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From zero to something: Bootstrapping product marketing

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As any good product marketer knows, the essence of marketing is communication. I’d go as far as to argue that most startups fail to communicate successfully when positioning a product.

One of the most common mistakes marketers make is that they try to convey what’s in their heads rather than trying to understand the minds of their teams, their leadership, and their customers. But as a new PM, how do you begin to capture these insights? We’re gonna go through it step by step.  

It’s a tough hill to climb, so we'll focus on the following areas of discussion:

The role of communication

Let’s assume you're going to be the first product marketer at a startup. That’s communication’s job starts before you even show up.

It starts when you're interviewing, and this is something that a lot of people get wrong.

They don’t realize that you’re actually interviewing your employer. There are some key questions that you need to get to the bottom of to be able to do your job effectively.

So, let’s go through them here:

What does this job mean?

The thing is, marketing is a pretty malleable thing. At every company, it means a different thing.  

What’s worse? To every person, it means a different thing. You need to know what product marketing is at that startup,  and what product marketing means to the founders.

What does product marketing mean from a business perspective?

What are the broader organization goals that they want to achieve with product marketing? The chances are, in this situation, you’re going to be dealing with revenue-driven metrics.

These are going to be the primary concern of your senior stakeholders, and making sure that you’re clear on these from the beginning, can set a good precedent for a good channel of communication between you and the top of the organization.

How can you be useful?

This might not mean product marketing, strictly speaking. One month, you may not have enough leads, and you may have to switch your focus to lead generation.

And what’s even more important is, you have to be useful immediately. Proving your worth will give you the credibility to go ahead with product marketing.

The essential job of the product marketer

The first job of a product marketer is to boil the job down to a handful of essences. What are the fundamental building blocks of the job?

This is something you’re ultimately going to have to decide for yourself, and as I said, it varies from organization to organization and person to person. Having said that, one of the first things you can do to help yourself is…

1) Talk to everyone

And by everyone, I mean: talk to the investors, talk to the founders, talk to the engineers, talk to the customer support people, talk to customers, talk to competitors even.

Your job is to answer the following questions:

  • What they’re selling?
  • What’s the value proposition?
  • What do you think it does?
  • Why does it matter?
  • Who are you competing with?

Whether any of these factors are relevant or not, the fact remains that your company and your founders the thesis.

However, that thesis is generally not validated sufficiently for them to raise money to build a business or to win in a game where you're playing against the competition in the marketplace. It's your job to go do that, and the way you can do this is to talk to everybody and gather information by conducting research.

2) Take notes

Always be sure to write it down any information you collect. You also need to organize your conversations so that you know where your main focus should be.

More importantly, you need to establish the main priorities. You don’t want to head into the job with a million different tasks but not know exactly what you should be targeting first.

Identify the internal and external perspectives, i.e. what do people in your organization think vs what your customers think?

3) Drive the conversation

These conversations aren’t just going to happen on their own. It’s your job to be proactive and head out there and initiate these conversations. This is especially important in a post-pandemic world, where many people are still working from home. It can be so easy to get stuck working in your little bubble.

We must make an effort to schedule that time to touch base with everyone.  

What's the difference between messaging and positioning?

The cold hard fact is: product messaging is irrelevant if what you want to do is make money. Product positioning is maximally relevant if what you want to do is make money. When thinking about positioning, it helps to consider the following factors:

  • How does the product help consumers accomplish a certain task?
  • How does the product fulfill a specific need of consumers?
  • What makes you different from our competitors, but also, what makes you the same?
  • Who do you think you’re competing with versus who you’re actually competing with?

What’s the perception of your product?

Let’s say, for example, you perceive your product as a CRM product. That’s great. But do your customers perceive it that way? If not, you have a core marketing problem. This is important because the perception of your product impacts how you position your product.  

For example, let’s say you're a CRM, but your pricing strategy is wildly different from Salesforce. You've immediately created friction that indicates that you're probably not a CRM product.  You’ve then created a hurdle that your salespeople have to overcome, and by association, a hurdle that your company has to overcome.

All of this research that you conduct should lead to you establishing quite clearly who your customers are.

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Who are your customers?

First and foremost, you’re not a robot and you're not selling to robots. What I mean by this is that your audience won’t engage because you tell them to, and they’re not going to blindly follow instructions.

