Today I want to talk about what it's like scaling product marketing at a company as it goes from a small organization to something much, much larger. My hope for this article is that you find it helpful whether you are an individual contributor, you're a manager or you're a leader.
For individual contributors, I hope what you find is that this can be really helpful in helping you think about the next career opportunities that are going to emerge within your organization.
For leaders and managers, I hope that you can find this really helpful as you scale your group. I want to start by talking about the emotional roller coaster that you probably go through working at these tech companies. And it really starts with S-curves.
So hopefully all of you reading have been through S-curves at your company in the past. What that feels like is a ton of hard work. And then you pop your head up and you feel like, 'where's the traction?'.
After a ton more hard work, you pop your head up and say 'why isn't this going anywhere?'.
Then you start seeing little glimpses of traction. So you think maybe this isn't all for naught, maybe it's not completely hopeless. And then something happens, you're not quite sure what it is but things start to grow. And they keep growing. And maybe you have too many customers, and that becomes a problem.
And then all of a sudden, you feel like you're going to be rich, this is fantastic. You're looking at yachts, you're looking at sports cars. And then all of a sudden, things start going wrong. Very, very, very wrong. And we are all doomed.
I feel like I can assume everyone has been through this cycle before. And that's because we work at tech companies, and very successful tech companies find a way to string together these S-curves so that as you have liftoff on one product, you're beginning to innovate in the next product.
For me, that's what makes product marketing so very special. Some of you reading this will have launched innovative new products and also found net new markets for the companies so that they can keep growing.
Yet one of the real challenges in product marketing is that it can be really hard to anticipate what's going to be needed from you in your role as the company moves from one S-curve to the next. I guarantee you that as you move up this chain the expectations of product marketing are going to change dramatically. And that's what I’m going to talk about today.
The tale of Launch Everything Day
But first, I'm going to start with a little story.
I'm sorry this is blurry, I'm pretty sure this was shot on either a trio or a Blackberry in 2010! But this is a picture of Mark Zuckerberg at a Friday Q&A at Facebook. The company, even from a very early age, had a focus on shipping products.
So there was this gong every Friday at Q&A, and anyone who launched something would stand in line and get to hit the gong and it was a really fun exercise. At that time, the company also had this little known technology called Gatekeeper.
Gatekeeper basically kept track of sight variables, a nerdy little thing, but actually very important for the company and it was the technology that helped us determine, "Okay, these features are available to just people at this school. These features are available to people in this market, this test group gets these features, employees get these features, and everyone else, general population, gets this set of features".
There was a moment in 2010 where an engineer was just normally checking in code, and he wound up clicking a little bit too fast in this internal Gatekeeper tool, and what happened is that he triggered a bug. And that bug resulted in every single confidential product that we were working on going live.
At the time we were working on a new version of chat, we were working on music on Facebook, a whole new newsfeed, a whole new profile. It was a complete mess and internally we called it Launch Everything Day.
But for product marketing, as I think you can empathize, it was not nearly as fun as this confetti would have you think. It was miserable. It was really, really hard. And we had to figure out what do we do?
At the time, we had a lot of really tough competitors. And so we decided to do this...
We took the site down, we completely took the service offline. And it turns out at that time, a lot of other companies were relying on Facebook, it was right after we had launched ‘Like’ buttons and connect. So it turns out, we took the whole internet down, we took a lot of sites and services down along with us.
So this for me is a little bit of an extreme example, but hopefully what you take from this is the needs and the processes of organizations as they scale are really going to change dramatically.
Riding those S-curves as your company grows
So in this next section, we're going to talk about some data and I'm going to give you some real-life examples that you can take back to your jobs. So we're going to talk about:
- The changing role of product marketing,
- Specialization as you scale,
- Staffing as you scale, and
- Maturing processes.
The way I want to talk about these is by walking through how these things change for different size companies. So we're going to start with seed-stage companies.
Just for the purpose of this article let's think about seed as sub-50 employees, we'll call early-stage 50 to 200, and mid-stage up to 1,000. And then late-stage and public, you guys know who you are.
So this is the distribution of product marketers by different company stages…
I'll talk about the survey in a moment, but about 40% of PMMs work at mid-stage companies and similarly, the late-stage companies are about 32% of PMMs, early-stage and seed-stage are noticeably smaller than that - these figures come from The State of Product Marketing report.
