Dave deCourcelle, startup CMO and founder of the Growth Fountain discussed his passion for product marketing and what skills CMOs can take from the role.

Dave shared his journey to the C-suite, how his PMM background has helped him get there, his views on whether PMMs are the future of modern CMOs, and more.

CMO Convo | Should all CMOs be thinking like product marketers?
Want to be a great CMO? Maybe you should learn to be a product marketer! Our guest, Dave deCourcelle, certainly thinks so, which is why this episode is all about what being a product marketer has taught him and how it allowed him to excel as a CMO.

During a chat with Will Whitham, Senior Copywriter at CMO Alliance, a sister organization of PMA, Dave discussed:


Dave's background

Can you take us through your most recent CMO role and whether you approached it with a particular philosophy?

I was most recently the CMO of Laber which is a tech startup in the $1.4 trillion construction industry. We were focused on specifically connecting construction employers, to construction field workers, and really empowering field workers. From laborers all the way up to more established tradesmen to really create a digital hub, a digital profile to find full-time or side job work.

The market was huge but so were the industry challenges that our business needed to solve. There was a lot of fragmentation and there is a lot of fragmentation in the construction industry around terminology and hiring processes for different sized construction companies, and for different skill levels of workers.

But to take a step back, it's an interesting story of how I entered the role because if you think about today's SaaS technology, many people don't necessarily think about construction. It's a very underserved market. My background is I have a lot of different experience across different facets of business and marketing, including digital marketing, account management, client success, sales, and product marketing, and have helped launch a few tech products.

And over the last few years, I've really dove into exploring my passion for startups, learning more about startups, getting connected with an industry, and then helping also coach new tech companies to flesh out their product and go-to-market strategy. In this role, I was approached by the CEO of the company, I learned more about it and then did some deep diving on my end to see if this is something that could fly.

I knew going into it that we were going to have some serious challenges and they did not have a baseline marketing presence established, they had a splash page that was developed and a base MVP app.

My goal here was to establish everything from the ground up, setting them up for success and ideally, also bring in users on both sides, both for job seekers and for construction employers. How I approached it, I leaned a lot on my experience as a product marketer to just build the foundation.

So evaluating the market, going through all the different competitors out there, all the different hiring platforms, both traditional and more SaaS or tech-based platforms, new platforms, app-based platforms, to get the foundation of where this product needed to go and how we were going to position that and message it.

Then also, I was diving into our target audience, from laborers to tradesmen, talking to employers and finding out what the real pain points were. Really then using that knowledge and intel to establish our fundamental positioning and also messaging.

Once we had those bases covered, now, it's just a matter of starting to build our user acquisition efforts and also refining our product. I was wearing a lot of different hats and when it comes to my philosophy, I really believe in delivering value to customers and making sure we understand our customers and the fact that it's always about them at the end of the day.

They're the ones buying the product, it's never about our business and our product and all the cool features that we think we have. It's always how they envision our offerings, our product, our features. Making sure I truly understand those needs, those pain points, and delivering value to them is really what I stand by.

So product marketing was kind of the core of how you approached the CMO role?

Yeah, I've coached a lot of startups in product marketing, and that's also how I uncovered this opportunity. I was involved in the Product Marketing Alliance and setting up networking meetings and so on and so forth.

I was approached by the CEO, who really was looking for that specific fit for that startup CMO. That is really what bridged the gap from product marketer to CMO was that startup opportunity, that perfect fit.


The principles of product marketing

Could you explain the principles of product marketing for people who might not be familiar? It’s a fairly recent discipline and not really part of the traditional marketing stack.

Yeah. Funny enough, five years ago, you mentioned the term product marketing, and people were like, "What is that? What do you guys do? Oh, you market products? Great. Everybody's a product marketer, right?" Not quite.

I guess now, at this point in time, you'll see a product marketer probably in every single tech organization and even sometimes service organizations and whatnot, it's such a core foundation to a lot of different marketing teams. A product marketer is essentially the bridge gap between your product or product org and your sales and marketing arm, and/or your customer.

A product marketer is responsible for bringing a product to market, which includes deciding or building out the product's positioning and messaging, as well as all the elements and areas, and functions of launching the product. Then sales enablement - ensuring the salespeople or the customers really understand the product, both all of its benefits and features. Lastly, a product marketer needs to be able to drive usage, adoption, and demand of that specific product.

