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Nailing Product Manager Interview for Startups

By Mansur Nazimuddin – Head of Product (Video Shopping and Amazon Live) at Amazon India

When it comes to hiring for product roles at startups, the process is far from conventional since they operate in a dynamic and fast-paced environment, which demands a unique approach to identifying the right candidates. Hiring managers and founders at a startup generally look for individuals with specific qualities and skills that align with their company’s vision and challenges. 

In this blog, we delve into the key insights shared by Mansur Nazimuddin, Senior Manager, Product Management – Tech at Amazon on criteria that hiring managers use to evaluate potential candidates. Further exploring the nature of interviews at startups, how to crack them, and provide insights on how to find the right role and select the perfect startup that aligns with your goals and aspirations.

Key Takeaways:

  • Startup hiring for product roles is unique, here we will explore the skills hiring managers seek in candidates. 
  • Further exploring the tips and tricks to crack a startup interview.
  • We will also delve into the techniques to evaluate the right startup role and the right startup that aligns with your goals.
In this article
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    How Hiring Managers Hire for Product Roles

    When it comes to hiring at a startup, the process is often distinct from that of an enterprise. Startups typically with a dynamic and fast-paced environment approach the process of hiring in a very unique manner while also looking for a unique set of skills in the candidates. 

    The key criteria based on which hiring managers or founders evaluate potential candidates for a startup include:

    1. Demonstrates Product Management Skills: 

    The candidate should possess essential product management skills, including product sense, customer communication, and collaboration with engineers. These Product 101 skills are considered fundamental prerequisites for any product management role.

    2. Exhibits a Broad Range of Skills: 

    The hiring manager seeks individuals with diverse skill sets. They value candidates who can demonstrate proficiency or potential in various areas of product management, complementing each other’s strengths.

    3. Shows Flexibility and Willingness to Learn: 

    The hiring manager is not looking for candidates who express a strong preference for working exclusively within a specific domain or dealing with particular types of problems. Since the startup environment involves a high level of variability in the challenges they face. For example, a hyper-growth startup like Swiggy, basically a food delivery company that expanded its offerings to include cloud kitchens, loyalty programs, and various other initiatives aimed at enhancing customer experience and loyalty. 

    Focusing solely on one area, especially at the very early stage of a startup limits a candidate’s potential value to the company, as the problems to be tackled are multifaceted and dynamic. Therefore, they seek candidates who are open to embracing a diverse range of challenges and are not narrowly specialized in a single domain.

    4. Understands the Specific Product: 

    One crucial and exceptionally rare trait that hiring managers seek in potential product managers is a deep understanding and connection with the specific product they will be working on. Being a product manager involves driving the core business and tackling its challenges, unlike certain professions where one can excel by writing excellent code independently. Hence this aspect seems to be of utmost importance. 

    During interviews with prospective product managers, the hiring manager aims to ascertain whether the candidate truly comprehends the intricacies of the product and the really interest in working on it. They express dissatisfaction with candidates who merely express a vague desire about wanting to work in any startup or generic aspirations to become a consumer product manager. Instead, they seek candidates who demonstrate a passion for solving particular consumer problems or experience-related issues, and who possess a clear vision or thesis about the industry they are entering. These traits indicate a potential for success in the role, regardless of the candidate’s existing skills. 

    5. Possesses Unique Qualities: 

    Hiring managers are always keen on seeking candidates with a diverse range of skills and qualities that make them stand out from the crowd. The individuals who go beyond the conventional and avoid being just another typical candidate, who can distinguish themselves in some manner are preferred. This point doesn’t refer to outward appearances, such as someone dressed unusually, like wearing an orange hat, but rather to the deeper essence of what makes a candidate distinctive.

    While this quality might also be valued in other companies, it holds particular importance in the startup environment where the cost of making the wrong hire is significantly high. In contrast to larger companies where a single hire’s impact might be less pronounced due to the large workforce, in a startup, a misfit in a critical role could severely affect the business and its chances of success.

    Nature of Interview at a Startup

    The key aspects to be aware of while preparing for the interview and also what candidates commonly experience during the interview process include: 

    1. Disorganized:

    The hiring at a startup process can be quite unpredictable, including rescheduling or sometimes the hiring manager may even not show up. The interview questions can also vary significantly with some interviews delving deep into the candidate’s past experiences, while others focus on first principles or the product the startup is building. This variability makes the exact nature of the questions to be faced during the interview highly unpredictable.

