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  • Writer's pictureTyler Swabey

What is a CPO and do I need one?



Get ready to explore the fascinating world of C-level roles at startups! In this article, we'll delve into the true nature of the Chief Product Officer (CPO) role, and help you navigate the best time to bring one on board, how to find the right candidate, and how to pay them. As you'll discover, the CPO is a crucial hire for tech companies looking to scale up and compete in today's fast-paced market. They are responsible for developing and executing a company's product strategy, driving innovation, and ensuring that all product efforts align with the company's broader objectives. So, what exactly does a CPO do, and how do you find the right person for the job? Read on to find out!



What is a CPO?


If you're scaling a tech company, a Chief Product Officer (CPO) can be a key hire to help you drive growth and succeed in today's highly competitive market. But what does a CPO actually do?


At its core, the CPO role is responsible for overseeing the development and execution of a company's product strategy. This includes everything from defining the product roadmap to leading cross-functional teams to bringing products to market. A CPO must be highly strategic and skilled in managing complex product portfolios, ensuring that every product decision aligns with the company's overall business objectives.


​​The CPO is often seen as the "voice of the customer" within the organization: They work closely with customers and stakeholders to understand their needs and preferences. They use this insight to inform product development and make data-driven decisions. A CPO also plays a key role in driving innovation within the company, constantly exploring new technologies and trends to ensure the company's products stay ahead of the competition.They will synthesize market research and customer feedback to help drive the product roadmap forward, making decisions that are data-driven and customer-focused.


The CPO must work closely with other executives and teams within the organization including marketing, engineering, design, and sales to ensure that all product efforts are integrated and aligned with the company's broader strategy. This requires excellent communication skills and a willingness to collaborate and make tough trade-off decisions.


The CPO role has become increasingly important in recent years as companies recognize the need for a dedicated product leader. In fact, some experts predict that the CPO role may eventually become as crucial as the CEO or CTO in shaping a company's success.



What is the difference between a CPO and other Product leaders?


At first glance, it may seem like the role of a Chief Product Officer (CPO) is similar to that of other product leaders such as product managers, product owners, or even Chief Technology Officers (CTOs). However, the differences between these roles are significant.


While product managers and owners focus on the day-to-day operations of a particular product or product line, CPOs take a broader view of the entire product portfolio. They are responsible for defining and executing the product strategy that aligns with the company's overall vision and goals.


In contrast to a CTO who is focused on the technical aspects of product development, a CPO is focused on the overall customer experience and how the product fits into the market. They are also responsible for identifying new opportunities for growth and expansion and evaluating potential risks and challenges.


The CPO is a strategic role that requires a unique combination of skills and experience. They must have a deep understanding of the market and the needs of customers and strong leadership and communication skills to effectively lead cross-functional teams.


CPOs are often responsible for driving innovation and bringing new ideas to the table. They are constantly thinking about the future and how the company can stay ahead of the curve in a rapidly changing market.



When should you hire your first CPO?


One question that many companies face is when to hire their first Chief Product Officer. While there is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question, there are some factors to consider when making this decision.


Companies should consider hiring a CPO when:

  • Product vision becomes too complex for the CEO to handle alone. The CPO can then take ownership of the product vision and strategy, allowing the CEO to focus on other aspects of the business.

  • You have achieved product-market fit and need someone to drive growth through product development.

  • You are experiencing high levels of customer churn or if the company is facing intense competition.

  • Increasing development costs haven't led to revenue growth or customer satisfaction improvement in the last few quarters

  • Teams across product functions and life cycle are not aligned on the product vision, resulting in disjointed customer experiences and business strategies.

  • You are facing challenges in consolidating a product portfolio, strategy, and operating model after a recent merger or acquisition.

  • You have only hired generalist product managers, resulting in skill gaps in strategy, data, and product operations.

  • The development team's output fails to resonate with customers. It may be time to hire a senior product leader who can serve as the intermediary between business strategy and execution.


How do you find the right CPO for your scaling tech company?


Hiring a CPO can be a challenging process as the role requires a unique combination of skills and experience. It is important to consider the specific needs of your company and the industry you operate in when searching for the right candidate. Look for someone who has experience in your industry, understands your target customers, and can drive growth through product innovation.


One way to find the right CPO is to work with an executive search firm. These firms have experience in finding and vetting top executive talent and can help you navigate the hiring process. They can also provide valuable insights into industry trends and compensation benchmarks to help you attract and retain the best talent.


When working with an executive search firm, it is important to communicate your company's culture, values, and goals to ensure that they find candidates who are a good fit. Additionally, it is important to have a clear understanding of the job requirements and responsibilities to ensure that the search firm is aligned with your needs.


Whether you decide to work with an executive search firm or conduct the search on your own, here are some key factors to consider when evaluating candidates:


  1. Relevant experience: Look for candidates who have experience in your industry, as well as a track record of success in product management. This includes experience in developing and executing product strategy, managing product teams, and bringing successful products to market.

  2. Leadership skills: A CPO needs to be an effective leader who can inspire and motivate a team and communicate with stakeholders at all levels of the organization. Look for candidates who have experience managing and developing teams in a style that aligns with your company culture.