As you can see I just basically named everything that has to go into building a successful product. But again, that is what product marketing is, at its core, it's really a cross-functional type of position. You have to have a great understanding of the core areas of the business to be able to successfully navigate this for any particular product, whether it's B2B or B2C.

Q: One of the reasons it's probably taken off so well in the tech world is that in the current model for tech, your marketing can be so tied to the development of the product, a tech product isn't necessarily finished. So you'll be working, marketing along with the development team, and you'll be charting development along with the marketing.

Yeah, it's such an interesting shift. As a marketer, historically, I have been in roles where you're exposed to a lot of creative-minded people. And sure you have your analyst-type minds, your very analytical folks, as well. However, once I started to get exposed to the product org, it was such a different ballgame, the processes, how things work, the organizational structure, learning about sprint cycles, what was included in them, how much planning was included in sprint cycles, development cycles for coding, agile methodology, all of this was was so new to me.

But is now sort of the foundation of how so many products, so many successful SaaS products, platforms, services today are being built. It's been a really great experience for me to have that under my belt, have that experience and knowledge under my belt so that I can continue to take that into whatever roles I'm in, whatever situations I'm in. I can really work cross-functionally across the teams to get the job done, move things from point A to point B.

And to your question about being able to jump in with the team and move the needle, it's really helped me be able to do that. I think both from a strategic perspective and also from an execution perspective, knowing the ins and outs of sales enablement, knowing the ins and outs and the needs of your sales team, understanding the feedback you're getting from your customers and how that is feeding right into your product team.

And then also how that translates into your materials as well. It's a sort of like a revolving 360 circle of information that a product marketer’s just exposed to at any given point in time.


Product marketing skills

You must pick up quite a lot of diverse skills as a product marketer. It sounds like you need to have fingers in many pies at once in order to understand what's going on.

Yeah, absolutely. The amount of skills that a product marketer needs is fairly diverse. You obviously need to know about product, as I mentioned before, and everything that goes into product: why they're building certain features, what are the benefits of those features, and be able to communicate that effectively to the target audience with product messaging.

Your guide to messaging
Make a mark with your next round of messaging.

Then you need to work with the sellers, understand their processes, their flows, what touchpoints they have and how you can improve that. So you're creating decks and plans, materials, one-sheets, you're creating webinars, or generating the content, you need to understand the content strategy to build out content that is going to be appealing to the target audience.

You're going to be connecting with users themselves and hosting interviews, maybe acting as a customer service person, maybe you're gonna even be running demos, or guiding users through the product or into the new sales offering, just so you can get an understanding of how to convey that to the sellers.

There's quite a lot of different capabilities and skills that a product marketer would need to bring to the role and that also related really well again, to a startup CMO role, where, as a CMO I needed to really tap into all of that experience to help bring this product to market.

Product marketing hard & soft skills [Q&A with Uber]
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You're making it sound like product marketers are a bit like swashbucklers, swinging in on the rope, saving the day.

Yeah, I mean, I think it depends on the product marketer, but especially for early-stage companies, for startups that product marketer is your extreme generalist like you're Bear Grylls of marketing. You're just in it and you're powering through.


Companies with great product marketing strategies

What are some big companies and brands that have really good product marketing strategies? If people want to do some research, who should they look at as great examples?

There are a few that really stand out to me. I follow all of them and I subscribe to all their eNewsletters, I get so many newsletters or just content these days. But these are the ones that I really like. So I like really like MailChimp as a company, they have great marketing, great branding.

What I like about them is that they truly understand their marketing segments, their audiences, whether that be small businesses, whether that be medium or larger-sized businesses, they know how to cater their content to be appealing to that person. What's gonna be influential, what's gonna be valuable for them. That, in turn, has kind of created this... whenever someone thinks of eNewsletters, maybe there's a few players but MailChimp is usually always one of them.

They've really established themselves, apart from their products being very easy to use, they've established themselves as a real foundation within email marketing. Airbnb is another one, I think we've all used Airbnb or tried Airbnb in some way shape, or form. They've done good in terms of community creation. They realized that okay, now you have your hosts as one sort of community area.

Then you have another area which is your people who want to travel and they've created all these little sub-areas of interest around that and have really grown that community to now, again, Airbnb is now a staple within the marketplace. It's hotels or Airbnb. We're traveling to blah blah blah, let's check out Airbnb too, let's see what deals they have or see what houses we can stay in. It's become that secondary or even the first area for hospitality.

