This article is based on Raechel’s brilliant interview with Mark Assini for the Product Marketing Life podcast.

What's your origin story? 

Product marketers come from all walks of life. At a recent conference, I asked the audience about their backgrounds – answers ranged from filmmakers to firefighters!

My own route was from financial analyst to co-founder of a product marketing agency. After college, I worked in finance for six years before moving to San Francisco for a startup gig. I quickly realized finance wasn't my calling, but discovered a passion for marketing.

It was a trial-by-fire education in general marketing until I landed at Intercom and found my people in product marketing. Now, as the co-founder of a product marketing agency, I've heard every unconventional trajectory.

But those winding paths often prepare us well. My analytical skills from finance help me interpret data and tie campaigns to revenue goals. Leaders appreciate my bottom-line mindset since marketing can trend wishy-washy. Plus, the project management chops I honed by wrangling unruly spreadsheets translate well to coordinating cross-functional launch campaigns.

In this article, I'll share my hard-won experience to help you:

  • Identify if a product marketing agency is the right partner
  • Tailor your product marketing function across growth stages
  • Build critical product marketing skills 
  • Make a meaningful impact with your products

Let’s dive in.

Having worked with companies at all stages – from scrappy startups to mature enterprises – I’ve seen firsthand how the role evolves across the growth trajectory. The focus, opportunities, and challenges shift as organizations progress from early funding rounds to IPO. Here’s my guide to product marketing at each stage, based on my time in the trenches.

Early-stage companies

Up until Series A funding, product marketing organizations typically focus on naming the product and its features, positioning, crafting messaging, finding initial product-market fit, onboarding, and building great customer relationships. There are big opportunities at this stage to make an impact on the whole organization and build tight relationships with product development and sales. 

However, this stage is not without its challenges. There are usually only very small budgets, plus the product marketer is often only a one-person team, so they have to do everything themselves with minimal support.

Growth-stage companies

In the growth stage – Series B through Series D funding – the product marketing focus tends to shift to working closely with demand generation or growth marketing. Activities include supporting product launches, potentially rebranding the company, and getting pricing and packaging right. 

With more data available from a growing customer base, product marketers can leverage analytics in decision-making. Account-based marketing, cross-selling to existing customers, upselling, and reducing churn all become priorities too.

I think this is a really fun stage. You have more budget and support so you can get stuck into executing unique, splashy campaigns. You can still do strategic, core business work closely with product teams. You can also grow your personal brand and get exposure outside the organization by, for instance, writing blog posts that position you as a thought leader

However, challenges at this stage include figuring out where product marketing fits in the company and how it should operate cross-functionally. That’s crucial because bigger campaign launches require heavy coordination across many teams, but product marketing often lacks direct control over those other teams' timelines and goals.

For example, when I was at Intercom, we launched Operator; this was a major product launch that involved keeping track of 65 direct stakeholders across engineering, design, sales, etc., but none of them reported to me. I had influence but no authority to make sure contributors met deadlines. That was a huge challenge to overcome.

Enterprise-stage companies 

After Series D and in public companies or those nearing IPO, the focus turns to segmentation and verticalization – targeting specific industries and buyer personas. Product marketers may specialize on enterprise offerings vs. SMB, or own a suite for a certain vertical like healthcare. 

With mergers and acquisitions being so common at this stage, product marketing also has to figure out how to tell one unified story across many merged companies and products. 

For instance, when I worked with Diligent, they’d completed 14 acquisitions in the prior two years and needed to figure out how to tell one solution story for 14 companies and get their sales teams, who had previously focused on just one product, to sell a whole suite of products – no easy task.

Sales training and expanding into new geographical markets are also important focuses at this stage. You’ll typically have a much larger sales force to enable. And, of course, as you expand into new markets, you’ll need to think about localization

There are a lot of great things about being a product market in an enterprise-stage company. You have widespread brand recognition, ample resources, and staffing, which means you probably have a healthy work-life balance (not always the case in early-stage companies!). Plus, you’ll probably have a great compensation package

However, there’s typically much more bureaucracy. Your brand and legal teams have a lot of say in literally everything. Some companies even require their legal teams to review every single landing page – and my goodness that is time-consuming! 

Product marketers also have to work within established processes that may feel outdated to younger digital-native employees. Plus, collaboration can suffer due to internal politics and siloed divisions in large organizations

When a PMM agency isn’t the right fit

As a product marketing agency owner, part of my job is steering clients toward the right focus for their current stage of growth. 

Often when an early-stage startup comes knocking, they’re eager to jump ahead to flashier deliverables like pitch decks before doing the foundational work of positioning and messaging. We can't write an effective pitch deck until we understand their product, target customers, and differentiation. In those cases, I advise them to walk before they run and invest in defining their core story first.

