There are a lot of great articles on the internet that talk about what not to do as the first product manager at a startup. There’s not much out there when it comes to being the first product marketer. There are overlaps in what you’ll be doing; however, the approaches you require as product managers and product marketers are entirely different. Drawing from my experience as a part of Product Marketing teams at Freshworks, and leading Product Marketing at Hiver, to finally building the Product Marketing and Customer Engagement team at Plum, here goes.
Congratulations, you’ve just been hired as the first product marketer at a fast-growing startup. As cool as that sounds, you should know that the road ahead is long, often challenging, yet rewarding.
The reality is that most of us end up learning things the hard way. We make mistakes, and we learn from them. There is, however, a slightly easier way — learning from others’ mistakes.
So before you pop the party poppers in celebration of your new job, here are some lessons I’ve learned from being that person, hiring that person, and helping that person succeed, all while making many mistakes along the way.
10 Mistakes to Avoid as the First Product Marketer
- While interviewing with the company
- What to do (or not do) once you’re hired
- Mistake #2: Not talking to enough people.
- Mistake #3: Not knowing the product enough.
- Mistake #4: Not talking to enough customers.
- Mistake #5: Not shipping early.
- Mistake #6: Not documenting enough.
- Mistake #7: Jumping into analyzing competition very early.
- Mistake #8: Not being a strong enough voice.
- Mistake #9: Not asking for help and mentorship.
- Mistake #10: Not being proactive enough with the product teams.
While interviewing with the company
Yes, as much as this article is dedicated to mistakes you could make after being hired as a product marketing person, there are times you could be making a mistake while interviewing as well. Let’s start by addressing those.
You ask 50 people what product marketing is, and chances are you’ll end up with 50 different answers.
Since there are so many definitions, I’ll stick with what I believe comes the closest. Ada Chen Rekhi, the co-founder and COO of Notejoy, says, “The role of the product marketer is to accelerate product growth by championing the customer, communicating product value, and driving distribution.”
While the role is still not well defined in most companies (and may come with varying roles and responsibilities), Ada’s definition captures the backbone.
Chances are that as the first product marketer at a startup, you’ll be working with people who may be unfamiliar with the product marketing function per se. At such times it becomes essential for you to know what product marketing means to the leadership team and what you’ll be doing for the company (and, more importantly, if these are things you’ll be willing to do).
Thankfully, in my experience, interviewing with most startups gives you sufficient leeway to figure this out since interviews are almost always directly with the leadership teams.
Mistake #1: Not asking the right questions about product marketing at the company.
Here is a list of things that you should ask for while interviewing:
- What does Product Marketing mean to the leadership team? Where do they think you fit in, what do they see you doing, and how do they expect you to go about it?
- What specific business goals do they think product marketing can move the needle on?
- What specific challenges do they have in mind right now that made them look for hiring a product marketing person?
- What do the teams you’ll be working closely with — product management, sales, customer success, customer support, and marketing think you’ll be helping them with and how?
If you think you aren’t aligned with what you believe is your vision as a product marketer versus what you’ll be doing, it is okay to drop it right there rather than get hired and not fit in.
Now to the meat of where we wanted to be —
What to do (or not do) once you’re hired
Mistake #2: Not talking to enough people.
By now, we obviously know that product management is a highly cross-functional role. But you know what else is equally cross-functional (if not more)? You guessed it — Product Marketing.
As the first product marketer, you have the enormous task of being the conduit between product management, marketing, customer-facing teams like sales, customer success and support, and the customers.
So making inroads with these teams becomes your first prerogative. Introduce yourself to them, and have 1:1s with their functional heads.
Use these 1:1s to build trust and camaraderie. Learn what problems they are facing and empathize with them. Try and understand what they think your role is, how you fit in, and what problems they think you’ll help them solve.
Because product marketing is a developing role, they might have a very different idea about what you’ll be helping these teams solve. As the first product marketer, you’ll have to educate them and align expectations on what you can and cannot help them with.
As a product marketer, you’ll be juggling tasks and timelines. Sometimes you’ll have to push back/de-prioritization some tasks. Not everyone will be happy, but the trust and camaraderie you build here can make it easier.
Do not commit to picking up any tasks at this stage, no matter how many leaders tell you their high-priority lists.
Do not commit to picking up any tasks until you’ve completed all your 1:1s and had a chance to take time out to gauge what you’ll be solving and how fully.
Mistake #3: Not knowing the product enough.
You have the word ‘Product’ in your designation, so this one should be self-explanatory. But weirdly enough, in my experience, this isn’t.
While you should have a fair idea of this when interviewing and having your 1:1s, it is time to move from having a fair idea to looking at the complete picture.
If you’re going to be the one talking to internal teams and customers about your product, you need to know its nuts and bolts. Errors are a cardinal sin simply because you can’t afford to convey factually incorrect communication about your product and its functionalities.
Here are some ways in which I’ve gone about this:
- Read every (and by this, I mean every piece) of product documentation that you can find.
- Shadow sales on their calls, watch, and learn from their pitches and demos.
- Read support tickets to know what issues users face and how these issues are resolved (or not).
- Attend user research meetings.
- Look at every product dashboard, every metric that exists. Ask questions about why they are a certain way.
- Study your product onboarding. Try and understand why it is built that way, what immediate value it delivers to the user, and ask questions about what is working and what isn’t.
- Start giving demos of your product to your internal teams. You’ll be shaky at first, but you’ll get better.
- And finally, maybe pick a relatively simple customer where your sales team won’t mind you taking over the demo.
Mistake #4: Not talking to enough customers.
This, again, is an obvious one. If you’re the conduit between your internal teams and the customer, you should know your customers. And there’s no better way to do this than talking to them.