    The candidates appearing for the interview must try and discern the likely interview approach of the specific startup they are applying to, as the interview process in startups tends to be less standardized and more spontaneous compared to larger companies like Amazon, Google, or Microsoft, which have well-established and calibrated interview processes. Candidates should be prepared to handle this arbitrariness and adjust accordingly during their interview preparation.

    The best approach to crack the interview at any startup is to proactively seek information from various sources, such as the hiring manager, the recruiting team, and the company’s representatives. By asking questions about the interview process and what the hiring team is specifically looking for, candidates can gain valuable insights and prepare accordingly. Just as product managers wouldn’t develop a product without understanding consumer needs and desires, candidates should seek clarity on the interview process and the criteria they will be evaluated on.

    2. Founders:

    Founders play a significant role in startups whereas in mature companies where the hiring process is well-organized and involves multiple decision-makers, founders are not the sole deciders. In startups, founders and, to some extent, hiring managers wield considerable influence and control over the hiring decisions which is not so in enterprises, where the hiring committee is large enough and no one has the sole power. Hence the chemistry and compatibility between the candidates and the founders or hiring managers is highly significant. They stress that establishing a strong working relationship is crucial in the startup environment, where close collaboration with founders and key decision-makers can shape the candidate’s success and overall fit within the company.

    3. Founder Interviews:

    The interview with the founder can be arbitrary; covering a wide range of subjects and with varying time slots. They might be brief, lasting only 20 minutes, or may not even involve formal interviews. Instead, they could take the form of casual conversations over a cup of coffee or during lunch. Regardless of whether it’s a casual encounter or a crucial interview, it’s essential to remember that the objective remains the same: to leave a positive impression.

    4. Reference:

    References carry significant weight, especially for small companies with limited hiring resources compared to larger firms. Small companies often lack the brand recognition and competitive compensation packages that larger companies can offer. Additionally, they may have limited bandwidth for conducting interviews. Therefore, when someone within the company vouches for a candidate’s suitability, it holds considerable value.

    It’s also important to recognize that the hiring process may not be flawless at Starups due to constraints in resources and time. They face challenges in organizing interviews and dedicating substantial hours to the hiring process, unlike larger companies. Hence some aspects of the hiring process might appear arbitrary or less structured. However, this doesn’t imply any ill intentions on the part of the interviewers; it’s simply a characteristic of the situation. Candidates should exercise patience and understand that the nature of hiring in small companies may lead to occasional breaks or less streamlined processes. Despite this, keeping the below-mentioned factors in mind can help candidates navigate the hiring experience more effectively.

    How to Crack a Startup Interview?

    The interview process provides only a brief glimpse into a candidate’s thought process and capabilities. Furthermore, the hiring managers at startups operate within the constraints of limited data, time, and resources when seeking to make a hire. Hence being distinctive in certain aspects holds significance, though this does not advocate for being different through dishonesty during interviews or for the mere sake of being unconventional. Rather, the focus lies in engaging in actions that could genuinely set a candidate apart.

    1. Establishing Pre-Interview Credibility: 

    To enhance credibility before the interview, candidates can consider engaging in a range of activities. With numerous public platforms available today, writing a blog, sharing insights on LinkedIn, or tweeting about relevant topics, particularly in product management, can be highly beneficial. Further not just carrying out the activities but also including links to these contributions on the resume can bolster credibility. For those transitioning from non-product backgrounds, taking proactive steps like working on side projects or collaborating with product teams within their current company showcases initiative and commitment to exploring a career in product management. Such efforts will set candidates apart and increase their chances of standing out during the interview process.

    2. Developing an Industry and Product Thesis:

    When asked about the reasons for wanting to work in the company, if a candidate responds by sharing their insights on the industry, its potential evolution, and how various factors come into play, highlighting the company’s product as well-positioned to capture value, it showcases their prowess as a business thinker. This demonstration of thoughtful analysis and understanding of the market provides the interviewer with valuable information beyond a simple product-related response.

    3. Demonstrating Breadth of Skills:

    Candidates can effectively display the breadth of their skills during the interview process through a variety of examples and experiences. Emphasizing versatility enhances the appeal to potential employers.

    4. Displaying Enthusiasm for the Company:

    Expressing genuine enthusiasm to work specifically for the hiring company carries substantial weight in the selection process. Offering tangible evidence of genuine interest, such as well-researched blog posts or analyses related to the company’s offerings, conveys a deeper level of commitment and understanding. Founders and hiring managers seek individuals who share their passion for the company’s mission, recognizing that a genuine connection to the product leads to a more productive and successful partnership.

    How to Find the Right Role?

