In our ‘Product Marketing Insider’ series, we chatted with Shirin Shahin who has a lot of experience bringing products to market at larger enterprise companies like Constant Contact and Brightcove.
Shirin now brings this expertise to early-stage, fast-growth technology startups to drive sales enablement, product launch planning and execution, and programs to ensure alignment across sales, marketing & product.
Anyway, enough from us, let’s see what Shirin had to say.
Q: Tell us about you
A: Sure, my name is Shirin and I'm located in Boston, Massachusetts. I've been in product marketing for the last seven years at larger enterprise companies. I recently left my last company, Brightcove, where I was a Director of Product Marketing and had been there for almost four years. I left to start my own consulting practice in product marketing. My focus now is working with early-stage startups on their various product marketing programs and services.
Q: How have you found the transition from going in-house to your own consultancy?
A. Oh, it's a really interesting transition. It’s completely different. For almost ten years I had only been in a corporate setting and seven of those years was in product marketing. I'm excited about it because it's my own business now. One of my biggest learnings is that I have had to do a lot of education around product marketing. I'm realizing it's not a very well-known term yet. That said, I am not only excited to educate more and more about it, but excited to run my own business. Right now it's just me. I have high hopes that as I get more client work I'm going to need some other product marketers to work with me, so I am excited to grow.
Q: Tell us about the start of your product marketing career, what was it that attracted you to the profession in the first place?
Yeah, that's a really interesting question. I was at Constant Contact, which is a SaaS company here in the greater Boston area, and I started working in a product function doing a lot of market, competitive and customer research. In this role, I started to work on a research project for a completely new product idea. As I was driving this research project forward, I still honestly had no idea what product marketing was. As the project went forward, I started to interface with the product marketing team more and more. and I started to learn more about what they did. I honestly loved it. I thought to myself, how exciting it was to bring products to market and all the various tasks you have to do to get there successfully. About a year later, they had a role that opened on their team and this is how I first got into product marketing. It was very organic how I learned about it and then I expressed interest in it.
Q: In terms of that first role, what did it look like in terms of your day to day activities and job roles?
First, I think part of the beauty in a product marketing role is that no day is the same as the previous. There is so much variety in what we do. But I will try to summarize it a bit around the more typical activities. When I first started, I was a Product Marketing Manager, which is definitely a more tactical role as far as developing positioning and messaging documents, doing competitive research, meeting with product managers, etc. All of this still happens as you grow, of course. I had one product manager that was my direct counterpart, so we worked really closely on one specific product. The team was big enough and we were lucky, I believe, that we were able to divide the team that way. I owned the social media product that we were working on and I worked really closely with that specific Product Manager. We would meet once or twice a week, review any upcoming features, launch plans for this research, and where they needed more support. A typical week would be meetings with them, and meetings with the marketing team, the creative team, and even finance to talk about pricing. It's such a cross-functional role that my day to day was different every day and with different people every day. All in all, my first role was a much more execution-level role.
Q: How do you find the role being so cross-functional?
It's actually my favourite thing about the role. I always say if you don't have a personality that enjoys working with many different team members and different personalities, you're probably not the right fit for product marketing. You need to have that kind of personality you need to be somewhat extroverted, and you need to enjoy talking to people because that's part of the job. I personally really enjoy that.
Q: Now you've set up your own practice, so what does a day look like now compared to how it did when you were in-house?
Yeah, so I have two clients right now, one is called AceUp and they are in Boston and another is Meya.ai and they are located in Toronto. Both have a variety of different product marketing projects they are focused on but they range from positioning and messaging to the creation of sales enablement tools. Working on frameworks for product launches is another part of my work. How to align for a launch? What are the key tasks to get done and when? In addition to client work, I'm really working on educating startups more around product marketing. I realised there's not that much content out there, so I'm taking that opportunity to both speak and write about product marketing. I recently had two presentations, one for the PMA Summit in Boston and also ran a session at VentureLane. The real difference I think is that now there is more variety around the types of projects I'm doing. Even though my expertise is product marketing, once you launch your own business, there are so many other things that aren't even product marketing related. My entrepreneurship bug inside me told me it was time to do this and try it.
Q: Do you enjoy the content side of the role?
I am actually. I never really did too much writing because we always had content teams at the organizations that I worked at. I said to myself that I need to get out there more and get my own brand out there. Additionally, I need to share more around product marketing and really advocate for how important this role is. I'm enjoying writing. It definitely takes time, and it's not always easy for me to sit down and write articles and think about the topic. But I have enjoyed it more as I do it.
Q: How are your relationships with for example the sales team or product team or operations teams being a consultant?
I'm so grateful for the clients I am working with because they're so excited about product marketing. I did have to do a little education when I first started working with them around what product marketing is but once I did that, they were like, “oh, I'm finally getting it and I understand it.” As a result, now they have all these ideas for things that they want to work on and I have a backlog of items. The sales teams specifically are probably my biggest partners since sales enablement is a big focus area for product marketing. The key here is to to ensure the team talks about the product and company in a consistent way, highlights key benefits and the true “why.”
Q: How did those relationships compare to when you used to work in-house? Did you have good relationships with the sales and product teams then as well?
