Product Marty Cagan

The CEO as Head of Product

One question I’m often asked is whether an early stage startup needs to hire a product manager or head of product.  The answer really depends on the skills of the founders, especially the CEO.  Much more often than not, I see the CEO as the head of product, and I argue that in most cases this is a good thing.  This is especially true in consumer-facing companies.

When the company with the CEO as head of product hires someone else to run product, it usually causes some real strain as the product person struggles to assert himself but the CEO is not willing to let go.

If the CEO is strong at product (famous examples include Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, and Mark Zuckerberg), then the key is to leverage this strength and hire people that complement the CEO, not fight with him over control of the product.

If the CEO is not strong at product, or if his time or interests are consumed with other activities, then that’s where a separate head of product can be essential.

Even when the CEO is the effective head of product, at a certain point as the company grows, there is a real need for a head of product that covers the other aspects of building and leading a strong product team, even though the CEO continues to drive the vision.

There are many reasons why the founding CEO is best suited to be the head of product.  He typically understands the dynamics of the company, the market, and the customer better than anyone in the company.  He is completely committed.  He drives the vision.

The CEO does typically need to be complemented by some strong design skills (the CEO that has these skills in addition to the product skills is truly a rare find).  And don’t confuse someone that has strong design sensibilities with strong design skills.  Recognizing and appreciating strong design, and being able to create strong design, are very different things.

So far I’ve described a pretty ideal scenario, where a strong product leader is pursuing a good idea supported by a skilled team.

Sadly, it’s much more common that I find the founding CEO with the enthusiasm but not necessarily the talents or the techniques to rapidly converge on a successful product.  I consider this to be one of the primary root causes for so many failed startups – even when the product or business idea is a good one.

In this case, the choice is really to hire a strong head of product, or to try to develop the skills of the CEO.  I love working with startup CEO’s that want to become strong heads of product for their companies.  I think it’s the best answer if the CEO can pull it off.

Another common situation is that the founding CEO is an effective head of product, yet at some point he leaves the company, and a true successor to carrying the torch for the product vision is not yet in place.  You can often spot this because the company moves into a very conservative mode where they just make minor optimizations to the product rather than continuing to innovate and take the product and company forward.  Not enough companies worry about this form of succession planning.

The bottom line is that if you’re planning to start your own company, make sure you have the talents necessary to drive the product, or if not, find someone that you can team with that can.