Then Huckberry which is little known, but it's an outdoors wear company, they just have the most amazing e-newsletters. It's focused on again, outdoor clothing, outdoor apparel, and gear. Boy, their writers are just absolutely phenomenal. They've been around for a while but they've experienced some serious growth just in terms of how they sell their products.

True product storytelling, they really tell stories within their content or with any certain touchpoint that they have with their customers. They're definitely something I keep an eye on. And of course, Intercom is a great one. They just have some really great product marketing.

You can kind of see with these companies with great product marketing, they're pretty well-known companies. It's been a foundational point for them. Hopefully, that gives some perspective. Definitely check these guys out, if you haven't heard of them.

They really understand their audience personas, they understand where they fit in the marketplace, what's their positioning, and at the same time, they're able to really use strategies to build communities and create great stories to tell them around their brands.

Those are really great product marketing strategies that work in today's day and age, especially with millennials and Gen Z, they want the story, they want authenticity as well, that community, that's just so impactful, so big now.

It's something those generations have grown up with in relation to products. The story and the community are just expected.

It's standard. It's like you can't be spoken to, you have to be spoken with. It's a conversation.


CMOs and product marketing

How do the principles of product marketing align with what a modern CMO should be thinking about?

I can really only speak for the startup environment, which is my specialty and what I've had direct experience in with my CMO role. But I can say that the modern CMO needs to think about so much more than just their marketing channels. You need to truly understand the product, you need to truly understand your audience, you need to truly understand your position, where you sit in the marketplace, and your positioning.

You need to also understand what your story is, what is that story that you're conveying to the audience, and the value of your product or service? How do these features translate into benefits for them? What are the angles of attack for that? In turn, as the foundation bubbles up into creating very distinct marketing strategies and growth strategies to obviously hit goals and KPIs.

Apart from that, the modern CMO also needs to be a cross-functional person. Technology changes so fast and evolves so quickly, that a product or service a month, two months ago could be drastically different with a new feature. That could change your approach and change your strategy as things go.

Speaking of cross-functionality, you're sort of part of two teams aren't you as a CMO? You're part of the marketing team, and you're building that, but you've also got to be able to communicate and work with the rest of the C-suite, who are your direct peers. How does product marketing help with that?

As a product marketer, in my experience, I found that I was working cross-functionally with a lot of different teams, marketing team, sales team, and the product team and also communicating with the Head of Marketing, Head of Sales, and Head of Product. And being the voice of the customer in that process and giving actionable insights and next steps based on seeing the whole picture.

That experience translated really, really well when I stepped up into the CMO role, specifically, again, talking to C-level executives who need the TLDR: too long didn't read perspective and blunt honesty, too. A lot of people I think are a little shy at sharing the blunt, honest answer to certain questions but I learned that sometimes you just have to be the bearer of good news and bad news.

Also, interestingly, with the CMO role, you are interacting with investors as well. There are investor meetings that you're gonna participate in, that I was participating in, and it adds certainly a new flair to executive-level meetings. And again, as a product marketer, you bring a lot of value to that because you really do understand the product and the trajectory, as well as the marketing.

That's one of the big differences between product marketing and traditional marketing. Traditional marketing is looking at tried and true strategies that have worked, whereas in product marketing, you're building it based on the product or the strengths of the product, and then you're selling that rather than some other idea or concept. It's about the product itself.

Absolutely. Yeah, just having a really super strong understanding of the product like the back of your hand. I always find, product marketers know this, but for CMOs, it's almost like a zen principle of just getting so into the weeds of your product that you know it, again, like it's the back of your hand. You can give a demo, if you wanted to, and be an expert at running a demo if it's a SaaS platform.

Or you can literally go off the top of your head and go into all the details of the product, or even act as a salesperson on a call. Product marketers generally can do that at a higher level. And I think, for a CMO, those capabilities truly add to the role because there are cases where you need to go and be a sales leader in these particular situations to these potential customers and clients.

Or provide the right messaging, or provide a demo, or understand customer service and how that integrates and ways we need to integrate that, solving those problems to make the product easier to use, easier to navigate, more understandable. These are all things that were, I think, crucial and very helpful for a CMO.

It allows the CMO to be an evangelist for the brand. A CMO with product marketing skills can move out of the background as a strategist, they can be a face of the company at a conference, a product launch, or an event.

