Product Management is a notoriously hard role to break into. Hiring managers seem to always want a candidate who has done Product work before. I know firsthand because I’ve been that hiring manager for many years. So this unfortunately leaves us with a Catch-22: how is one supposed to get their first PM role if prior PM experience is required?

This post will go into answering that question, with a specific focus on how a candidate can overcome the lack of direct PM experience.

Why it’s so darn hard

The reason is simply this: The PM role has enormous leverage at a startup.

In a product-focused tech company, product development capacity is one of the most valuable and most constrained resources.

Consider that a typical sprint team includes 4-6 dedicated Engineers, a Designer, a PM (and potentially other dedicated functions depending on the team). With wages, equity, benefits, and taxes, this team can easily represent well over $1M of annual investment. And for a startup, this can be a substantial part of their limited funds.

Even more, startups are always moving towards their expiration date (aka their end of runway). They desperately need to get traction to make it to the next stage, whether that be another financing round or achieving break-even. Time is not on their side, so they need to build the right product in the right way as quickly as possible. As investor and entrepreneur Marc Andreessen has said:

Lots of startups fail before product-market fit ever happens. My contention, in fact, is that they fail because they never get to product-market fit.” — Marc Andreessen, Pmarchive

And this is where Product comes in. More often than not, the PM has the biggest effect on what product is delivered by a sprint team. This means that a strong PM can have a substantial impact on the company’s overall success - Awesome! But it also means that an unfit PM can be worse than having a teammate who doesn’t pull their weight: the unfit PM can take the team in the wrong direction entirely, wasting valuable time.

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Is there any good news?

Ultimately, it’s a subjective hiring decision that you can use to your advantage.

While hiring managers typically prefer past PM experience, it’s not always a hard requirement (even if the job posting says otherwise). There are many dimensions that a hiring manager must weigh to consider whether a candidate is the best fit for the role, and this is where you have the opportunity to overcome the lack of direct PM experience with other relevant experiences to tip the decision your favor.

For the sake of brevity, I’m going to focus this post specifically on suggestions to overcome the lack of direct PM experience. Of course there are several qualities that a candidate should demonstrate for any entry level role to increase their chances of success in the interview process (e.g. being perceived as smart, hard-working, a quick learner). These are just as important to convey during a PM interview process so make sure they are not overlooked!

With that said, let’s get into how to make a hiring manager feel more confident in your Product abilities.

Get PM-relevant experiences on-the-job

While it may seem like you’re not getting PM experience if you don’t have the title, it’s not black & white. If there are Product Managers in your company there are likely opportunities for you to build Product skills at your job.

What opportunities are available will be specific to your situation, but here are a few possibilities:

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