The other thing that comes from this report is an understanding of the types of products and types of consumers or customers that all of us are typically marketing to. And so I'm sharing this to help us level set before we get into this framework on norms.
So 71% are working in marketing to businesses, versus consumers or versus businesses that maybe have a two-sided or three-sided marketplace. Coincidentally, 71% also work on digital products as opposed to working on hardware products.
The changing role of product marketing
Building on that data, I think it's really helpful to understand that a lot of the time we talk about how product marketing is different from one organization to the next and I think it's helpful to understand that that's because product marketing really varies based on:
- The stage of the company
- Who your target customer is, and
- Your go-to-market approach.
So the changing role of product marketing, let's look at how product marketing evolves as a company grows. And to do that, who better than our friend Steve Jobs to walk us through his thinking about product marketing. So this is a video of Steve right after he joined NeXT Computer after he was fired from Apple, before he was rehired at Apple.
I love this talk so much because it's the savant himself talking about spending time with customers. He talks about:
- Who is our target customer?
- Why did they choose us over the competition?
- What channels are we going to use to reach them?
I see those three things as the strategic tenets of product marketing, and we'll talk about how those things change as the company matures.
So in the seed stage of product marketing, this is really all about being laser-focused on finding product-market fit. We have something that does something, does anyone want to buy this? Typically what I've seen work really well for a profile of a person in that role is a marketing generalist. A lot of times they're doing all sorts of things. So it's not necessary to have a PMM title at all.
At an early stage company, again, let's think about this 50-200 people. In my experience, the focus here for product marketing is testing distribution channels. So we've identified that we have a product, we've identified that people want to buy this, now:
- How do we reach customers at scale?
- How do we do that cost-effectively?
- How many of these customers are there in the world?
And so at the same stage, you're also generally looking at a marketing generalist plus or minus, but you're also looking for someone ideally with some channel experience, so they can pull those levers to help you really scale.
So now at this point, you’ve found product-market fit, you've determined a channel to reach these customers and it's all about scaling your go-to-market approach, and to eventually grow market share from something really small to something a little bit bigger than that.
Typically when we're hiring people in these roles, it's important to find someone with some sort of expertise on the space or on that core audience. Because you're growing really quickly does it make sense to waste maybe six months trying to ramp someone up on that space?
Late-stage & public
And last but not least is the public stage and late-stage companies. Really what you're focused on here is you want to go deep on that market, you want to own the market that you're in today, and then you want to find these net new markets to help your company keep growing.
So typically, at this stage, you're probably hiring a lot of product marketers, but the really special folks have a deep understanding of market dynamics, they understand the vertical needs and they also understand these new audiences that you're going after. So that's really fun.
Specialization as you scale
At the same time as your company scales, every team in that company is beginning to specialize. It's no different for product marketing. But this is an area where I think it's extremely important to understand what to expect so that as the company scales, you make sure that you're in the position that matches your skillset best, and also keeps you in that happy place so that you're doing the things that you really enjoy in your job - this is also really key when you think about finding that next opportunity to help you advance your career.
So when we think about specialization, again, at the seed stage, there's very little specialization, maybe one or two marketers overall.
This is where you maybe have product marketing, but they're going to wear a lot of different hats, they're going to do all sorts of fun things.
Once you move to mid-stage, that's where things start feeling a little bit awkward. You're going from this very small company where you were doing everything to a company where there are teams that are doing different things. And you need to figure out how to work with those teams and build some processes to help.
In this mid-stage organization that you've grown, typically, you move from PMMs building all of the content yourself to working with other teams who also build content, maybe that's a brand team, maybe that's a content development team. I mentioned at mid-stage you're scaling your go-to-market approach and so if you have a sales team, this is where the sales team starts growing a lot.
So you need to figure out how do I work with the sales team? It's probably really different from that early-stage experience. You're going into new markets so typically, this is when international becomes more important. Maybe you're starting to test new customer bases, net new markets, and for SaaS companies, this is also where analyst relations becomes more of a critical discipline.
Late-stage & public
And lastly, as you move to a public company or at least the late-stage company, it's still a little bit awkward, but you fit the jacket a little bit better. And that's when a lot of new disciplines start turning up in the marketing organization. You have market intelligence and competitive and now that we own a space and there's a lot of competitors nipping at our space, how do we manage them?
Traditionally, we've seen in early-stage to mid-stage, maybe that's something that each PMM can do by themselves for their product area and moving to late-stage, maybe that's something they need to centralize. A lot of times, this is also when a sales team verticalizes. So maybe you need to think about verticalizing marketing and packaging solutions because you have so many products that it can be really confusing.
