Purple Squirrels and Your Product Team

Many product management job postings are impossible to fill. The idea is to find someone with extensive experience in product management… with a similar product… built on similar technology… in a similar domain… serving a similar market.

They’re looking for a unicorn.

Recruiters use another term for this: The Purple Squirrel. They’re asked to find the perfect candidate, preferably local, with a technical undergrad plus an MBA, with experience in business and technology as well as domain and industry expertise... ... who will work for peanuts. I wonder whether most product managers would get selected to interview for their existing jobs. (I read one posting for a product marketing person with 20 years of social media experience. Facebook was founded in 2004; Twitter in 2006—so it’s unlikely there are many people who meet the “20 year” requirement. I’ve been blogging since 1999 so I probably qualify.) Instead of searching for the unicorn or purple squirrel, instead of looking for an impossible-to-find individual, seek to build a team with the requisite business, technology, and market skills.

This diagram is a variant of a popular view of the product manager. It’s a helpful reminder that product management embraces three types of expertise: business, technical, market. Most organizations add domain as a required expertise. Domain experience is sometimes difficult to define. Domain is the science upon which your product is built while market expertise relates to where you deploy it. Higher education, such as colleges and universities, is a market; internal training for employees is another market. “Adult learning” is a domain or discipline that could be leveraged in both markets. Experience and expertise in domain, market, business, and product are hard to find in an individual. However, you can more easily build up these skills in a product team. Maybe one person has market and business while another has domain and product. Domain expertise is probably the requirement most often desired by hiring managers. And there’s logic to that. We’ve all seen cases of employees who simply don’t understand the domain well enough to make rational decisions. However, expertise in domain may not always necessary; it may already exist elsewhere on your team or it can be learned by engaging with customers. In fact, for many teams, a fresh set of eyes may see things that the in-house “experts” cannot see.

Here’s another domain expertise that you may not have considered: product management.