I’m a Director of Product Marketing at FlatIron, and when I joined the organization four years ago I was their solo PMM. Today, I lead a PMM team of seven, and in this article, I’ll share the five steps involved in the cycle of growing a product marketing team; perspire, prewire, hire, inspire and TBD.
I’ll share my experiences, mistakes, and best practices for other product marketers looking to grow their PMM-org for company impact (and let’s face it, their own sanity).
My name's Nate and I am the Director of Product Marketing and Strategy at FlatIron. I entered the product marketing sphere of FlatIron in 2016 as the solo product marketer, and I've since then grown the team to seven people today.
At FlatIron, our mission is to improve lives by learning from the experience of every cancer patient. This is basically in order to accelerate effective cancer drugs to market faster, and improve the quality of treatment for cancer patients.
That is the last FlatIron specific thing I'm going to say in this article because I think that when we think about growing product marketing teams, it's helpful to be a little bit company agnostic when we want to reflect and look at the things that can actually drive our product marketing expanse, and really move our teams forward.
Who wants to grow their PMM team?
It's a ubiquitous thing to think about the amount of work that we have on our plates as product marketers, and to really drive the organization and our teams forward requires more resource. That more resource often comes from actually growing the presence of the team.
What I want to focus on today is actually sharing my experience and my mistakes in building some of this unchartered territory that I went through - growing from a solo product marketer to a team of seven.
I think that when we actually think through the expansion of the team, one of the things that I want to really be forward and admit is that I failed a lot - I failed a tonne doing this. It was like trip on your shoelace, faceplant, running on the opposite side of the team banner.
But I think the thing that's really important, when we think about growing a team and thinking about these bumps and bruises that you get along the way, is to have that growth mindset and understand that with every single mistake, and with every single bump in the road comes a learning opportunity that can help you flow more seamlessly as you do this over and over again, and really learn from that.
5 steps to product marketing growth
I'm going to talk about five steps to product marketing team growth that I experienced.
The way that I think about growing a product marketing team is with this cyclical representation here.
The first step is perspire, then prewire, hire, inspire, and then TBD ( I'll talk about that one at the end).
Really what I mean by perspire is how do you deliver quality, high-value work?
More work doesn’t mean more value
When I started product marketing at FlatIron, I had this mentality of I was the solo product marketer at this company, I really need to prove value. Therefore, I'm going to take as many things onto my plate as I can, in order to prove that value and drive those stakeholder relationships.
I was getting myself involved in things like event planning, other customer calls, and internally, customer support trainings. What I realized after doing this a little bit was that just because I had a tonne of items checked off on my done list, it didn't actually equate to high impact value that I could be providing to the org from a product marketing standpoint.
Focus on the market
I pivoted my thought a little bit there and decided to focus on the market part of product marketing, and really go out in the field with sales and I became a road warrior for about six months.
I was going with sales to prospect pitches with customer success to all of their current client roadmap presentations and interactions there. What I was doing was really gaining this good understanding of the market, of the sentiments of our customers, really understanding what were the factors at play and what was actually keeping folks in our marketplace up at night.
I could actually use that to impact the work that I was doing. What I also realized from going out in the field was, what the actual internal FlatIron gaps were. I was experiencing conversations with customer success reps, who had no idea how to talk about the things that were over four weeks out in our roadmap.
Product release update
They also had no idea on specifically what was going to be released within the next two weeks, because things were just changing so much. I decided to take it upon myself and chat with some product managers and come up with this thing that I called a product release update.
As you can see above, it was just a super janky Google Sheet that I threw together, that basically just had 'here are the things coming out in the next two weeks, here are the things coming out in two to four weeks. And then after four weeks here is our best guess from the product manager’s mouth on where we're actually investing and when you can be expecting that'.
As you can see from the descriptions, this wasn't super in-depth, it was not a full description of the feature, of the functionality of everything that was going on. But it was really just a quick, almost release note but extending it beyond to see what's coming down the pipe.
When I put this together, I actually was really hesitant after I took a step back and looked at this. Because I realized that in looking at all of the features and the things that were coming out, this didn't really satisfy the asks or the needs that I was hearing from these customers success and sales team members.
It didn't go that in-depth, it didn't really talk about all of the things that were happening with this feature, and how do you position it. It was one of those emails that you write up, and you look at and you take a deep breath before you send it because you're just wincing at the backlash that might come because you're gonna have to redo everything or actually create more work than you anticipated.
But I decided to send it anyway, I said, "Okay, I'm going to send this to our client-facing team members". I hit send and to my surprise, 10 minutes later, I get a ping.
It says, "Nate, this is awesome. Thank you so much for sending". This was from our VP of business development and I thought in my head "Wow, this was totally not for you. But thank you for providing that feedback. That's cool. I appreciate that".
Within the next hour, I got a bunch of responses from BD but also other teams.
What I realized in looking through this was that my fear of it not being enough was the wrong mindset to take. What really we were doing is trying to walk before we run, and make sure that we were providing a little bit of information that was satisfying the real need for these team members, as they were doing their interactions in the field.