    Once the decision has been made to pursue a position at a startup and an understanding of the hiring process has been gained, the focus now shifts to how to actively find the perfect job fit for you. The possible metrics to follow to get the job include:

    1. Work From an Industry Thesis:

    The most valuable advice offered is to work from an industry thesis, as it significantly enhances the chances of finding a startup that aligns with one’s preferences. For instance, having a thesis focused on a particular industry, such as edtech, can guide the candidate to identify startups operating in that space. By applying this thesis-driven approach, they can search for companies that match their desired stage of development, increasing the likelihood of discovering a startup where they would enjoy working.

    2. Crunchbase or Other Startup News:

    Crunchbase or other startup news platforms serve as excellent sources of information. Companies that experience significant growth, such as reaching the hyper-growth stage or securing Series B or C funding, often indicate a period of aggressive hiring. This knowledge can be invaluable in identifying opportune times and places to seek job opportunities and get hired by startups.

    3. Job Boards:

    Job boards prove to be valuable resources, with some platforms being more advantageous than others. For instance, AngelList stands out as an excellent option for startups, providing a wealth of opportunities tailored to their specific needs. Additionally, LinkedIn serves as another exceptional platform for startups, offering a wide array of job listings and networking possibilities in the startup community.

    4. Recruiters Who Specialize in Working With Startups:

    Specialized recruiters who focus on collaborating with startups can prove to be highly beneficial. Depending on the city, there are recruitment agencies with a niche in the startup sector. For instance, in Bangalore, companies like CareerNet have been known for their extensive linkages with startups and their active involvement in filling startup job roles. By connecting with such recruiters, candidates can gain valuable insights into the available job opportunities within the startup ecosystem.

    5. Network:

    The concept of referrals ties back to the importance of understanding how they work. While referrals can be highly beneficial, it is essential to approach them in a respectful and thoughtful manner. Spamming hiring managers on LinkedIn is not recommended. Instead, a more effective approach involves reaching out with a well-crafted message, demonstrating a clear industry or product thesis, and expressing genuine interest in a specific company.

    Hiring managers often receive numerous LinkedIn requests, and responding to all of them becomes challenging when the requests lack meaningful information for evaluation. However, when a candidate aligns their interest with the right company, stage of development, and industry, and effectively communicates a well-thought-out thesis, it can capture the attention of potential employers. This approach has a higher probability of generating interest and engagement from hiring managers.

    How to Select the Right Company?

    Adopting an investor’s mindset is vital when approaching a role and evaluating a startup. While investors focus on investing money, candidates must recognize that they will invest significant portions of their future in the company they choose to work for. Just like an investor conducts thorough due diligence, candidates should also be prudent and diligent in their evaluation.

    It is essential to go beyond the surface level and gain a deep understanding of the company, its customers, and the value its product offers. Engaging in conversations with customers, comprehending the product’s strengths and limitations, analyzing the go-to-market strategy, and formulating a personal thesis on the company are all crucial steps. Treating your time as a valuable asset, akin to an investor’s money, will help candidates make informed decisions about where to invest their efforts. Conducting thorough research will also enable fruitful conversations with potential employers and demonstrate genuine interest and commitment to the role. The factors that can help you better understand a startup and be a game-changer in making well-informed career decisions include:

    1. Founders:

    Above all else, the founders hold significant influence over the organization’s destiny, culture, and ultimately, your experience within the company. It is crucial to deeply assess your interactions with them, the questions you ask, and how they respond. Observing how they approach business development and the decisions they make, whether right or wrong, can provide valuable insights. You might also consider their background, history, and track record as well. Notably, statistics often indicate that around 80% of investment decisions in a company are heavily influenced by the founders. Since you are investing 100% of your time, giving utmost importance to the founders’ qualities and attributes is paramount.

    2. Your Team:

    When communicating with the hiring manager, it is essential to express clarity about the team you would be collaborating with, particularly the engineering team. Ensuring you understand the level of engineering control you will have in the role is crucial. Being hired into a position where you lack sufficient engineering control can limit your impact as a product professional, as the outcome heavily depends on collaboration with the engineering team. Getting this aspect right is of utmost importance to make an informed decision about the role and its potential for success.

    3. What the Organization Thinks is Product Management: 

    When exploring various sources of literature on product management, a common theme one will encounter is the question, “What is product management?” It is interesting to note that even product managers themselves often have differing views on the definition of product management. Consequently, it is not surprising that many organizations may also struggle to fully grasp the concept. As product management is a relatively young field, there can be confusion surrounding its exact scope, with some perceiving it as project management or user research roles.

    Given this ambiguity, it becomes crucial to gain a clear understanding of how the organization in question defines product management. During interviews and conversations with the company, it is essential to seek clarity on their specific interpretation of the role. By doing so, candidates can align their expectations with the organization’s perspective, which is vital in ensuring a successful match between their skills and the company’s product management requirements.

