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13 min read

Five lessons to building a successful product marketing function

Leadership | Team | Product Marketing Strategy

My name is Stacey Wang, and I lead the product marketing team at Ironclad. Let me tell you a little bit about myself and Ironclad before we dive in.

I'm actually a lawyer, not a product marketer by training. If I'm honest, I didn't even know that product marketing was a job until about five years ago, when I transitioned from law into tech. That means that if I can build an amazing product marketing team, you can definitely do it too.

I joined Ironclad at the seed stage – I was Product Marketer number one and employee number 10. It's been three years since I came on board, and in that time we’ve 10 x’ed, and we’ve raised $84 million from some of the world's best investors. We’re recognized by the likes of Fortune as a great place to work and by Forbes as the next billion-dollar startup.

Along the way, I've had the immense privilege of building a product marketing function. It’s been the most rewarding thing I've ever done in my career, and it’s also been the hardest.

The exciting thing about building a product marketing team is that it’s a journey and, unlike with a lot of more traditionally defined functions, you can truly go anywhere you want with product marketing. It can be as big or as narrow as you want it to be.

There's no map because the map depends on where you're going. There's no one playbook, so that's not what I'm going to be giving you today. Instead, I'm going to share with you some of the lessons that have stuck out to me the most – the lessons I’ve learned the hard way. Hopefully, they’ll serve as helpful directions as you set off on your journey.

I’ll specifically look at five lessons:

  1. It’s up to you to set the right destination
  2. Start with company needs
  3. Build your dream team
  4. Don’t just prove value, earn trust with cross-functional partners
  5. Embrace the ups and downs

Lesson one: It’s up to you to set the right destination

First, it's up to you to set the right destination. Setting a vision for your team is hands-down the number one most important thing you need to do; otherwise, it’ll be set for you. Product marketing means something different in every company, so it’s imperative that you figure out what product marketing means at yours.

When I first started thinking about building the team, I asked a lot of folks how they defined product marketing, and I noticed that the definitions all came in one of three broad flavors.

Flavor one describes what PMM does and all the various jobs to be done – there are a lot of them. Flavor two revolves around who at the other functions product marketing works with.

Another way of thinking about this is how product marketing gets stuff done. You’ll often hear things like, “product marketing is the go-to-market quarterback,” or “product marketing is the strategic function of marketing.”

The final flavor that I noticed was about maturity or how we scale. This one is especially common in the Bay Area where companies are growing very quickly so it's important to understand how product marketing evolves with the company.

All these flavors of what product marketing means are useful in helping to understand different aspects of the function. However, they only highlight only two important and unique characteristics of product marketing.

  1. Product marketing is extremely versatile, like a Swiss Army knife.
  2. Product marketing is extremely cross-functional.

When you put these two characteristics together – versatility and cross-functionality – it looks amazing, right? They seem like they could be powerful building blocks for a PMM Dream Team, but our greatest strength is also our greatest weakness. The risk is that when you have such range and you work with everybody, you can’t focus or prioritize.

We've all been there. We’re so squishy that we get squished. We juggle all the flamethrowers and we burn ourselves out. You can do all of this juggling, but the fact is that when you’re all things to all people, you are nothing to anybody.

That’s why when you’re thinking about building the product marketing dream team, setting a destination is the key challenge.

Lesson two: Start at the highest possible altitude – your company needs

So, how do you go from squishy to a product marketing dream team? How do you leverage what makes product marketing so strong without getting sunk by it? The key is to start at the highest possible altitude – your company needs.

From personal experience, this is hard to do. If you've got the mandate and the budget to build a team, it's probably because there’s a lot you need to do right now. There's a lot of stuff that feels urgent, but if you don’t change your altitude, you’ll miss out on an opportunity to set a different destination than you ever thought possible.

Because we’re so versatile in terms of our skill set and we're so inherently cross-functional, we have this amazing luxury of being able to view problems from a different vantage point than pretty much any other function at the company. What this means is that we can see the forest for the trees, so we should do exactly that.

When you're looking at the forest from the sky, you can identify high-impact opportunities and build them into your core work portfolio. You can point to the part of the forest that's on fire and say, “I've got to put that fire out,” because no one else is focused on doing that right now.

When you start from this altitude, you’ll see that there’s an exceptional use case for product marketing’s cross-functionality: leading strategic high-impact cross-functional initiatives that don’t yet have a clear driver.

Pricing and packaging and segmentation are both examples of high-impact initiatives at the company-wide level. By working on such initiatives, you establish your capacity to work at the strategic level rather than the tactical. You can only identify those opportunities if you look at the company from a higher altitude.

