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How to succeed as a first-time product marketing leader

Some of you may know that I started my career as a civil engineer, working for a consulting company for six years before making a major pivot into tech and product marketing.

So when I started my first product marketing role, I tried to absorb everything I could. I was fortunate to be among a team of product marketers with a strong leader who taught me a lot of the fundamentals of product marketing and empowered me to get promoted within one year on the job.

The Unique Challenges of Being a First-Time Product Marketing Leader

Feeling more confident and wanting to grow, I decided to join a Series A startup, where I was the only product marketer. While it was exciting to have full ownership of the function, that excitement soon turned into stress and imposter syndrome. The truth is, I was woefully underprepared for the role as a first product marketing hire or head of PMM, which came with its unique set of challenges:

  • No one understands product marketing, or misunderstands it - The role of product marketing is still relatively new, and in most cases, poorly understood. Even though you may be hired to work on “strategy”, you could easily be reduced to a glorified content creator or launch machine. This unique challenge means you need not only to do excellent work but also do the RIGHT kind of work.

  • Taking on too much too quickly - Because of the lack of understanding of product marketing, or the fact you may be only a team of one, there is a tendency to take on too much too quickly in an effort to prove yourself. This not only leads to burnout but also does not deliver the best results due to a lack of focus.

  • Not spending enough time on building relationships - This burnout means you can deliver tunnel vision quickly to deliver more and more results, instead of doing the necessary relationship-building work. The reality of being the de facto head of a function means you have to spend as much time evangelizing your role as actually doing it.

Luckily, I was able to recognize these challenges in time, and turned my learnings into a framework that provided me with clarity and helped me to succeed, where I was then promoted to Director of Product Marketing within 1 year of joining the company.

Turning Product Marketing Leader Challenges Into Opportunities

The Maturity Journey Framework

Today, after building the product marketing team at Teachable from the ground up, my team was recently awarded one of the Best Places to Work for Product Marketers in 2022, largely thanks to sticking to and applying this framework. So, I am super excited to introduce the Maturity Journey Framework for first-time Heads of PMMs or solo PMMs. I hope it will allow you to deliver value quicker and better while minimizing stress.

This framework essentially breaks down growing a product marketing function into three stages, each with its unique objectives. Just like achieving any goal, success is not built in one day, and by breaking down key milestones into stages you will reduce stress and have more success.

So let’s dive into more detail.

The Three Stages of Growing a Product Marketing Function

1. Crawl Stage: Generate quick wins (1-6 months)

When you are new on your job, the most important thing is to clearly understand the biggest gaps and most obvious opportunities the company faces. I recommend going on a listening tour in your first few weeks and speaking to your key stakeholders around the company.

This will allow you to then create a gap analysis and identify initiatives to close the gap. One of the common mistakes to avoid here is trying to do too many things too quickly (like attempting to build out every single functional area of product marketing).

Once you have identified the initiatives, I recommend prioritizing them into quick wins or major projects depending on how much effort is required to complete them. While some projects are extremely important to tackle (e.g. a complete positioning exercise), it may take a long time to deliver results, so it’s important to also work on one or two quick win projects. At the end of the day, the faster you can generate value the quicker you can build trust.

When I first arrived at Teachable, I realized the GTM launch process was broken. Knowing there was a major feature that needed to be launched immediately, I worked with the Product Manager side-by-side to test out a new process that I introduced. It was significantly better than what existed before and helped us deliver results quickly.

This success bought my trust in my work and I was then able to implement more programs that took longer to generate results, such as spending 2 months talking to customers to improve our positioning.

Finally, as you are delivering value, don’t forget to also evangelize the function by regularly sharing with other teams what product marketing is, what you are working on, and how you can help these other teams deliver value.

2. Walk Stage: Build the foundation (6-12 months)

Once you have delivered quick wins and established some trust in your abilities, you can start setting the foundation of product marketing by building out processes. If that first product launch you did was a success, now it’s time to build out a more formalized process for all product launches going forward - you will have more confidence this will work and you will also have an easier time getting buy-in.

At this stage, I also highly recommend setting up a regular research process where you devote at least 20% of your time to conducting critical research each quarter, whether it’s customer, market, or competitive research. Research is the foundation of all great product marketing and the insights you get from your research powers strategy and avoids you from becoming a tactical machine.

If your team has a budget, I also recommend working with consultants to deliver larger research studies (e.g. quantitative buyer personas) faster. Additional product marketing areas that are important to tackle include building out the enablement process (sales, customer success, or marketing team enablement) and/or more advanced areas such as pricing and packaging.

3. Run Stage: Scale for success (12 - 18 months)

With more built-out processes that are working well and wins under your belt, it’s now time to scale the PMM function for success. This could mean adding more head counts, hiring additional agencies, or adding more automation (e.g. competitive intelligence tools) to help you deliver even more value and insights faster.

While you could be adding these resources as early as the crawling stage, a common mistake I see new Heads of Product Marketing make is asking for too many head counts too quickly - it’s hard to know who to hire and what to hire for when you have not built the foundation and understood the true needs of the business through hands-on learning.

If this also happens to be the end of the year, then I recommend conducting resource planning so the budget can be allocated for the next fiscal year. For resource planning, this is the process I recommend:

  1. Summarize the team’s key accomplishment in the previous fiscal ear tied to the goal of the company. For instance, what impact did the personas project help achieve? Higher conversion rate across the funnel? Better retention?

  2. Understand the goal of the company in the next fiscal year. Usually, these are either acquisition, retention, or monetization. Also, understand what is the actual KPI that the company is tracking towards . e.g. grow subscribers by 30% next year.

  3. Then from there, list out ALL of the activities you are doing now already to help reach the goal. These could be things like GTM launches, research, etc, which should continue.

  4. Brainstorm additional things you need to do to hit the goal that you are not doing today. Most importantly, in order to accomplish those things, what additional resources are needed? This could also be expansions of existing activities.

  5. Share your plan with your manager and make sure you include how much of those initiatives you can accomplish with your existing resources, and with the new resources, The goal is to get them to prioritize for you and understand what you CAN NOT do if you are not given the resources. This is not an exercise to make demands or blindly ask for things.

In summary, establishing yourself as the first PMM or the head of PMM takes time and patience. With the right expectations and a methodical approach, you will achieve success while minimizing stress.

I have also created the table below to show the success patterns and anti-patterns to watch for as you go through your journey.

Table showing how to be a first time product marketing leader

As you go through this process as a new leader, you also don’t have to do it alone. I have coached nearly a dozen product marketers and leaders in the past year and helped them get more clarity, reduce stress, and deliver results faster. As you approach the end of the year, now is the best time to reflect on 2022, build your vision and strategy for 2023 so you can take control of your career, and start the new year with a bang.

So Let me know how I can help you on this journey through my 1-1 coaching programs. My leadership coach programs can also be reimbursed through your department's L&D budget.

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