Talk to customers of all types — big or small, active or inactive, new or old, free or paying customers, and even churned customers.
Note down your observations, understand their pain points and expectations, empathize with them and learn the language that they speak.
Talking to a wide variety of customers will help you build better personas, correct existing ones, and help you contribute meaningfully when talking to product management, sales, support, and marketing by representing the voice of the customer.
And no doubt, speaking your customers’ language will help you with a lot more accuracy in your positioning and messaging exercises and the content you create.
Again, when talking to customers, you mustn’t commit to them about new products or timelines as much as you might want to.
Mistake #5: Not shipping early.
Now that you’ve had your 1:1s, you know the product and your customers, and probably gauged the full extent of what you’re looking at, it is time to get into shipping mode.
Engineers and Product Managers often start shipping early, and working closely alongside them can make you feel like you aren’t doing enough. Easier said than done, but don’t fall into that trap. The imposter syndrome that comes with it can cause you to spiral out.
Instead, here’s what I’d urge you to do. Break down the full extent of what you’re looking to solve into bite-sized pieces.
Figure out what you can solve the easiest, and ship it out — make that dent (even if it is a small one), and make it early. While it isn’t shipping on day one, as long as it is within your first 30-45 days, you’re in a good place.
Shipping small bite-sized bits in your first 30-45 days also has several advantages. Starting with yourself first — each time you ship, you get a dopamine hit, you get over your imposter syndrome bit by bit, and you build confidence.
And now, for the company — you end up demonstrating value. You end up getting noticed and gaining the trust of your peers. This is particularly important if you’re in a nascent function like Product Marketing and no one is sure what value you’ll be adding.
As the first product marketer, chances are you won’t be onboarded into the company. Your 1:1s, scoping of problems, and shipping early will be your successful onboarding.
Mistake #6: Not documenting enough.
I’m not good at this. I’ll admit it. Don’t make this mistake.
As the first product marketer, you’ll be laying the steps for future marketers and many internal processes that form the basis of collaboration between internal teams and customers.
So write everything down — your wins, losses, observations, and processes, even if you don’t have an established documentation process. Start by writing your own way until you arrive at what is acceptable to all the teams you work with. And ensure your documentation is public.
This will again help you demonstrate value. And for you and your successors, it’ll help create repeatable playbooks and save time on mistakes.
Mistake #7: Jumping into analyzing competition very early.
You might be surprised to see this almost at the bottom of this list. Don’t fret. It is exactly where it is supposed to be.
While as a product marketer, one of your most important responsibilities is to know your competition, this isn’t something you should focus on during your early days.
Start by understanding your product and your customers. Then focus on the competition. By analyzing the competition too early, you have a strong chance of getting biased by what they say. You’ll end up speaking their language instead of what your customers want.
And since you’re the custodian of taking what the product teams have built to the market, you might end up aping your competition, and that’s not something you want to do.
You should keep a keen eye on the competition, learn where they are better than you, or if you’re doing something better, then treat it as validation.
But let the voice of your customer be your north star.
Mistake #8: Not being a strong enough voice.
Demonstrating value as the first product marketer seems to have become the theme of this article. One of the most credible ways to demonstrate value is by being a strong voice or a strong influencer within your company — by that, I don’t mean loud, but I mean informed and participative.
Being the custodian of the customer’s voice, you must ensure that you contribute meaningfully in discussions with the product management team.
Own the customers’ narrative — play a part in helping product management decide if a feature is truly going to add value or not and how you should be taking these features to your customers for maximum impact,
Stay abreast of the industry and the competition. The most basic way to do this is by following the right industry voices on LinkedIn and Twitter, joining relevant communities, and setting up Google Alerts for industry-specific and competition-specific keywords.
But this isn’t enough — where do you showcase what you’re doing and bring value to the company? If your company doesn’t already have this, ensure you set up public Slack/Microsoft Teams channels like “#news-industry” and “#news-competition.”
Post all news articles, industry reports, and observations on these channels and bring these to the forefront of everyone in your company.
Mistake #9: Not asking for help and mentorship.
Again, something that I learned the hard way. As someone who works in a highly cross-functional, information-heavy, timeline-bound function, you will find yourself struggling.
You can’t do everything or know everything. No one can.
I’ve done this all too often and spiraled out. Ask for help. Find a mentor, find an ally.
And if you don’t, trust me, your spiraling out will be noticed. I was lucky to have friends and mentors who saw this and helped bring me back on track. Don’t let it get this far.
And if you aren’t getting the support you need, take this up as a matter of priority with your leadership team. As the first product marketer, there is no way you can do this alone.
Mistake #10: Not being proactive enough with the product teams.
Now I know what you’re thinking — why isn’t this higher up in this article? Again, the simple reason is that you’ll take a while to get here. Do this too early, and you’ll find yourself lost at sea because you won’t have enough context.
Know what you’re expected to do, know your product, know your customers, know your competition, ship early, become a credible voice, and then start your journey of becoming proactive with product teams.
Not only will this give you enough context, but having done a breadth of activities will also help your peers in product management understand where you’re coming from and respect what you bring to the table.
I’ll reiterate — there are overlaps in what you do as product marketers and product managers, the key differences between the stakeholders, and the approach. So it only makes sense that you and your product managers speak the same language, at least internally, and share the same seat at the same table.
But getting there takes time. Trust in the process, trust yourself, demonstrate value, and you will get there.
With that, you’re all set. You’re going to crush it! Time to (finally) pop those party poppers because you’ve got the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be your company’s first product marketer.
PS: As much as this article focuses on being the first product marketer in a company, most of this holds good even if you are the 100th product marketer they hire.