Get your hands dirty
When we actually think about perspire, in that first step, it's about getting your hands dirty, getting out in the field, making sure that you know the market so you can help to inform the work that you're doing.
High value doesn’t always mean time intensive
Also, high value doesn't always mean time intensive. Overall, the product release updates for the first time took me two hours, every time after that it was 15 to 20 minutes.
That was the thing that year, that probably was the highest impact deliverable that I made from a product marketing standpoint.
Prewire is a word that we use a lot at FlatIron that really means planting the seed. How do you make sure that you can influence folks by priming them beforehand to really get what you want? When we think about pre-wiring, it's really about gaining alignment on your value.
This is something that is especially important when you're talking about advocating for resources and advocating for additional resources.
One of the things that's really tough about pre-wiring is, it's hard to prewire someone when your environment looks like this.
You are strapped by all of the to-dos that you have on your plate, you're not able to complete all those and also do the other things that are probably coming your way. Your stakeholders are really in the same boat, they have a tonne on their plate. Their first thought isn't thinking about nourishing that understanding of how additional resource is going to help their team.
How do you escape?
How do you actually escape this environment? The thing that I learned in having these stakeholder meetings at FlatIron was one particular question that really helped to give me a litmus test as to how we were tracking from a product marketing standpoint. That question is:
What can I do to bring more value to you or your team?
This is a question that I actually asked every single month to all of my key stakeholders that were being impacted by the outputs that I had. This does two things.
- On the one hand, obviously, it gives you a really nice understanding as to where are the current gaps that those stakeholders are dealing with, what are their problems? What is keeping them up at night? And understanding where are the areas that you might be able to plug-in from a product marketing definition standpoint.
- But then, on the other hand, it also gives you a really nice signal to know, how are these stakeholders thinking about the product marketing identity within our organization.
Over time, you can help to supplement that and direct them in the right way so that we can get towards that elusive product marketing definition.
One of the things that I learned was, in having these conversations I understood, "Okay, great. We have all of this value, I'm really understanding where we can invest". I got really jacked up and I went up to my boss, and I said, "I think it's time, I want more resources to grow the product marketing team beyond myself".
His response was, "Why?", obviously, and I said, "Well because I'm really overwhelmed and I can't get to everything that really needs to get done". The response that I got, which was totally fair was, "Okay, well, I think we should do a better job of prioritizing, then".
Obviously, from a business standpoint, that makes a tonne of sense. But I had this feeling and this instinct that the work that I was doing was already really high value and I was actually slipping on other high-value things that I thought in the goodness of my heart would help the organization grow. I decided to take a step back.
What I did was what I would call a stoplight analysis. This is not anything that's super scientific. But basically, I decided to think through all of the different stakeholders and stakeholder teams that I had.
For each stakeholder, I would write down in green, what is a task that I am consistently delivering for that team? No matter what, that's going to get done.
Then in yellow, I'd write what are the tasks that sometimes are getting done, but it's definitely not consistent. They can't really count on me for it, but it might get delivered.
In red, what are the things that I can't complete currently? Straight up want to do but can't actually complete them.
An objective stance
In doing this, what it allowed me to do was take a more objective stance, when I had these conversations with stakeholders, and with my own boss to say:
"Hey, here are all of the things that I'm consistently completing, and here's what's at risk. If we were to get on one more person, one more product marketing manager, here are all of the yellow and red things that would actually turn to green, or the reds that might turn to yellow".
That was actually a way to have a very directed conversation about how we could prove that resource. It really helped with the buy-in, especially across the stakeholders, because they could visually see what are all the things that my team is missing out on? The things that I've expressed as a current gap that Nate can't do, but if you had another person they might be able to deliver for us.
This was something that was really helpful as a tool and I would definitely encourage you to think through this, even if not just from your own personal prioritization and management standpoint, to get that holistic view of what your task list is looking like.
To recap on my second step, prewiring is about gaining alignment on your value.
Number one, it's about checking in regularly on that value. Also, it's about not asking for resource, but proving the resource, understanding that intrinsic why and that business value will help you take multiple steps forward.
Arguably, this is probably the most exciting step as you're getting through because you've proven the need for resource, you've basically been told 'Great, let's go ahead and find the next product marketing manager for your team'. That's awesome.
With hiring, the focus is on growing for today, and tomorrow and I would argue that despite this being the most exciting step that you can take, it is also the easiest one to botch.
I will actually take a quote here for a second from Jeff Bezos. Now I don't actually agree with everything Jeff Bezos says or does, but I think this is a super salient point.
This is a really interesting point because I think as product marketers, and especially for those of you who are solo product marketers, or even if you're on a team of five, but you're so strapped, it is hard to get that holistic view of understanding - how do we bring someone in not just as a band-aid, but to drive the team and to drive the organization forward?
I think that's something that's really, really difficult. Because as we think about the actual workload, the thing that you want to do is throw up that task list and say, "Great, let's just knock off a bunch and give them to someone else who comes in and just have them execute, execute, execute".
