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Company Fact Sheet

Company: ProductMaven
Founded: 2016
Location: Washington, DC
Industry: Internet
Employees: 2-10

ProductMaven helps SMBs create a digital product strategy and hire the right talent

In our tech-driven world, many small and medium-sized businesses aren’t equipped to build digital products like their larger competitors. ProductMaven helps these businesses create a product strategy and hire the talent they need to execute it.

ProductMaven’s Principal Chris Rosenbaum spoke with us about how they approach hiring on behalf of the companies they work with.

Can you provide an overview of ProductMaven?

Our goal is to essentially help companies upgrade their product potential. Rather than help companies just build products – like a dev shop or  product innovation shop we actually help them increase their own capacity for great products. We often work with small or medium-sized business owners and many of them have built lovely companies. They have good financials or good brands but perhaps they just weren’t digital-first businesses. They don’t know how to react to the innovation that’s coming into their marketplace and they don’t want to get left behind.

There are generally three areas we help businesses with: strategy, execution and talent. We found serendipitously that there’s a lot of great value in mixing these things together because they are all intrinsically linked.

We streamline these together for our customers to ensure their business strategy aligns with what they’re trying to do for their users. We make sure we put in processes that are going to enable that. Do they have the right product roadmapping solutions? Are they weighing ideas against each other and making decisions based on potential ROI? We get them on track and then ultimately help them hire someone to lead product in the long term.

Our goal is sustainability. We try to build deeper customer empathy, to improve the decision-making process, and to bolster product impact so they can attract top talent. It’s like selling a man a fish versus teaching him how to fish. We don’t want to just change the company’s products, we want to change their trajectory.

Of the three areas ProductMaven focuses on, how important is the hiring aspect?

It’s critical to our mission, otherwise we’d be just another execution shop. Hiring is something I’ve always loved throughout my career because it can impact everything in the business. One great hire can solve so many problems.

As an analog, I’ve spent a lot of time in the education field, and I feel that education is a similar point of leverage. A lot of the world’s problems are inherently education problems: when we improve educational systems and increase outcomes broadly, many of those problems start to solve themselves. I think the same is true for hiring. Companies face a lot of problems across product, finance, marketing, and so on. If you’re totally committed to really hiring the right people the right way, then a lot of these problems become much easier to deal with.

In the mold of helping our customers become more sustainable, we give them hiring advice they can use again and again for other positions, not just for the one or two roles we recruit.

How difficult is it to hire on behalf of someone else’s company?

Hiring for someone else’s company is both harder and easier: we don’t have the constraints of momentum and tunnel vision, but we don’t have the benefit of prolonged experience in their field.

On the positive, we’re not subject to the biases the organization may already have. So we’ll take new eyes and investigate questions such as: Are the people on the team in the right roles? Are their responsibilities matched to their strengths, and are their incentives truly aligned to those of the business? Are there any missing skillsets that training (rather than hiring) could solve?

We have a lot of conversations to figure these things out but, at the same time, it’s a challenge. We’re dealing with an asymmetry of information. We don’t understand all the problems our customers face. We don’t understand how all their processes work. It’s good and bad, and we try to avoid problems by learning as much as can about their business.  

When a lot of companies hire, they identify a pain and look for someone to come in and make it go away. They say, “I need somebody to deliver this outcome.” They come up with what they think is a list of requirements or tasks and that’s our job description. It often ends up being a bunch of inside-baseball terms and weird acronyms. They think we can post it to a job board and everyone will come running.

Good firms that have a solid concept of investing in human capital are obviously better at this. But they’re rare, particularly when it comes to small and medium-sized businesses. That’s not a knock on them: it’s understandably a challenge for those businesses because they’re trying to do so many different things and don’t have specialists to delegate to.

In these cases, we start at square one. We look at what the business is trying to accomplish. We then go down a long path of rebuilding the role concept around desired business outcomes and mapping out how they’ll get there. When you create jobs around outcomes instead of tasks, not only is the role much more dynamic, but you’re also speaking the same language as great talent. They want to know the headline challenges, to understand the valuable goals that will be entrusted to them, rather than a micro-managing list of specific daily tasks.