Investor relations, obviously for public companies or even for late-stage unicorn companies is important. You'll also be spinning up new research capabilities as you're thinking about how do we enter these new markets. Let's understand these new markets.
If a marketing team is growing, there's a Marketing Operations Group hopefully which will help you keep the lights on, and then last pricing and forecasting becomes much more important at this stage as well, historically, maybe that's something that lived in PMM. Over time it lives in finance, product or sales.
Staffing as you scale
So product marketing staffing is a really hot topic, which department should product marketing live in? How many people should we hire? How should we organize? I'm going to share with you some interesting data that I pulled from LinkedIn about norms for our groups.
For seed stages, this isn't really relevant because there are very few marketers. For early-stage companies, you probably have a couple of PMMs. Here are a few example companies, along with the ratios of PMMs to PMs that I found on LinkedIn.
Typically, we're talking about maybe one or two product marketers up to this 200 point. For mid-stage - 200-1,000 - that's where things start getting interesting. That's where you have these small teams, so a handful of product marketers. You're working with the law of small numbers, and so your ratios might be all over the place depending on your go-to-market approach.
But once you get to that late stage, actually it turns out that there's a lot of norms on how we staff these groups. So generally, we see a ratio of two product managers to one PMM. Sometimes it's three product managers to one PMM.
Now that does vary based on your business model and your go-to-market approach, but what I found really interesting is I randomly picked a list of companies, I searched for them on LinkedIn, identified how many product managers they have, and how many product marketers they have. And the really fascinating thing about that is that there are some standards here.
So when I graph this, there's this 2.25 line that seems to be a really interesting norm across both B2B companies that have a SaaS approach and also an online advertising approach.
Back when I was at Facebook and Pinterest, we typically thought about the ratios at 2:1, sometimes 3:1, but it's really validating to know that we weren't the only people thinking like that.
Lastly, I want to talk about some maturing processes, some of the things that are going to develop as you go through this growth curve and I’m going to talk about them at a high level.
So as you move into an early-stage company, typically what I've seen here is that you're finding you've had a couple of launches that have worked and so you're finding repeatable patterns and trying to replicate those within the next new launches.
At a mid-stage company, this is when when you're filling out that jacket again. So the types of processes that get created here are:
- Messaging frameworks,
- Marketing briefs - so that we can figure out how to work with that new brand and new content team,
- Launch trackers,
- Launch review meetings - because the company is growing and we need to figure out how we align and communicate more broadly,
- Kickoff meetings,
- Sales training processes - again maybe for this new sales enablement team that you're working with, and
- As you're running more campaigns, you're hopefully tracking this with a marketing team through some sort of campaign tracking.
Late-stage & public
And then as you move again, into this late stage process, there are a lot more processes that come into play. It starts with advanced customer segmentation. That new research team that you built hopefully is also running the segmentation for you so that you can understand these new markets that you're about to jump into.
You're probably working with a lot more customers and so you need to find a really robust way to take that feedback into the product development process and then close the loop with sales and close the loop with support.
At Pinterest, we would do a lot of things that we'd call 'opportunity assessments', that's thinking about net new markets and whether or not making a strategic recommendation on if we should enter this market. That becomes important as you're thinking about growing your footprint, growing your sources of revenue, long term planning, and marketing planning.
Obviously, you're a big company and so you're probably working on an annual - maybe a multi-year - process all of a sudden, you also have formalized campaign planning and budgeting, more sophisticated pricing and forecasting that your dedicated team hopefully is doing for you. And then regular analyst briefings, you went from ad hoc to regularly engaging with these people so that you can move up into the right quadrant that you're focused on.
And then last is updates for earning calls, so in the past, you were probably working really hard on that product launch to get it on the website, maybe get a couple of customer stories for the website, in the future, you may get lucky and those same updates will make their way into an analyst call or analyst briefing.
So I've talked about S-curves and about how important they are for these fast-growing companies. I talked about how the role of product marketing is going to shift really dramatically and how it's important for you to be thinking about what your company's going to need from you next.
As part of that, I talked about the changing role of PMM, really focused on finding product-market fit to finding net new markets for your company. And I talked about specialization, staffing, and maturing processes.
As you can probably tell, I love this stuff, I hope you found it useful and I’m always happy to talk more about these subjects. Thank you!
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