So you can actually get your head above water and breathe and think more strategically. But the thing that's really important is understanding to grow your product marketing team effectively, you not only have to be thinking about the problems of today but what are going to be the problems and definitions of tomorrow?
Product marketing manager competencies
A sage piece of advice that I got, when I was thinking about growing the team was actually digging into product marketing manager competencies.
When we think about competencies for a particular role, when you think about the things that someone needs to come into your organization and succeed in that particular role, it actually is a really good reflection and a good test to understand:
- What are the actual key things that they need right now to be able to come in and hit the ground running?
- What are the things that maybe they could learn over time, or could really help us in the future?
In thinking critically about these competencies, I came up with a list with my cross-functional stakeholders, and here's just a sample of some of the things that went on that list.
You'll notice things like ‘the ability to structure and distill complex information or issues’ and ‘cater communication’.
‘Entrepreneurial spirit with the ability to execute with minimal direction’, this is an interesting one, because for the scope of my team at that time, I knew someone needed to come in and I didn't have the time to be able to direct them every which way.
I wanted someone with that nose for value and to be able to disambiguate an ambiguous situation. Obviously gifted storytellers, the ability to cross-functionally influence, again, organizational specific, but really important for someone's success, both in the moment and down the road.
I think one of the things that also helped out was when we thought about our interviewing rounds, we actually segmented out certain competencies, that the interviewers would be able to test on each given round.
No one was actually testing the full list of 10 competencies, we could actually focus in and say, "For these three, these individuals are interviewing, how did that person do?" That gave me such a better holistic view of the candidates where I could see beyond just our conversations.
Another super important thing is case studies. It is one thing to have someone interact with you in a conversation and share their past experience. It is another thing to make them sweat when you've given them a rubric and something to present on.
I would highly recommend making a case study that is doable - you can't have too much extremely company-specific things in there - but making it something that objectively, you'd be able to test some of these competencies with a live presentation for that candidate.
Searching for competencies, not titles - the majority of us didn't actually start in product marketing so keep that in mind when you're searching through resumes and doing your sourcing.
Raising the bar - making sure you're hiring someone that can be better than yourself who can drive the team forward not just for today, but also for tomorrow.
When we think about inspiring this is making the team part of something bigger.
I'm still at this step, I think with our team, we have had four hiring waves since I've been in product marketing at FlatIron. With each wave comes a great new set of talent, comes more scope and more input or outputs that we can have for the organization.
But it also comes with a little bit of a change in that identity.
Being able to understand and craft and revisit the vision that you have for your product marketing team is really important here.
One of the things we're focusing on right now as a team is actually - how do we redefine our team charter and our team vision so that it's up to date with all of the growth that my team has experienced, and make sure that people are aligned?
Those team members haven't actually been through all of the evolutions of the team that I have, so it feels like maybe our North Star is a little bit more distant for them, because they weren't part of that organic creation.
Connect impact to objectives
I think another part of this high-level vision is understanding how can you really connect the team's impact with the company level objectives?
In 2019, we indexed really heavily on customer retention, based on business goals as well as the skill sets that we had. Right now we're struggling to hit our 2019 sales targets, because of which, so we need to do a little bit of auto-correction, we need to do a little bit more of that definition, to make sure we're really in line with those company goals.
But thinking on the high level is is one thing, and that's something that's really inspiring, and make sure you're rallying around that Northstar.
Don’t forget the day-to-day
But then, on the other hand, don't forget about the day-to-day, I think when we think about the actual engagement and skill-building of our team members, that's the thing that day to day actually inspires them and engages them and helps to move them forward.
You can see above a sampling of some of the skills workshops that my team does every single quarter. It's something that I mandated, I did the first couple to share but now we have a really good knowledge sharing across the team.
Basically, this is a time every quarter for us to get together and learn a new skill, we can have a team member present on something that they're really effective at, we've done things like the definition of product marketing, we've done things like internal influencing skills, features versus benefits messaging. It can get really, really tactical.
This provides a nice venue for the team to learn together and problem solve and creatively collaborate. In our company engagement surveys, this has been one of the highest drivers of engagement from my team specifically - the mentions of these quarterly workshops.
I highly recommend doing that, focusing on that day to day skill-building, and the scalable processes that you can create that can really drive the team beyond yourself.
Making the team part of something bigger is about refining and revisiting the vision.
It's about driving engagement through skill-building and knowledge sharing.
I couldn't in good conscience close the cycle because I do believe it is a cycle.
I couldn't close the cycle, because I haven't actually lived through this last step. I think that it probably does have something to do with the continual proving of ROI, or even something loftier, like fundamentally changing the way that the business is conducted or the way that the business achieves its goals.
That's something that I'm excited to continue to discover.
5 steps to product marketing growth: recap
Perspire - deliver quality, high-value work.
Prewire - gain alignment on your value.
Hire - grow for today and tomorrow.
Inspire - make the team part of something bigger.
TBD - we'll all figure it out together.