I always did. I do think if you don't have good relationships with them you're not going to do your job well as a product marketer. This is a must, not a maybe. So I did and I'm very thankful for that. But again, I think I have the personality that many people really enjoyed working with me and many people resonate with my personality. Any product marketer I know that's been really successful shares a similar personality, and the ability to build relationships. Even in hiring a product marketer, this is one of the first things I look out for.
Q: Do you always go in-house to work with clients side by side, or is a lot of it remote?
It is a mix. One of my clients is in Boston and one is not. I love going into the office for the one in Boston. Love the team and embedding myself with them. With remote clients, this is, of course, more difficult. So, it's definitely a mix. Whether you are remote or in person, part of our role is around alignment and collaboration so we have to do whatever we can to be present and vocal.
Q: What would you say the top three skills are that have helped you get where you are today?
I love this question. I would say the ability to build relationships is my number one. Then, being very organised and on top of everything is my next. Last, I would say is the ability to take very technical data and create a story around it in a very understandable and relatable way is really critical. We work with very technical companies and our job is to take a lot of detail and then level it up. And yes, this is something you can learn with practice. It's not something you have to have right away, but it's definitely something to learn and execute on.
Q: What's your stance on assigning KPIs to product marketers?
My personal view is we do have KPIs but assigning hard numbers to them is more challenging. So if somebody asked me if product marketing should be responsible for closing deals, I would say I would do a dotted line for that. There are just so many other factors as to why a deal closes or why it doesn't. My personal KPIs, to be honest, are more qualitative. If the sales team that I'm working with feels confident to talk about the product in a way that resonates with the buyers, I know I've done my job. And that doesn't mean my job is over, that just means I have to keep doing that. If I feel that I'm able to articulate the value of a new product or new feature to the marketing team and they are able to take that and run more product focused campaigns with that information, that's a successful KPI. So for me, my personal opinion is it's more qualitative. I don't think there are number based ROI metrics in product marketing. The only angle that I will say could have numbers is if your product marketing team is responsible for product adoption, then there are some metrics you can track with that. For example,when you're launching a new feature we're going to track ourselves against the number of new customers that are using it and the number of existing customers that are using it. That's how we measure success. That could be one angle and we've done that in previous roles I've had.
Q: Where do you think, or who do you think, product marketing should report to, if not their own entity?
I think marketing. I've always reported to the marketing team. Although we have a close tie to product, our output is mostly with the go-to-market teams, including both marketing and sales. There is of course also a feedback loop that we get back to product to align really well with sales goals and marketing goals and how we can really tell this story of the product for them. Generally though, I believe it should live under marketing.
Q: Has there been a lot of crossover between what you've done and what a product manager's done?
Oh, so much. That's definitely both a great thing, and also sometimes a tension point. I always like to think we're collaborative and we're not trying to take work away or give work to anyone. We are trying to work together. The projects where it most overlaps from my experience include competitive analysis, pricing decisions, building out personas, establishing product goals, and creating business cases for new products. If you want a role where you have 100% complete ownership over something, product marketing isn’t the right role.
Q: In your previous companies, what has the process of introducing and influencing new products and features looked like?
Depending on the size of the launch it can be a long process or a shorter-term process. They both, however, entail ensuring that internal teams first and foremost are up to date and knowledgeable about what products and features are coming out. And if they're not, that's a key part of our job that we're not doing correctly. Once they have the knowledge of the real features and benefits and the why behind it, we need to ensure they have the right programs and collateral to go to market and launch the product. Product marketers, in my experience, have been responsible for driving these launches, and coordinating all the teams. I've used a whole dashboard that's 50 lines of all the various steps that need to happen to launch a product successfully between internal programs and external programs.
Q: Do you have any sort of go-to tools and resources that you tend to use and recommend?
Honestly, I've used a lot of my own frameworks. In my past roles, we have used a launch dashboard as well as different templates for marketing briefs and positioning documents. Then, for my own consulting work, I've started to use Asana to organize my projects and deliverables.
Q: In your opinion, what, if anything, do you think needs to change about product marketing?
I think the biggest “change” is that we, as product marketers need to talk more about our role, our goals, and how to measure success. So it's not really changing it but I think vocalising more who we are and what we do and why it's so crucial. I'm finding it's still somewhat of an unknown function and it shocks me to say that because I've been doing it for a while now. But now that I'm meeting with more startups and early-stage companies, I am realizing they're not as familiar with what it is. So what I would change is for product marketers to be more advocates for our work and to talk about it.
Q: If there were any new or aspiring product marketers reading now, what would your advice to them be?
Be really flexible. You're going to work with a lot of different teams, a lot of different types of projects, and you might be pulled in a lot of different directions. Be flexible and open to do that. But then my next advice, which is a little bit contradictory to the first, but important, is to say no to things when you just have too much on your plate. What's going to happen is as you start to work in product marketing, people start to see your value very quickly. And they start to want you to do everything. And that's flattering and it shows your value, but at the same time you have to prioritise your work, or you're not going to get it all done successfully. So be flexible and open to all the different people and different teams you are going to be with, but also try to manage your workload.