I've also talked some companies out of hiring us, even if they have ample funding. Deep pockets aren’t enough to offset a lack of internal alignment on goals, insufficient resources to support an agency, or no time to review the work we produce. Without engagement on their end, the relationship becomes a waste of time and money.

On top of that, some prospective clients expect us to intuitively grasp their specialized industry and product details, but no agency can know a company better than its own team. If they can't dedicate time to educating us, again, they’re just burning money, and would do better to sort out their own house before splashing out on outside help.

Agencies absolutely can provide fresh frameworks and extra bandwidth for execution. But if a client doesn't know what they want to achieve, realistically no external partner can determine that for them.

Key skills for product marketers at any stage

Regardless of what stage a company is at, there are certain key skills that set product marketers up for success. 

Key skill #1: The ability to build relationships and influence people

Product marketing sits at the intersection of product, sales, and marketing. You often have to convince stakeholders of new ideas and frameworks to move initiatives forward. Without strong relationships and influence, you'll struggle to get anything done.

For example, product marketers are sometimes in charge of highly strategic cross-functional work like shifting positioning and messaging. This involves collaborating with executive leadership, sales, product teams, and more. If you can't get buy-in on your ideas and communicate them effectively, you'll quickly get stuck. 

Key skill #2: Focusing on the context

The second thing that sets product marketers up for success is taking time to understand their product, their competitive landscape, and – most importantly – their customers. This foundational learning is crucial but it’s often skipped due to time pressures. However, I've seen again and again that investing in this understanding pays off tremendously.

Let me share an anecdote. When I was working with Envoy, the sales team kept mentioning that customers tended to be a little old-school and new to technology, but I didn't fully grasp what that meant until I sat in on sales calls myself.

During one call, a prospect asked in a perplexed tone whether we made product updates every year. It was a lightbulb moment – this person clearly didn't understand agile development, where updates are continuously released. 

My approach to messaging and onboarding materials completely changed after that call, as I finally tuned in to the audience's mindset.

No amount of sales reports can substitute for listening to customers firsthand. Just like dating, you can't meet your perfect match after just one call but have to put in the time to attend multiple calls. Product marketers who avoid sales calls miss out on invaluable context. I learned to never make assumptions; you have to hear customer perspectives directly.

Key skill #3: Writing

Product marketers write constantly – sales decks, campaigns, social media, and more – so being a great writer is crucial. Growth marketers are getting more and more popular lately, but they sometimes lack writing chops, which really limits their impact.

Key skill #4: Organization

Meticulous organizational skills are vital, especially for cross-functional launches. Product marketers touch many teams across the customer journey – collaborating with demand generation for top-of-funnel activities, marketing for branding and campaigns, customer success for onboarding and adoption, and more. 

With such a wide cross-section of partners, product marketers need to expertly coordinate moving parts and add value to each team's goals to deliver seamless end-to-end experiences. If you can't get organized, get along with people, and add value, you're dead in the water.

The benefits of working with a product marketing agency

There are all kinds of reasons why clients come to agencies for help with their product marketing. Product-first companies often seek our help because they need a certain kind of expertise to market their technical offerings effectively. They may have tried hiring a freelance marketer before without success because glossy pitches just don't work without core messaging and positioning being in place first.

Still, not everyone wants to outsource product marketing. I’ve heard quite a few people say, “I'd never in a million years hand off such a strategic function to an agency," and I totally get that. However, there are plenty of perks to working with an agency like ours.

For one, we have an incredible team of people who have worked at top companies like Intercom, Salesforce, and Zendesk. Plus, because we aren't in-house long term, we get to see how product marketing is done across a wide range of companies and industries. This allows us to bring fresh frameworks and best practices that we know work because we've been doing product marketing for years.

Another major advantage is our ability to fill the hiring gap. Hiring the right talent can be an arduous process. Some of our clients initially approached us with a plan to collaborate short-term until they could hire their first product marketer. Yet, a year down the line, many of them hadn't set up a dedicated team. In the meantime, we were able to drive their product marketing forward.

We also provide an outside perspective to challenge a company's status quo. It's easy to get stuck in a positioning and messaging rut. We offer a fresh, neutral voice that can break this cycle. By asking questions like, “Is this what you intended to convey?” we often help our clients see that it might be time to reevaluate their messaging.

For early-stage companies, in particular, messaging can sometimes stem from a CEO's fever dream. They might wake up one morning full of enthusiasm, with a new vision for the company's pitch deck. While there's value in originality, many successful strategies are based on tried and tested formulas. Our role is to introduce clients to these proven strategies while allowing room for their unique touch.

In short, while outsourcing might not be for everyone, there are undeniable benefits to partnering with a product marketing agency that brings expertise, fills hiring gaps, and offers an outside perspective.