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8 min read

Making your mark: The PMM's startup survival guide

Careers | Start-up

Thinking of diving into product marketing at a startup, but unsure of the terrain? I'm Saad Asad, the Senior Product Marketing Manager at ChartHop, and I've been in your shoes. Let's navigate this exciting landscape together. 

In this piece, we'll explore:

  • The rising trend of startups making PMMs their first marketing hires
  • How to seamlessly adapt to the PMM role in a budding company
  • The unique challenges and rewards of being an early marketing recruit in a startup
  • Key strategies to establish yourself and make a lasting impact in the initial months
  • Proven advice for both breaking into and scaling your career in product marketing within the startup world

Why more and more companies are opting for a PMM as their first marketing hire

There are a few reasons why startups are increasingly leaning towards PMMs as their first marketing recruits. 

For starters, in the early stages of their journey, they often don't need a Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) just yet. This is largely because hiring a CMO right off the bat can be very expensive. 

While bringing in a fractional CMO could work, it's worth noting that at this early stage, the product might still be in its developmental phase with only a handful of customers. The sales approach during this time is typically more direct and personal and doesn't necessarily call for a full-fledged marketing machine.

Given this context, a junior marketer who’s eager to cut their teeth and is more inclined to accept equity over a high salary often fits the bill. 

But why hire a product marketer over, say, a demand generation specialist or a content creator? Because product marketers tend to be generalists. While they might not be fully-fledged content gurus, they can certainly create effective content pieces. 

Similarly, their expertise in demand generation may not match that of a specialist, but in the early stages, the emphasis is more on direct sales rather than building a demand gen engine. This is where a product marketer's strength in supporting sales conversations shines.

Another crucial aspect is messaging. It's vital, especially in the beginning, to invest time in understanding customer personas and crafting the right messaging and positioning. Jumpstarting a demand-generation strategy with misaligned messaging can be disastrous, so having someone refine and develop the messaging is key.

In short, PMMs are versatile superstars, ready to tackle any challenge in a startup's dynamic environment. With their adaptable skill set, product marketers thrive when juggling multiple roles. Able to drive impact across many disciplines, their broad experience often enables startups to punch above their weight. 

When I joined Utmost, I was the first marketer, which naturally positioned me as a generalist. I wasn't pigeonholed into a specific niche of marketing; instead, I was the go-to for event marketing, content creation, and social media management. This wide range of responsibilities meant I didn't initially have to spend much time clarifying my role. 

However, as the company grew and more specialists joined the team, the lines began to blur. Questions came up about the evolving nature of my responsibilities, especially as we onboarded dedicated content creators and demand generation experts. 

This experience taught me a valuable lesson about the importance of open dialogue. It's not just about making sure others understand your role; it's about fostering a two-way conversation. 

At ChartHop, I took this lesson to heart. I made it a point to engage with every sales representative, delineating the differences between product marketing, content marketing, and technical writing. My goal was to share how I aimed to support and enable them, and to make sure they knew which requests to bring to me versus other departments.

It's crucial to recognize that many people, even product managers, might not fully understand the scope and value of a PMM. Taking the initiative to explain not only what you bring to the table but also how you can collaborate effectively is essential. It's all about mutual understanding and support.

The pros and cons of being an early marketing hire 

As anyone who’s joined a startup as the first marketing hire will tell you, it can be both an incredibly rewarding and a very challenging experience. Let’s dive into some of the pros and cons.

The rewards of being first on the scene

One of the biggest perks of being an early marketing hire, especially in a startup, is that you can see the fruits of your labor much more clearly. During my time at Utmost, there was a period of about a year and a half where I had touched almost every digital mention of the company in some way. It's incredibly fulfilling to see the tangible impact you've made in that way.

Plus, being part of a smaller team means you're right in the thick of things. The company's direction evolves right before your eyes and, unlike in larger, more established companies where go-to-market strategies and target segments are set in stone, there's room for exploration and innovation. 

The smaller team size also means more frequent interactions with executives, offering insights into their thought processes and decision-making. That’s another fun aspect of the startup experience.

Facing the challenges head-on

However, being an early hire isn't without its challenges. For one, the smaller team size can sometimes feel isolating. The camaraderie and casual interactions you'd typically find in larger organizations – like a spontaneous chat with a backend engineer by the watercooler – can be rarer.

At my previous organization, I was employee number 13, and half the company was in Ireland, so there was a period when there weren't that many people around – and if people were traveling to meet clients there might be literally nobody else about. 

Then there's the sheer breadth of responsibilities. On one hand, it's exciting to wear many hats; I had the chance to set up tools like HubSpot and make pivotal decisions. But on the other hand, I'm not a HubSpot expert. Balancing the need to implement such tools while also creating sales assets and managing social media can be overwhelming. 

And sometimes, you find yourself involved in tasks outside your domain. I even got pulled into choosing an office location. While that can be enjoyable, it takes time away from the core tasks that drive key performance indicators (KPIs).

In essence, the startup environment offers a mix of opportunities and challenges. You're exposed to a wide array of tasks within and outside your discipline. It's a rollercoaster, but one that offers invaluable experiences and learnings.

