How to choose job titles in your early stage startup

Mo Shehu

Content Lead

One huge mistake some startups make is using titles to establish and reinforce hierarchy. This is dangerous for two reasons:

  1. Iteration and speed largely determine the growth trajectory of most product-led startups. Because of this, it's important to eschew managers in favor of 'anti-managers' - superbly strong individual contributors with a bias towards action, not control.

  2. Titles can make it harder to give and receive feedback - from both colleagues and customers. Without clear feedback, it's harder for individuals to improve, which can limit the whole team.

At PostHog, we started off completely flat, with everyone reporting to our founders, James and Tim - and everyone getting individual contributor titles such as Software Engineer or Designer. If we’d had Senior Engineer and Junior Engineer titles, for example, that would've indicated that we care about hierarchy, thus discouraging peer-to-peer feedback and capping individual performance at the level of whoever was designated as Senior.

But we hit a snag.

When we first found product market fit, we had to step up our game in areas such as product, design, and user experience in order to continue growing. James and Tim also found they were struggling to develop people’s skills properly because they had too many direct reports.

Towards the end of 2020, we were shipping lots of code but nothing moved the needle for our growth because we'd reached a talent ceiling.

So we solved this problem in two ways:

  1. We introduced Small Teams: small groups of people who owned specific tasks within the company. We have small teams for marketing, growth, design, product, and more.

  2. We introduced light management and tweaked our titles to reflect this.

These changes have resulted in a huge lift to our product and design competencies - and much happier end users.

Hire for the role, not the title

It’s tempting to give out meaningless but impressive titles to convince early hires to come work for you. After all, we've all met or heard of 'CMOs' who were essentially a marketing department of one. But doing so is a grave mistake because such candidates won't be joining your company for the right reasons. This is also why we don't allow new hires to set their own titles - we don't need 20 "VPs" on the payroll.

Ideally, the best team members are willing to start by themselves, set a world-class standard in their area, then grow a team around themselves. That sets a culture of individual contribution.

Internal vs. external job titles: Are they necessary?

We sometimes have a candidate apply for a certain role then suggest a slightly different title upon hiring them. This happens mostly for roles that we’ve never hired for before.

In engineering, we advertise for “Senior Engineers” mainly because we get so many unqualified or under-experienced applicants - but everyone is referred to as a Software Engineer on our team page. We pay people more if they have more experience - per our transparent salary calculator - but we don’t use these titles internally.

Should you set requirements for your job titles?

It's impossible to objectively judge someone’s performance and experience enough to determine what title they deserve and what they'd need to advance from a Junior to Senior role, for example. You have nowhere near enough context from their previous roles to systematize this. We think raw experience makes a difference for the first couple of years, but then quickly tapers off in its impact. In fact, experience can sometimes be a weakness.

For example, we’d be extra diligent when interviewing someone with an MBA, because MBA programs often teach behavior suitable for companies with wildly different needs to us. We don’t care about control, revenue maximization, or predictability in the slightest. We care about speed, innovation, and building for our end users first.

The most difficult title to spec out

It was tough hiring our first Designer.

We’re big believers in self-serve products and experiences, and our website and docs are our storefront - so we wanted someone that would throw themselves into our website.

But because we're not a design company, we couldn’t figure out if we needed a UX/UI designer, a frontend developer, a website designer, or a general designer. Many folks in the interview process told us we were asking for too much - but sometimes that's just what your early-stage startup needs.

It took lots of iteration in our hiring process to get this right. We ended up hiring Cory, a talented generalist who can take designs from concept to wireframe to execution. He now works across our website, docs, and the app.

"Great designers iterate. They don’t magically come up with something brilliant on the first try." - Malthe Sigurdsson, former Chief Design Officer at Stripe.

Ex-founders or early employees make for brilliant generalists. They’re less likely to be as deeply skilled in any given area, but if you need a quick uplift in a certain area, they’ll get you there faster and more flexibly. As your company grows and your requirements change, you can specialize your roles and titles. For example, as of writing, we're hiring for a Technical Content Marketing Manager and Developer Educator to bolster our content and developer relations efforts. (Check out our Career page for more open roles.)

Even the CEO's job changes over time

James, our CEO, has had to wear many hats over the years. Although his role swings between dealing with customers, recruiting, fundraising, and marketing, he's always been focused primarily on selling with a bit of design on the side.

Before PostHog started, James had to sell to get Tim to join. After the company launched, he had to get early users on board, which meant a mix of selling and building our website. His role then cycled through getting investors to take part in our funding rounds (from seed to Series B), hiring people, and talking to customers.

On the ops and product side, it involves thinking about how the company and our business model should work - including our product, financing, deployment, team structure, and pricing strategies.

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