How I Transitioned from Startup Founder to Product ManagerFeatured

The ending of a startup is rarely planned. After spending a week apart, my cofounder and I came back to San Francisco on different highs. I came back from visiting customers in NYC and wanted to double down and raise money. He came back from Burning Man and felt that bootstrapping was the way to go. He wanted to shift our business TheShareWay to a side hustle. Having broken up with my first co-founder only six months ago, I didn’t have it in me to go through another co-founder breakup and march forward on my own. Nathan had also proven to be an excellent co-founder, and I felt our company would be better off with him even if it was part-time. I relented.

I spent a week bawling in bed feeling lost, but I had to pull myself together quickly because my runway was almost over. As I closed this chapter of our business, a million questions raced through my mind: What do I want to do next? How do I get there? Am I qualified?

The first thing I had to figure out was what I wanted to do next. I reflected on everything that I worked on at our company. My favorite parts were talking to users, understanding their pain points, rallying a team to brainstorm solutions, building something together that fixed their problems, and seeing the delight in their eyes when they used what we had built.

Looking at roles at various tech companies, I learned that my interest lent itself well to product management. I talked to some friends who were PMs to learn more about their day-to-day and decided to go for it!

I started looking for job opportunities and researching how to transition into product management. Most articles I found talked about how to transition from engineering or consulting into product. I couldn’t find anything on how founders transitioned into product. This surprised me because the majority of startups fail and many founders I know transition into product management afterwards because PM’s are essentially “the CEO of the product” as written by Ben Horowitz in Good Product Manager/Bad Product Manager.

With no guidance, I learned about the founder to product manager transition through trial and error. After several applications and interviews, I eventually landed a role at a health insurtech company. I know many of you out there are undergoing the same transition.

Here are a few things I Iearned:

Tip 1: Get your resume right

The most important first step is to spend the time to get your resume in shape. Without the right resume, you won’t pass the screening process.

First, copy and paste job descriptions of PM jobs that you’re interested in into a word cloud. Then make sure to include the top keywords that surface into your resume.

Second, read the LinkedIn profiles of other product managers to see how they present themselves, and emulate their profiles.

Lastly, strip out anything on your resume that’s not relevant to the product management job. You’re going up against the resumes of candidates who have had several years of experience already and need to come off focused and qualified.

Tip 2: Apply to the right companies

After applying to hundreds of companies, I learned not to take rejections personally. Some companies are just not the right fit. Product management is an interdisciplinary field and product managers come from a lot of different backgrounds.

For example, while some companies like to hire product managers with engineering backgrounds, others like candidates with consulting experiences. I learned that startups generally will value your founder experience a lot more than large tech companies because they’ll likely need you to wear multiple hats. Interviewers hiring for roles related to launching new products or that have a lot of ambiguity will also value your founder background.

During your coffee chats with recruiters, referrers, and interviewers, don’t forget to ask about the skill sets that the company generally values in a PM and is looking for in the role that you’re interested in.

Tip 3: Learn to talk like a PM

As a founder, you likely have done a lot of the day-to-day job of a product manager: talking to users, building a solution to solve your users’ problems, and rallying a team towards a vision. As you talk to recruiters and go through interviews, it’s now all about learning to talk like a product manager.

One interviewer asked me, “Explain to me your product process.”

I responded, “I talk to users to figure out what they need. Then, I brainstorm with my co-founder on a solution. We build an MVP. I share it with our users to get feedback, and iterate.”

The interviewer looked unimpressed.

It dawned on me that I have had the experience of a PM. I just needed to talk about it in the right way. I picked up a bunch of product books (Inspired, Sprint, etc.), started going to product events, and watched a ton of product management videos on YouTube. I learned PM words like discovery, sprint, backlog, roadmap, etc. I started peppering them into my interview stories and got further along in the interview process.

As a founder, you are more than qualified to become a PM. You already have all the experiences you need. You just need to give yourself a PM crash course to round out the edges!

Tip 4: Get your interview stories right

Lastly, as founders, we have crazy stories to tell! From co-founder breakups to landing a major client, I had to learn to strip out these gory details in my interview stories. It’s tempting to tell them because we feel so proud of the mountains and hills that we’ve overcome. The problem is that these details take up time. It would be better to spend the time illustrating your knowledge of core PM concepts.

In your stories, learn to leave out the gory details and focus on the conversion and the lift you drove with each feature launched.

A big part of transitioning from a startup founder to a product manager is learning how to package yourself: getting your resume right, learning to talk like a PM, and getting your interview stories right. I hope you find these tips helpful as you make your transition.

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Hannah is the author of the book Founder to Product Manager, and she helps early-stage startups scale their product processes. She also founded TheShareWay, a directory of companies to donate food and raffle items to nonprofits. Previously, she was a product manager at Oscar Health.

helengriffinjr's profile thumbnail
I appreciate you writing up & sharing this with us. I'm actually about to start this process. I'm using Dec to figure out a game plan for Jan.I'm debating between product or developer relations. Product could leverage my founder exp while my founder/dev exp would fit dev relations.Either way, your tips are helpful & practical for any role or industry. Thanks again!
hannahyang's profile thumbnail
Hi @helengriffinjr, I wish you all the best on your transition! If you wind up interested in transitioning into Product, I'm publishing a book soon, an expanded version of this post. Check it out at foundertopm.com
Sambhavi's profile thumbnail
Thanks a lot @hannahyang for sharing your transition journey. I'm thinking of a similar transition, but more towards a development role. The tips you'd listed was to the point, and could be applied to other roles too as @helengriffinjr mentioned.Thanks again for sharing!
hannahyang's profile thumbnail
Hi @Sambhavi, thank you so much. It's great to know that this applies to other roles too :). I wish you all the best!
ewelina's profile thumbnail
Thank you for sharing your valuable experience, Hannah! Can I ask - what happened to your company during that time? Has the bootstrapping paid off?
hannahyang's profile thumbnail
Hi @ewelina, we worked on our business nights and weekend when I was at my full-time PM role. The business (theshareway.com) is doing well. Yes, bootstrapping helped kept it going!
mylenetu's profile thumbnail
Thanks so much for sharing this! :)