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Why Head of Product is Our First Co-Founder

July 15, 2022
What 'Co-founder' Means
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At super{set}, we stand side-by-side and pick up the shovel with our co-founders. Our first outside co-founder at a super{set} company is usually a Head of Product. Let’s unpack each portion of that title....

Our first outside co-founder at a super{set} company is usually a Head of Product. Let’s unpack each portion of that title — “Head of Product Co-founder.”

  1. Head — Not “Chief Product Officer.” Not “Founding Product Manager.” We want the title to reflect the seniority of the position and the crucial product and company-building decisions this person will make, without the ego of an inflated title at a tiny company. As we’ve discussed, we look for someone with humility, who wants to be heads-down in product decision-making, not a Napoleon looking to build an empire of one.
  2. of Product — With our Solution Memo, we’ve outlined an opportunity that we have conviction can become a successful product. Now we recruit someone to blueprint the product architecture with us. Our belief is that, even with our years of experience building successful products and companies, we’re always better off with another voice in the mix to lock arms with and stand side-by-side at the whiteboard — before engineers write a single line of code and before we hire a single salesperson.
  3. Co-founder — When we say “co-founder,” we mean “co-FOUNDER.” They will eat sleep and breath the company, just like is expected of any founder. They will take ownership and be directly responsible for the product org. Their ownership stretches beyond product and includes — critically — building the team and landing early customers. With hard work comes high rewards. Being a co-founder means significant equity and the opportunity to create life-changing wealth if we succeed. A co-founder at super{set} can expect co-founder impact and co-founder economics, with the benefit of working hand-in-hand with established and successful serial entrepreneurs.

“Product Manager” is a term that carries a bit of baggage today and is evolving into a discipline, so let’s take a step back and look at our conception of “Head of Product.”

Product Managers and Feature Loggers

When Tom and Vivek first started in the tech industry during the Dot Com boom of the late 1990s, Product Management wasn’t a field of work. Back then, someone would have an idea for an internet company, they’d collect some loose money from a Venture Capital firm, and then the VCs would help recruit a “VP of Engineering” or someone similarly titled. Sometime around the turn of the century, it became obvious to us techies that there needed to be a role in between the engineers coding and the visionary founder leading the company. This role, residing between Jira tickets and the product marketing narrative, is what became known as the Product Manager.

Fast forward to today, and everyone wants to be the Product Manager. MBA students in their lecture halls hear that the PM is a “mini CEO;” engineers hear that a PM role is their ticket to upper management; and all of a sudden Product Management is the hottest job. Just because it’s a popular role doesn’t mean that it’s an easy one that everyone can do well in. One mistake we see time and time again is a PM that doesn’t actually lead product and instead simply logs features. To feature loggers, all product is just a backlog of functionalities to be built and rank-ordered by what their users tell them. The feature logger types face decision paralysis over simple things, like whether or not to add dark mode.

At super{set}, our Head of Product hire is anything but a feature logger.

First, in the early days, we’re after “market-message fit” — which steers us away from decision paralysis. We aren’t worried about getting user signal for a product that isn’t even built yet. We’re thinking long-term about staging and sequencing a successful product. We go fast and we go far with the prepared mind of educated guesswork along with the gut instincts earned from years of experience.

Second, we’re looking for a strategic decision-maker to be a strategist and an empath that is thinking in terms of the big picture — not agonizing over and micromanaging the small decision points. The details matter, but so does moving quickly to lay the groundwork for long-term success. Feature loggers need not apply.

Organized Thinking and the Staged Buildout

We don’t call our Head of Product an inflated title like “Chief Product Officer,” but trust that we fully empower this individual with the authority to set strategy as a leader in the company. Recall that the Head of Product Co-founder is brought on board as soon as we believe a solution memo has market-message fit, but well before any product is built.

That doesn’t mean we have fully cemented the product strategy. On the contrary, while our goal is to quickly get to a level one product, there are many strategic decisions to be made as we blueprint the product and stage and sequence its rollout to the market. We’re still starting at 0 and going to 1 with our co-founders.

This is why we filter for organized thinking in our hiring process. The Head of Product works alongside super{set} to create the scaffolding for an effective product strategy. Together we fully articulate each stage of the product as we go from insertion product to a steady-state company. The feature roadmap is part of that, but we have to think more broadly about the strategic narrative being brought to the market. We need to set the product strategy for stage one such that the preconditions for stage two are met, and so forth. The design-time decisions around data network effects have to also be considered.

This is truly three-dimensional chess, Hari Seldon-level planning! But it is the best way to start a company, and it is only made possible through our studio model that leverages the resources of the studio and the venture fund joined with the experience of serial founders. We view the Head of Product role as the apotheosis of what was first articulated back in 2000 — a role that truly sits between the grandiose vision outlined in the solution memo and “hardcore software engineering.”

Co-founder versus First Employee

Our co-founders are just that: true co-founders that are ready to go down with the ship — or up like a rocket ship. While we want organized thinkers that will go deep with us in building out the product, as true co-founders they necessarily are not siloed to product decisions. This is why we also look for grit and humility: we need co-founders that will step up and do interviews, will do operations work, and will do the nitty-gritty tasks that do not have a home anywhere else. While the super{set} studio provides far more support than going it alone, the difference between a co-founder and the first employee is that ownership mindset.

Learn more about co-founding at super{set} at superset.com/cofound.

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