Insights and tips for stepping into the role of a startup's first PMM 

As the first product marketer in a startup, you're charting new territory. From the qualities that make you an ideal fit to the survival tactics for those intense early months, let's delve into the essentials of this unique role.

What to bring to the table

Like many product marketers, I sort of fell into the role, so take my advice with a pinch of salt. That said, I’ve noticed that founders are generally looking for someone who has some initial marketing experience and is hungry to learn more. 

It’s also great if you have some experience at a slightly later-stage startup. For example, if you're stepping into a seed or series A startup, having experience in a series B, C, or D company can be advantageous. However, transitioning from a massive corporation with specialized teams to a fledgling startup can be challenging. 

Can you wear multiple hats? Can you deliver without a hefty budget or the support of an agency? In a startup, resources are limited. This environment naturally favors those who thrive in smaller teams, are versatile, and have an insatiable appetite for growth and experimentation.

Survival strategies for the first 90 days

The most important piece of advice for somebody entering a startup as the first product marketer is this: Brace yourself. You’re in for a firehose of information to the face. As the first product marketer, you'll be diving deep into a new product and market, all while navigating the dynamics of a bustling startup. 

Prioritization is key. You can't excel in every marketing discipline, so zero in on what truly drives results. If you're uncertain about your next move, talk to your superiors and stakeholders. Aligning with their vision will give you some clarity and direction.

You also need to be able to say no sometimes. For instance, in my previous role, I chose to sideline our company's Facebook page in favor of focusing on LinkedIn because it was more likely to drive results. Decide what can wait and where your immediate attention is needed most.

Another vital aspect of prioritization is maintaining a work-life balance. While it’s easy to find yourself working 12-hour days, it's crucial to find time for relaxation, socializing, and self-care – otherwise, you’ll burn out.

Top tips for breaking into product marketing

Everyone's journey into product marketing is unique. For instance, I transitioned from client services, which occasionally intersected with product marketing. Making this leap within the same company was great because the hiring manager already knew me, making the transition smoother. 

So, if you're considering a move into product marketing, don't be afraid to make lateral shifts or even take on a lower title if it gets you closer to your goal. 

Remember, as Sheryl Sandberg once said, “Careers are a jungle gym, not a ladder.” You might move sideways, down, or up, but each move is a step toward your ultimate goal.

Building your career in product marketing

Once you're in the realm of product marketing, it's essential to pinpoint your interests. Do you have a passion for a specific industry? Are you drawn to B2C or B2B? Maybe you have a preference for enterprise-level marketing. Identifying what excites you will guide your skill development. 

It’s a great idea to network with professionals in those roles. Whether you're connecting through the Product Marketing Alliance Slack channel or reaching out on LinkedIn, learning about the skills required for your dream job is crucial.

I’d also recommend talking to your boss about your career aspirations. Be candid about the skills you want to hone and the milestones you aim to achieve. This proactive approach will not only help you grow in your current role but also pave the way for future opportunities that align with your interests.

Lastly, remember the power of your network. Surround yourself with people whose skills and careers you admire. Engaging with other PMMs and those who've walked the product marketing path can be invaluable. 

There's a saying that you're the average of the five people you spend the most time with. So, think about it: Who are you surrounding yourself with? If you're keen on developing a particular skill set, immerse yourself in a community of product marketers you can learn from. That’s a surefire way to fast-track your skill-building journey.

Key takeaways

Navigating product marketing in a startup is both challenging and rewarding. Whether you're just stepping into this world or looking to grow within it, there are some essential insights to keep in mind. So, here's a quick recap of what we've covered:

🚀 Startups value PMMs: More and more startups are recognizing the importance of having a PMM as their first marketing hire.

🤝 Adaptability is key: Whether you're the first marketer or joining an established team, being flexible and understanding the startup's unique dynamics is crucial.

🎢 Expect ups and downs: Being an early marketing hire offers the thrill of immediate impact but also comes with its set of challenges.

🔍 Find your niche: Determine what excites you within product marketing, be it B2C, B2B, or a specific industry, and hone your skills in that direction.

🛠 Prioritize and strategize: Especially in your first few months, focus on tasks that drive results and align with the company's vision.

🌱 Growth mindset: Always be open to learning, whether it's breaking into product marketing or scaling your career within it.

🤗 Community matters: Surround yourself with professionals you admire. Engaging with a community of product marketers can significantly boost your skill set and perspective.

This article is based on Saad’s stellar interview on the Product Marketing Life podcast. Listen on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. 

Since the recording, Saad has been pursuing his passion for creating a positive social impact through product marketing, and he now works as a Product Marketing Manager at U.S. Digital Response. Nice work, Saad! We love to see it! ✨

This post was a collaboration between

Saad Asad, Amelia Wilson

  • Saad Asad

    Saad Asad

    Saad is a Product Marketing Manager at U.S. Digital Response. He's passionate about delivering social impact through the power of storytelling.

    More posts by Saad Asad.

    Saad Asad
  • Amelia Wilson

    Amelia Wilson

    Amelia is a Content Executive here at the Product Marketing Alliance. Got an article you'd love to share? Get in touch!

    More posts by Amelia Wilson.

    Amelia Wilson
Making your mark: The PMM's startup survival guide