Key hires for 2015: recruiting product managers

MTA media headhuntersAt the start of 2015 I went back and had a good long look over our recent completed searches. One thing really stood out: over the last four years, the number of product management roles we’d been asked to fill has increased dramatically. Four or five years ago we’d barely been approached to place one product manager, we’re now doing at least four or five every year.

For businesses still struggling with a print-to-digital transition, or even if you’re a well-established online player, product manager is an essential position. Why then, do so many media businesses seem to struggle with the discipline? Why do so many struggle when recruiting product managers?

One reason is that ‘product manager’ covers a multitude of sins. Some effectively supervise the development process and ensure everything’s delivered on time and to the correct product specifications, but even that’s becoming a bit old-fashioned.

Increasingly, our clients are looking for product managers who are more commercial, who can go out and talk directly with their own clients.

For many years product managers were considered a cost. Nowadays, they’re increasingly becoming one of the pillars on which to build the success of your business.

A really top quality commercial product manager will spend as much time as possible with customers, getting to know their workflow and pain points, understanding the ins and outs of their day before even thinking about products. It’s about knowing what your customers need before they do. These product managers should work out what’s needed, scoping out the scale of the market and the opportunity. The questions they should constantly be asking about their own products are: will people pay for it? How much will they pay? Will it scale? How much is it worth to your business over the long business?

From then on, of course, it’s about providing the services and products. For years, publishing companies have adopted a “build it and they will come” approach to product development, only to find that, actually, maybe they won’t. It’s led to some memorably expensive failures. Now, with sharply constrained budgets, media companies need to be much surer there’ll be a return on that investment.

One managing director, gearing up for a major product launch, recently said to me: “I’d rather know I’m getting it wrong early and lose a few thousand pounds, than find out after launch and lose millions, as well as my job.”

A good product manager should help prevent either of those two situations arising, but when things do go wrong they should absolutely ensure the former outcome occurs. They should also ensure you keep initial development costs down, launching a minimum viable product and adding features gradually. It’s an agile development environment that means that the product development process should never end, for as long as your product is on the market.

In some markets, getting the right product manager is the difference between thousands, if not millions, in top line growth. It could be the single most important hire you make this year, so isn’t it worth taking the time to get it right?