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How tech startups can build a winning product marketing team

An early-stage startup building a new team faces many critical decisions. First hires for these companies play an outsized role in developing direction, culture, strategies, and defining success. For a technology startup, product marketing roles are critical. Product marketers work collaboratively with a variety of teams and are responsible for developing key messaging and go-to-market (GTM) strategies, and hiring the right individuals for these roles can mean the difference between success and failure. When building a product marketing team, consider the individuals, their initial responsibilities, and the culture they’re building.

Hire the right people for the product marketing role

Product marketing managers (PMMs) sit at the intersection of several important functions. For the business, they need to understand the tech, and as individuals, they need to be collaborative, communicative, and agile. While relevant PMM experience is a plus, individuals from non-PMM backgrounds who have spent time in customer-facing roles (especially those with a technical element) like Customer Success, Solutions Architects/Engineers, or Technical Evangelists tend to ramp well in PMM roles.

Successful candidates typically exhibit the following traits:

  • An ability and willingness to understand the market. This includes the product, the target customers, the usage scenarios, the competition, and more. Even if a PMM is not initially a domain expert, they should be able to build the right level of depth over time.

  • An appreciation and understanding of other marketing disciplines. Understanding other disciplines like DemandGen, Content Marketing, Comms/PR, Lifecycle Marketing, and Field Marketing helps PMMs be more effective partners. What PMMs produce informs what these other teams deliver to customers/prospects.

  • An ability to articulate product and company value propositions in terms that customers care about. PMMs should be able to tell stories both internally about customers and externally about products and solutions.

  • Collaboration. PMMs, by definition, are required to be in a highly collaborative role sitting at the intersection of Product, Sales, and Marketing. Successful PMMs are able to bridge gaps between teams and priorities to achieve the best results.

Set up a small but mighty team

A small team at a startup typically can’t have one person dedicated to each function. To be successful, teams will have to ruthlessly prioritize work. PMMs should collaborate with product counterparts to determine the most important products from a business and strategy standpoint. Then, PMMs should make sure they are giving these products the majority of their time and energy.

Simultaneously, work with business leaders to understand the most important GTM initiatives. Then spend the majority of efforts on prioritized GTM. For example, it’s no use creating beautiful-looking slide decks if your Sales effort is non-existent. In that case, focus more on message optimization on the website.

Many organizations getting started will have one or two main products, but it’s likely that as your organization scales, you will need to prioritize secondary products or features as they become available. The team will still need to support secondary products, but the key products should receive more focus. While secondary products still need things like product pages on the website, it will be critical to understand customer scenarios, produce differentiated messaging, figure out competitive positioning, produce collateral valuable for GTM motions, and more for key products.

Startups and SMBs setting up product marketing teams should be hyper-aware of their candidates’ strengths and weaknesses. PMMs already need to be a jack of all trades, but this is especially important as they make an outsized impact in smaller organizations. The ability to create effective messaging in a variety of mediums—from blogs, emails, and press releases to video content and slide decks—is critical when fewer resources are available.

Build collaboration into the culture

PMMs should almost be embedded into their counterpart Product/Engineering teams. Schedule or scope changes shouldn’t come as a surprise. Shared calendars, regular update meetings, dependency tracking tools, and more are all useful, but they’re just tools. The intent is for PMMs to constantly stay in touch with the Product team to understand the what, why, and when of the customer value being delivered. Having this mindset and being an active participant in decision-making builds empathy within PMMs for the realities of Product delivery and empathy within partner teams for the downstream dependency pressures that PMMs feel for Product GTM.

Product Marketing will support many functions of the business, including sales, marketing, and customer support. Successful product marketers will be effective communicators and collaborating partners across the organization. They should be able to understand the product features and benefits and be able to explain those key messaging points to other teams. Ideally, product marketers will bring ideas to the table and be available to other teams brainstorming ways to communicate the product’s value most effectively. As you build out the PMM function, set teams up for success by building these expectations into the culture of the organization from the very beginning.

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