Another benefit of aiming high is that you can take your team out of the crosshairs of competing priorities. Say you're having trouble deciding if you should prioritize marketing's pipeline or product‘s activation goals – consider if there's a priority that rules them both, then have the conversation at that level.

The hardest thing about identifying problems is diagnosing and defining them. You may see that there's a fire, but what kind of fire is it? Why is it burning? How big is it? Likewise, is finding repeatability in a new segment the right problem, or is the problem prospecting into that segment? The difference makes a difference.

A failure mode, as our friend Einstein points out, is to rush into problem-solving before you've done the deep work of understanding what the problem is in the first place. If you rush into problem-solving, you'll always be reacting to something you can't fully understand so you won't be able to make as great an impact as you should.

Present a three-year strawman strategy to help you focus

If you ask your cross-functional stakeholders to get in the room and help you identify the problem, you're probably going to get a lot of blank stares, so you'll need to sharpen the conversation for any priority to become workable. I want to share with you a technique I like to use – using a three-year strawman strategy for solving the problem at a high level.

As an example, if we agree that in three years we want to open a fish factory, then this year we've got to figure out where to catch the fish. Next year we can figure out how to catch fish at scale, and the year after that, we can open our factory.

Why does this technique of presenting a straw man work? Number one: it contextualizes the problem in terms of how we might solve it, making it very real and digestible for your cross-functional stakeholders. It shows everyone who cares about the problem that this is a big enough problem to require a longer-term solution, but it's something we can solve if we get started right away.

Number two: it creates urgency around the problem. If we agree that this is a big deal, well, this is what we must get done this year in order for us to meet our goals next year. This has real implications.

Number three: by creating urgency, the strawman strategy helps me prioritize the team's bandwidth very strategically. It gives me a framework I can use to say, “If we already agreed that X was a problem, then we have to focus on solving X and not doing this other bucket of reactionary work over here.” That helps me and the team focus.

Because of that focus, we've got reason number four this is a useful strategy: the team has direction and clarity. This is critical for making them happy, productive, proactive, and strategic rather than tactical.

PMM @ Ironclad

So far, we’ve been thinking through how you can set a destination for your team that leverages product marketing's versatility without getting hamstrung by it.

This part is the essential groundwork that needs to be done for you to move on to the next hardest part of the journey, which is bamboozling amazing people into joining your team.

But before we talk about that, I want to share with you our take on what product marketing means at Ironclad. Again, every company is different, but the way we think about product marketing might be helpful to you.

At Ironclad, product marketing comprises three critical pillars: story, strategy, and core. Story represents the highest altitude work that we do.

We work with our executive team to define and evangelize the story of why we exist as a company, as well as why our digital contracting platform is so critical to modern companies being able to manage their contracts effectively. The story sets the vision for our team and provides direction for our strategy.

In the strategy part of our team, the PMM’s job is to develop new markets for our story and collaborate with sales, customer success, and product to devise strategies for winning those markets.

Finally, the product marketing core lays the foundation for us to do higher-altitude work in the first place. The core takes on the more urgent work that yields quicker results. This is where we prove the value of the digital contracting platform story through launches. This is where we influence the product roadmap and enable sales.

The important thing to know about this pyramid is that it contemplates a higher order defined by the company's needs rather than our team’s. It’s by serving those higher-order needs that we’re able to increase our impact and gain access to mission-critical problems and opportunities across the company.

Lesson three: Building the dream team

Let's talk about team building. Teams are not magic; teams are people all the way down, and no amount of planning or vision setting will work without amazing people. However, one of the things you'll have to consider carefully is that building a team is not the same as hiring individuals.

Building a team is about finding people who work well together and creating a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

Still, let's start with the individuals. You want people who are well-rounded with tremendous range. Every single one of these folks should have one or two points that make them the best of the best in their particular game.

You want them to carve out expertise and inspire and improve each other, and they're more likely to do that if they're focused on growing their strengths rather than competing with each other.

It’s also very important to look at the team holistically and think about its combined capabilities. Do you have enough coverage for all of the mission-critical work at the company? You're going to need that coverage to gain access to the mission-critical problem set.

You can think about it in terms of T-shaped requirements, meaning all of the product marketers on the team have certain core competencies, but you're also looking to build out certain specializations underneath that.

Non-negotiable: low ego and high self-esteem

I'm not going to provide any cultural guidance because every company is different, though I think culture is the number-one most important thing every hiring manager should interview for. But I will say this: a combination of low ego and high self-esteem is non-negotiable if you're at a high-growth company.

