The great divide: CEO and CPO roles in the product first startups

It is indeed a tough journey to go from an idea to an MVP, raise funds, and prepare for scaling up. As every person with a specific skill set and experience would be looking for the best role to apply such skillset and experience, the Founders, too, need to consider if they are the best fit to raise and grow product organization to the next stages. Some founders feel very attached to the product they built so far, presenting occasionally a skewed vision of priorities and, alas! not always acting in the best interest of the end-users of the product. Whereas the mix between the CPO and CTO role and even CTO and CEO role works rather well, the mix of CEO and CPO could be detrimental. This situation can be especially tricky with first-time founders.

This seems to be one of the top concerns current seasoned VPs and CPOs raise in our interviews for Head of /CPO roles, and understandably so, as the CPO role requires a good level of autonomy and keeps the undivided attention on the user. As discussed in our previous article, getting too emotionally attached can be fatal, and the research proves this point with 60% of founders no longer being in a CEO position in year 4 post-launch. For product first startups the divide is difficult to make, so let us help you with clearing the air and starting with the definition –

What the CPO is responsible for?

Chief Product Officer (CPO), the executive responsible for the strategy and execution of all product-related activities. Establishing a product vision, product innovation, product development, product design, and building a product organization all fall under this umbrella. In other words, the CPO is in charge of initiatives across the entire product lifecycle — from customer discovery and user research to development and delivery.

Why CTO and CPO roles can potentially be a good mix?

On a strategic level, the CPO focuses on the why of the product while the CTO on the how — how development will be carried out and how the product will be implemented and delivered securely and on the scale. Both roles require a strategic thinker with great execution. style, yet different focus. For some smaller startups mixing both could be a great profile!

Here are some cautions with regards to mixing the CEO and CPO roles:

  1. Too many reports across the organization, spreading the attention to the product itself very thin
  2. The biased voice of the user, as other parts of the organization would tint the view and attention away from the product priorities
  3. Having a final word in product-related matters can move the product away from the structure and into the chaos of unnecessary features, wasting the valuable resources

More product leaders than ever now have an active seat in the executive suite. As modern organizational structures evolve, it’s common to see confusion around areas of ownership and division of responsibility. We are glad to observe the pre-seed and seed stage Founders proactively bringing in the seasoned and emerging CPOs to lead the product team. We have also communicated with the Series B Founders caught in the craze of a new raise and not facing the reality of great divide.

What do you think – when should product first startups hire a CPO?

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