above is applicable to any startup, but challenges in India are different. There  aren’t too many practical Product managers who have market insights. Most of the Product Managers in India are writing PRD and not MRD – If you are one, you know what I am talking about.

As far as startups are concerned, many of them do not realize the importance of Product Management function until its too late in the cycle.

My sincere suggestion – bring the discipline way early in the cycle, if you really want to build a great product business.


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