The reason for this has to do with how much high-growth employees have to learn and grow. It’s very hard for folks with low self-esteem or a big ego to accept feedback openly. Low-ego folks who are pretty comfortable with their self-esteem are going to take lessons on board much more easily.

Lesson four: Don’t just prove value; earn trust with cross-functional partners

When people talk about proving value, they're often talking about metrics. I'm not going to talk about metrics though they’re certainly a powerful tool for proving your value and keeping everyone marching in lockstep and towards a goal.

Where product marketing is concerned, earning trust is as important if not more important than proving value, especially in those early days of team development when your relationships are extremely pivotal.

I believe it’s the job of the team leader to get this right. If you don't, you can’t pave the way for your team to get access to mission-critical problems. I'm going to share three strategies that will help you build that trust.

Do what you say

This may be bordering on a general principle for life, but it’s incredibly important to do what you say you will. If someone on my team fails to deliver something on time or in the way they promised, that’s something I’ll always give feedback on.

At Ironclad, we like to say, “Do the little things and the big things will take care of themselves.” I think this is especially true when it comes to promises you make at the company. No matter how small, deliver on those promises. If you don't, that's a fast way to lose other stakeholders’ trust.

The corollary to this is not to promise what you can’t deliver. Scope your team's projects very carefully, otherwise, you run the risk of overextending your team and losing their trust. You also run the risk of failing to deliver, which will endanger your cross-functional partners’ trust.

Say what you do

A huge part of the value of being cross-functional is that you have special insight into what's going on across the company. Know who's interested in that insight? The company. You’ve got to tell people what you’re working on.

As a team, we’ve put a lot of thought into information dissemination because we believe that that's one of product marketing's core duties. We've got an internal doc that organizes and lists all our work. We've also got a bunch of Airtables.

One of the most effective things we’ve created is a monthly email to the entire company; we call it the PMM monthly memo, and it is one of the lowest lift, highest leverage things you can do today to establish credibility.

Every time we send out one of these memos, I get feedback from people all over the company saying, “Thank you for sharing this launch strategy,” or “Thank you for sharing this research.” It's really powerful and it's not hard.

Empathize with your partners

Empathy is really important in Ironclad. It's one of our cultural pillars, and I'm so glad it is because nothing works without it. When you’re a cross-functional leader and teammate, you’ve got to remember that everyone's job is hard but we’re all in the same boat. Offer empathy and be the first person to trust because if you do, you're likely to get that back.

Lesson five: Embrace the ups and downs

Team building is inherently a roller coaster. I'm proud to say that today we have a very high-performing team, but you don’t get a high-performing team overnight, no matter how skilled you are.

In Bruce Tuckman’s famous stages of team development, you've got the five stages: forming, storming, norming, performing, and adjourning.

Some stages, like the storming stage, just kind of suck. In that stage, you've got a lot of resistance, a lack of participation, and high emotions. Just know that is okay – some stages are supposed to suck. Just keep swimming and trust that things will get better. Team development is a process.

If you feel like an imposter, you’re doing something right

As I told you in the beginning, I'm a lawyer. I'm not a product marketer by training, and I always felt like I was going to be found out. What gave me great comfort was learning from leaders that I admire that they all feel it, not because they couldn't do the job, but because if you truly understand and internalize the incredible responsibility that is team building, it's very natural to wonder if you're the right person for the job.

Just know that confidence and competence are not at all the same thing. I believe that impostor syndrome is a sign of greatness because it forces you to grow in ways that don’t even occur to people who don't have to deal with it, and the number one thing you need to do to take your team from forming to performing is to grow and learn quickly. The most important thing you can do for yourself, your team, and your company is to be open to that growth and continue to try.

PMM is as big as you want it to be

I want to conclude by saying that building product marketing is a special journey. It's a tremendous opportunity because if you set your sights high, product marketing can be as big as you want it to be.

If you take a step back and look at the world and the companies within it, everything is becoming increasingly specialized. People are becoming cogs, not creators. What makes product marketers special is that we have a range and versatility that allows us to escape the trap of being a cog and solve high-altitude complex problems.

We're not cogs; we’re linchpins. We make the company go round, and we do that by creating an interface that enables our company to talk to itself and the outside world. As linchpins, we have a very privileged position where we can toggle between altitudes across the company, zoom in and out, and do the critical job of disseminating information across teams.

To all you first-time team builders, get excited because you can absolutely build the product marketing team of your dreams. I hope that you do, and I hope that this article helps you along on your journey.

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Written by:

Stacey Wang

Stacey Wang

Stacey Wang is the Director of Product Marketing at Ironclad.

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Five lessons to building a successful product marketing function