Oh, absolutely. Just being a technology evangelist is sort of like the unspoken title that comes with the CMO role with any particular technology company.


Developing your product marketing skills

So you had this foundation of product marketing skills, but what about people who aren't coming to a CMO role with a background in product marketing? What do you advise on how they can pick up these skills to give them the edge they need?

I think there's maybe a few paths. You can go the trial by fire path, where you can get involved in the direction of launching a product or joining a company that needs to launch a product and get in there. That will give you some serious first-hand experience for product marketing because you're going to need to handle everything about product marketing, whether you like it or not!

The second way to do it is by talking to product marketers or setting up conversations, networking, and meetings. One of the best resources I found was the Product Marketing Alliance. It's incredible. It grew, over the course of a couple of years to now around 15,000 product marketers that are actually engaged in the community.

It's just been such an incredible resource, you can post questions, and people are going to answer you with really great intel. These are product marketers who are literally across the gamut of every single company you could possibly imagine: big names, small names, whatever. They're certainly willing to help. To this day, I still ask questions.

If there's something I might not know or understand in the product marketing realm, or something I need to learn, I'll pose a question, I'll ask somebody, and maybe they'll direct me to a certain person, and I'll have a more lengthy conversation on LinkedIn. That's a great way to go as well. Also, Product Marketing Alliance does have certification programs, education programs that you can check out. It's a great way to just get your feet wet.

But a lot of times too, you learn by doing, so it's a great foundation, but then you can go out in the world and try things yourself. I think launching a product, everyone should have that experience under their belt as a CMO. You get so much experience so quickly. It's absolutely incredible. I think those would be my top recommendations.

And then, of course, you can go on YouTube and check out other content or go online and whatnot.

Before we do move on, Dave, we should make it clear in case anyone thinks we're being underhand or anything. The CMO Alliance is a sister organization of the Product Marketing Alliance.

They're definitely worth checking out if you are interested in getting to know more about product marketing, but we just want to make it clear, we're not trying to plug anything or anything like that. We didn't ask Dave to bring it up!

I was always going to bring it up! That's actually how we were connected, it's good for networking. Funnily enough, networking in PMA was actually how I got into the CMO role. It's all connected but  I wouldn't recommend it if I didn't think it was actually valuable.


The future

So are we going to see more product marketers becoming CMOs? Is that where all CMOs are going to come from now? Are they all going to be product marketers?

It's a good question. In terms of organizations and structures within companies, I've seen product marketers run the show, I've seen product marketers rise up to the point where they hire sub-product marketers within certain different divisions of their companies. But usually, for product marketing, you get to a certain point within larger companies where you kind of hit the ceiling.

VP Product Marketing is VP Product Marketing, you get to a certain ceiling. I think at this point in time, I think companies aren't thinking of a product marketer as a part of the C-suite, I don't think it's widely accepted. But I do think that it will become more and more common.

I do think that jump from a product marketer to CMO requires ambition because again, you're gonna get to a certain point where you're running the show for product marketing, but what's the level above that? That is the CMO.

It's definitely going to require ambition and definitely going to require learning. You're going to need to undertake a significant amount of additional education, or maybe you've acquired that additional channel knowledge and leadership knowledge in some way, shape, or form. But I think it's very, very possible.

Also, I do think the barriers to getting into a CMO are going to be a lot tougher in a larger company. So larger companies are gonna probably look for CMOs who've been CMOs or they just have all the experience under their belt. So it's gonna be hard for them to say, "I believe in this person who's a product marketer, to be a CMO". It's going to be a really tough jump.

But for me, that jump was very easy when it came to getting into an earlier stage company, more of a startup environment, that was a perfect jump. Then once you've crossed that sort of imaginary line, that imaginary threshold into the CMO world, and you've been able to show some success and really grow your company, grow your market, then now you have that window to continue moving along this CMO path.

If you want to continue with startup roles, or if you want to start moving up into more established companies. There's this fine line, but I think it takes that serious ambition for somebody who's like, "Okay, what next?" It's very possible, it is just about finding the right fit.

Product marketers, take note. That's how you get into the CMO position. Ambition, grit.

Yeah, again, for me, I just started to really network and understand startups, and that's how I figured out that angle. It wasn't something that is written on any blog posts or anything like that. It's actually through the tried and true experience of trial and error.