Human beings have to be convinced and persuaded. More importantly, they have to be certain that your solution is going to tangibly benefit their lives in some way.  

Once you’ve conducted your research and talked to the right people, you need to establish your buyer personas. Establishing your personas is dependent on a few different factors:  

  • What is the main point in their day-to-day jobs?
  • What do they care about?
  • What are the constraints that they face?
  • What are the immediate goals that they have?
  • What are the long-term goals?

The problem with positioning a lot of the time is that these persona outlines can start to look a little abstract. We need to put ourselves in the shoes of potential customers and try to visualize the specific problems they’re dealing with in their day-to-day lives.  

If the persona doesn't lead to you being able to talk directly to a human being and sell them on what you're building, you don't have real personas, you have abstractions.

How to understand your product

This might seem obvious, but product marketers can get so caught up with their messaging and positioning that they lose sight of what the actual benefit of the product is.

The key is, that if you're well acquainted with your product’s solution, you can get better acquainted with the problems it’s solving.  

Ultimately, it’s about connecting that bridge between what your product does and what it can provide for customers.

Understanding your product on a technical level

Every product marketer should have a comprehensive understanding of the product, to the point where they could probably function as at least a mediocre sales rep. Ask yourself whether you could get hired as a sales engineer for your product? Could you give a demo presentation?

If you were placed in a spontaneous situation, at a conference, say, could you simply whip out your laptop and pitch it to anyone? For that to work, it’s not sufficient to be aware of customer needs. You have to get up close to your product and understand, on a micro-level, what your product does.    

Product marketers drive real growth

In the end, it’s all about conversion and customer retention. It’s all about reducing the churn rate as much as possible. These are the core metrics that your leadership is going to be looking at. All of this comes down to servicing the needs and demands of the customers.

You can’t drive these key revenue-driving metrics without being up close and personal with your customers, and as a product marketer, you’re in an ideal situation to be dealing with this. If you know who your customer is, and you know your product well, you're in a position to drive growth.

Product marketers can fulfil many roles

Product marketers are in a great position to be valuable to their organizations. That integral understanding of the product and the customers puts you in an ideal situation to fulfill many different roles.

You should also be able to offer support and guidance to content marketing, for example. Product marketers are involved in writing copy and you need the ability to create impactful messaging for your company’s website, because this is integral to attracting customers.

They should be able to write essential emails for campaigns your company is launching. They should be able to interview customers for case studies, do competitive intelligence research, support PR campaigns, create sales assets, write a pitch, etc.

The point of all this is that a good product marketer should have skills that can assist in generating revenue on multiple different levels.

Product marketers keep things connected

One of the key characteristics of a good product marketer is that they’re able to keep things connected. What you’ll find is that as soon as you get into a product marketing position, it becomes solely your problem.

In fact, in many ways, this happens with many different departments. Sales aren’t talking to marketing, product aren't talking to customer support, etc. With a cross-functional role like product marketing, you have a unique opportunity to inspire greater internal communication and form a glue between these different areas of the business.

Oftentimes, as an organization grows, teams start to become disjointed. It's hard to keep things connected, but you have to do it. All of these departments are dealing with different issues at various points in the purchase cycle. These are all issues that, as a good product marketer, you’re going to have some familiarity with.

How to develop your voice

So, let’s say you’ve completed your messaging, positioning, and personas. You’ve also got all the different departments unified under the umbrella of your vision. Now, the most strategic, useful thing to do is build a voice.    

The catch is, that it's not your voice, it's the voice of the customer, and the voice of the market. If you have a new feature that isn’t getting any traction, for example, you’re then in an ideal position to explain why it isn’t getting traction.

You can also provide insight into your competitors. As a product marketer, you should always be researching your industry and conducting competitive intelligence to identify your competitors’ strengths and weaknesses.

You have an amazing opportunity to be a channel between your organization, the customers, and the rest of your industry. Don’t waste it!

Written by:

Aneel Lakhani

Aneel Lakhani

Aneel Lakhani is the Venture Partner at Crane Venture Partners. He's an investor focused on pre-seed and seed in B2B, focusing mainly in SaaS and OSS in the UK and US.

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From zero to something: Bootstrapping product marketing