Big businesses often talk about hiring people who fit their company culture. Do small and medium-sized business owners have the same perspective?

Whether you’re doing it intentionally or unintentionally, you’re creating a culture, either by will or neglect. One of the first things we do is try to understand the culture the company wants to have. “Culture” is a term that’s somewhat loaded these days, so we need to first come to a common understanding of the concept with them: What matters here? What are the values you want instilled in your company?

You can find somebody who has all the skills in the world but they won’t work out if they’re not a fit, and “fit” itself is a vague term that often should be reduced to more specific constituent components so we can more accurately measure it. Do they agree with the mission of the company? Do they want to work the same kind of hours? Do they want to be on site? Do they communicate in a way that is going to match up with how the organization communicates?

You also have to be careful when hiring based on culture fit. One of the things we often see through our objective outsider’s view is the lack of diversity on a team – not just race and gender, but more subtle characteristics of education, industry experience, family, personality, etc. Sometimes “fit” and “culture” unintentionally lead to homogeneity and group think. Companies often want to hire people who are similar to the other people already on the team. They think, “This person reminds me of the people we already have so they must be good.” But feeling like a person is someone you can go have a beer with or gossip with around the office shouldn’t be the driving force in how you build your team. In fact, it’s often a reason to stop and pause.

Businesses should consider what they’re losing if they strive to hire people who look, sound and feel like the other people they already have. Could it be beneficial to bring on new points of view that will reduce the echo chamber that’s going on? Should we bring in people who have different work experience? You should always strive to bring on independent points of view that help mitigate bias and build a richer environment.

We see a lot of small businesses on both ends of the equation. Some are amazingly dedicated to culture because it’s a small organization. If you only have a few people, it’s much easier to feel like a family than a big corporation that talks a lot about culture. Other times, they might be in tune with culture but don’t know what to do with it from a business perspective. That’s where we come in. We provide ideas on how to define culture. We make sure they are protecting it and hiring for it, while also being diligently aware of the downsides of being blind to culture.

Can you share any anecdotes or success stories about helping companies hire great talent?

When we get involved with companies, we start all the way up at the business strategy level and look holistically at what the company needs.

On three separate occasions, this has resulted in elevating a planned hire from a particular seniority to a level or two higher in the organization. As we went through the process with these businesses, we got them to understand that they had a fundamentally larger blind spot in their business and they needed someone with more experience to address it.

In each of those cases, we made successful hires who were super jazzed about taking on a big challenge. They were excited that their new employer knew there was a huge obstacle and was giving them the opportunity to solve it. They were obviously facing a difficult challenge, but great hires are people who really nerd out about their jobs and crave such impact.

I always advise companies to be transparent when hiring. A lot of companies treat it like dating. They’re tight-lipped and guarded. But I believe that a new hire should never find out anything substantial that they didn’t know in the candidate phase. You’re just asking for trouble if you withhold information from candidates. They’ll find out when they’re on the job and will either not know how to handle the issue or develop a sense of distrust toward you as an employer.

What’s the history of your ProductMaven? How did it come to be?

My partner Ryan Troll and I started ProductMaven last year after we saw some common threads in a couple of side projects we were working on. We both alternated between the startup and corporate worlds throughout our careers but have always had a soft spot for small business owners and entrepreneurs. I ran a painting franchise and built a DJ company in college and learned so much about business through those experiences, so I’ve always had an affinity for folks who take that sort of risk.

In these random side projects we were doing, we saw an opportunity to use our breadth of experience to help these businesses turn a market challenge into an opportunity – and that was really cool to us.

My partner and I complement each other very well. Ryan is a career expert in product and marketing with an engineer’s detail-oriented brain. My career was more thematically developed. I spent 13 years in the education space with experience sprinkled across a lot of different areas like operations, strategy, investing, talent and culture. Our different approaches and perspectives complement each other, and we’re looking forward to what the future may hold.

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