    4. What Kind of Engineers:

    It is essential for candidates to assess the caliber of the engineering team within the organization they are considering. The strength of the engineering team will significantly impact their ability to excel in their work. To gain insights, candidates should explore the LinkedIn profiles of engineering leaders and team members, observing their work history and accomplishments. This analysis will provide a clear understanding of the engineering team’s capabilities and expertise, ultimately influencing the potential for success within the role.

    5. Company’s Culture:

    To evaluate the company culture, candidates should look beyond the stated values and mission, as they may not always reflect the actual culture. Instead, focus on the following aspects:

    a. Founders: Engage with the founders to understand their values and product philosophy. Ask probing questions and observe their responses, especially regarding their approach to excellence and efficiency.

    b. Leaders: Pay attention to the leaders, particularly the product leaders, and their backgrounds. For instance, if a product leader comes from a previous stint at Amazon, it might indicate a predominant influence of Amazon’s principles and practices in the startup.

    c. Employee Perspectives: Gather insights from current and former employees through platforms like Glassdoor and personal connections. Their feedback will provide valuable information about the company’s strengths and weaknesses.

    d. Attrition Rate: Examine the attrition rate to determine if employees tend to stay for longer or shorter periods. This can provide insights into the organization’s work environment and employee satisfaction.

    e. The Eyeball Test: During interviews or visits to the office, be observant of the office atmosphere. The general energy and enthusiasm of the team can reveal valuable information about the company’s culture.

    Lastly, it is important to be realistic and not count on drastic cultural changes. While companies may claim to adopt new principles, cultural shifts are challenging and often slow to manifest. Instead, base decisions on what is currently evident and whether the existing culture aligns with personal goals and values. Avoid relying on speculative assumptions about future changes in the company’s culture.

    Frequently Asked Questions

    Hiring for product roles at startups is different because startups operate in a dynamic and fast-paced environment, demanding a unique approach to identify the right candidates. Startups look for individuals with specific qualities and skills that align with their company’s vision and challenges, and the hiring process may be less structured compared to larger companies.

    The key criteria that hiring managers use to evaluate potential candidates at startups include:

    • Demonstrating product management skills
    • Exhibiting a broad range of skills
    • Showing flexibility and willingness to learn
    • Understanding the specific product
    • Possessing unique qualities that make candidates stand out.

    Startup interviews can be disorganized and less standardized compared to larger companies. The interview questions and process may vary, and founders or hiring managers often play a significant role in the hiring decision. Startups may also focus on industry-specific or product-related questions to assess candidates’ understanding of the company and its challenges.

    To crack a startup interview, candidates can:

    • Establish pre-interview credibility through contributions like blogs or projects.
    • Develop an industry and product thesis to showcase their business thinking.
    • Demonstrate a breadth of skills and versatility.
    • Display genuine enthusiasm for the specific company and its products.

    To find the right role at a startup, candidates can:

    • Work from an industry thesis to identify startups that align with their preferences.
    • Utilize platforms like Crunchbase and job boards for startup job opportunities.
    • Connect with recruiters specializing in working with startups.
    • Network and seek referrals for suitable positions.

    Understanding the company’s product management definition is crucial to ensure a successful match between a candidate’s skills and the company’s expectations. Product management definitions can vary, and aligning expectations during the interview process ensures clarity on the role and responsibilities.

    Candidates should consider several factors when evaluating a startup company, including:

    • The background and track record of the founders.
    • The engineering team’s caliber and expertise.
    • The company’s culture, as reflected by leaders, employees, and attrition rates.
    • The company’s product philosophy and alignment with personal values.

    Candidates can showcase their passion and understanding of a startup’s product by:

    • Demonstrating a deep understanding and connection with the specific product during interviews.
    • Sharing insights on the industry and the potential evolution of the product.
    • Providing tangible evidence of genuine interest, such as well-researched blog posts or analyses related to the company’s offerings.

    Candidates should be prepared for a less structured and more spontaneous interview process at startups. They should proactively seek information from various sources about the interview approach and criteria for evaluation. Patience and adaptability are essential qualities to navigate the hiring process effectively.

    Approaching the role evaluation process at startups with an investor’s mindset helps candidates make well-informed career decisions. Just as investors conduct thorough due diligence before investing money, candidates should diligently assess the company, founders, team, and culture before investing their time and efforts in the role.

    About the Authors:

    Mansur Nazimuddin – Head of Product (Video Shopping and Amazon Live) at Amazon India

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