  3. Strategic thinking: A strong CPO should think strategically about product development, understand the broader business goals and how products fit into those goals. Look for candidates who can demonstrate a strategic mindset, an ability to prioritize and make tough decisions.

  4. Technical expertise: Depending on the nature of the products, technical expertise can be important for a CPO. This includes a strong understanding of the underlying technology and the ability to work closely with the engineering team to ensure that product development is aligned with technical capabilities.

  5. Data-driven approach: In today's market, data plays a critical role in product development and decision-making. Look for candidates who are comfortable working with data, and who can demonstrate an ability to use data to inform product strategy and drive results.

  6. Communication skills: A CPO needs to be an effective communicator who can work collaboratively with other members of the executive team, as well as communicate effectively with customers and other stakeholders. Look for candidates who can demonstrate strong communication skills, including the ability to listen, articulate ideas clearly, and influence others.

  7. Industry experience: Depending on the nature of the company and its products, industry experience can be a valuable asset for a CPO. This can bring an understanding of market trends, customer needs, and competitive landscape that can help guide product strategy.

  8. Cultural fit: The CPO should be a good fit for the company culture, working style, and values. This includes a willingness to collaborate and work as part of a team, as well as a commitment to the company's mission and goals.


Should I hire a Full-Time or a Fractional CPO?


When it comes to hiring a CPO, companies generally have two options: full-time or fractional. Each approach has its advantages and disadvantages, and ultimately, the decision will depend on the company's specific needs, goals, and resources.


Full-time CPOs offer several benefits, including their undivided attention, full-time availability, and a higher level of accountability. Full-time CPOs are fully dedicated to the company and can focus all their efforts on developing and executing the product strategy. They can also build strong relationships with the rest of the executive team, including the CEO, CTO, and CMO, which can be critical to the company's success.


However, full-time CPOs also come with a higher price tag. They require a more significant investment in terms of salary and benefits, as well as other expenses, such as office space and equipment. Additionally, if the company is not large enough to justify a full-time CPO or if the product strategy is not complex enough to require a full-time CPO's attention, the investment may not be worth it.


On the other hand, fractional CPOs offer a more flexible and cost-effective option. Fractional CPOs are experienced professionals who work part-time for multiple companies. They can provide a company with the product expertise it needs without the overhead costs of a full-time CPO. Fractional CPOs also offer a fresh perspective and a diverse range of experiences and best practices from working with multiple companies.


However, fractional CPOs may not have the same level of commitment or availability as full-time CPOs. Since they work for multiple companies, their attention may be divided, and they may not be available for critical decisions or strategy sessions. Additionally, building strong relationships with the rest of the executive team may be slightly more challenging, as they are not typically physically present at the company's offices.


Ultimately, the decision between a full-time or fractional CPO will depend on the company's specific needs and resources. A company should evaluate the complexity of its product strategy, the need for a full-time CPO's attention, and the budget available to make the best decision. Hiring an executive search firm can also be helpful in identifying the right candidate, whether that be a full-time or fractional CPO.


For more information on hiring fractional executives and the major advantages of this approach, please check out our detailed explainer article, or reach out to us to have a chat.



How much should we pay our CPO?


CPOs generally command a pretty healthy compensation package due to their strategic importance, market demand and unique skillset. Like any role however, numbers can vary based on many factors, but most notably company size, industry and location.


We recently put together a Product Salary Snapshot of current compensation ranges for product leaders in the Canadian and US markets, based on salary data we’ve collected directly in conversations with candidates. As of 2022, the median base salary for CPOs in the US is around $280,000 per year, with the top 10% earning $420,000 or more. In Canada, the median base salary for CPOs is around CAD $225,000 per year, with the top 10% earning CAD $300,000 or more.


In addition to base salary, CPOs often receive bonuses and equity as part of their compensation package. CPOs typically receive a bonus of around 20-30% of their base salary, with some receiving up to 50% or more. Equity can also be a significant portion of a CPO's compensation, with some receiving up to 1-2% equity in the company. Individuals who are part of earlier-stage companies tend to be on the lower end of the salary range but receive a larger share of equity to compensate for a lower base salary. This is typical for all roles, not just Product.


Ultimately, the decision on how much to pay a CPO will depend on factors such as the company's size, stage, and financial situation, as well as the experience and expertise of the candidate. It's important to benchmark the compensation package against industry standards and to ensure that it is competitive enough to attract top talent. For a closer look at compensating Product Leaders, check out our Salary Snapshot.




Subscribe to our monthly Artemis Update to receive future Salary Snapshots directly to your inbox + more great content including our Industry Insights, Leaders on the Move, Humans of Tech, Dear Artemis and Tech Women on the Move series.


Artemis Canada is a boutique executive search firm specializing in placing top talent in the tech sector across Canada, the United States, and Europe. Our team of experienced recruiters has a proven track record of finding exceptional candidates for a variety of roles, from C-suite positions to high-demand individual contributors. For more information on our services, please visit our website at https://www.artemiscanada.com/


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