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17 min read

Product Marketing Insider [podcast]: Lauren Culbertson


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We got some one-on-one time with Lauren Culbertson, the Co-founder and CEO of LoopVOC, to chat about all things product marketing. From how she first got into the industry to how much it forms part of her day-to-day now, we asked it all.

Full transcript

Bryony Pearce - PMA  00:00

Hi everyone, and welcome back to the Product Marketing Insider podcast brought to you by Product Marketing Alliance. My name’s Bryony Pearce and I’m the Content Manager here at PMA. This week’s pod’s sponsored by the Product Marketing Festival. For those of you who haven’t heard about it yet, it’ll be coming to a screen near you between June 8th and June 14th, and will featuring headline acts from companies like Amazon, Uber, Adobe and Facebook, talking about everything from research all the way through to optimisation. To get your ticket, just head over to the site, festival.productmarketingalliance.com. To help establish and elevate the role of product marketing we’re on a mission to speak to 50 PMMs and pick their brains on everything from their journey into the industry, which teams they interact with most, what skills they believe are critical for the role, and a whole load more.To do just that, with me today is Lauren Culbertson, who’s now the co-founder and CEO of LoopVOC, and was previously the Director of Solutions Marketing at Blackbaud. So, let’s pass over. Welcome to show the Lauren, could I get you to kick off by giving everyone a bit of an intro into you, your role, and then LoopVOC.

Lauren Culbertson  00:09

Yeah, absolutely. So, my name is Lauren Culbertson, I've spent my career in product marketing at B2B SaaS companies, starting out as an associate product marketer, and then I left the corporate world as a Director of Product Marketing, and actually left the corporate world to start a company meant to solve one of the big challenges that I faced as a product marketer, which is really staying in touch with customer needs. So still doing the role of a product marketer every day but really focused now more on solving some problems that this community has.

Bryony Pearce - PMA  00:48

And how long have you had your own business for now?

Lauren Culbertson  00:51

Yeah, so actually pretty new, I went all-in with the company last November, so almost a year now.

Bryony Pearce - PMA  00:58

Okay, exciting. Then before that, how long had you been in the product marketing profession for?

Lauren Culbertson  01:05

About eight years.

Bryony Pearce - PMA  01:07

Okay, awesome. And then what would you say initially attracted you to the product marketing role?

Lauren Culbertson  01:15

Yeah, that's a great question. So, I started out my career in entry-level inside sales. So I came out of college, joined and was making 60 cold calls a day, talking to customers, and getting turned down a lot. But I was trying to decide where the next path in my career would be. I knew that I was really drawn to software companies, I wanted to stay in that space. But when I looked around the organization's, my background was in marketing, and I really saw the product marketing function as the strategic driver of how things happened at the company. So I was really considering demand generation, and I thought that was really cool because you could apply a lot of the messaging and content that customers were hearing and salespeople were hearing. But it was the product marketers that I really saw as almost the mini general managers of their business. And so that was really attractive to me and something that caught my eye right away as something to work towards.

Bryony Pearce - PMA  02:21

And then you mentioned you've been in the product marketing field for about eight years. Did you see a lot of shifts in that time frame?

Lauren Culbertson  02:28

Yeah, absolutely. So when I started out just getting into product marketing, at our company the function was just forming. And it's common in a lot of different companies and across industries, there was really a definition that needed to occur between product management and product marketing. So that was the first natural split. And right away the product marketing function really, again, was meant to be that strategic driver of taking what was happening on the front lines and the customer voice, and then really bringing that back into how we were building products, driving pricing, etc. I saw that shift happen with different power changes at my company where when I left, unfortunately, the role was actually becoming more tactical. And I was kind of discouraged by that, and just what it meant for the future of product marketing because I do think there's also a lot of trends with solution marketing and moving from a product focus to a more vertical or customer focus. But when I left the company, and just over the past year, I've had hundreds of conversations with product marketers, and I'm really inspired because it seems like at most SaaS companies, product marketing is really gaining a reemergence of power. And I think a lot of that has to do with just the need for a really strong customer experience and making sure that the voice of our market is in everything that we do.

Bryony Pearce - PMA  03:59

In terms of your company now, what's the product marketing set up like? So you mentioned you're still in it every day, do you have someone else handling that as well, or is it just you?

Lauren Culbertson  04:09

Yeah, so right now we have product teams that we have numbers of engineering, and then I actually just brought on a head of marketing. And we kind of split the role. So essentially, a lot of my job is still making sure we understand, I play the role of product manager and product marketer now, which to me, only signifies and strengthens the need that I felt to have product marketing because it's really hard to do both at once. So yeah, we're kind of splitting the role, and it's interesting at a startup because that's another thing because I'm talking to companies that have product marketers, I think it's really interesting when a company decides to have their first product marketer, and most of the time I found it when they're doing a couple million in revenue, they've got enough customer traction where they need to start to be strategic. I think a lot of times product marketers shake things up with the founder, because they're really brought in to drive who we're going after, what we're offering them, how we're positioning it, and you know a lot of that, in the early days, is done by a founder. So it's interesting, a lot of what I'm doing is product marketing, but a lot of it is also the role of a founder. So I think there's an interesting line there.

Bryony Pearce - PMA  05:31

Yes, for sure. And then if there is such a thing, and I'm getting the impression through these podcasts that there's not, what does a standard day in your role look like?

Lauren Culbertson  05:43

Oh gosh, so when I'm considering my product marketing hat, I mean just yesterday, I started off the day talking to our head of UX and engineering, who's also helping as our product owner, and we were really strategizing on what we have on the docket for Q4 in terms of features and roadmap, and I shared with him some feedback that we were getting that might re-prioritise how we were delivering those things. So spent a lot of time there really understanding and helping to influence how things are prioritised. Then, in the afternoon, I took that information and had conversations with our head of marketing to talk about the features coming up, how we should be positioning them, deciding which components of the release really needed to be talked about, how it was going to be integrated into all of our content. And then finished off the day in conversation with our head of sales who just also came on, and really talking with him about how we segment going after new markets. So historically, over the past year, we've seen really good traction in our space with B2B SaaS companies but then we're also opening up new markets for private equity firms. So doing that classic cross-marketing segmentation and then trying to dig in to understand how we can map needs from one to the other and where unique features and positioning is required. So I'm sure like the days of many product marketers it's crazy, slam packed, but still a lot of fun.

Bryony Pearce - PMA  07:29

And then in terms of planning, how far would you say you try to plan in advance?

Lauren Culbertson  07:35

So this is a really interesting question, too, and when you talk about changes that I've seen over my career, this is a huge one. So for me, we're in a startup, so it's a very, very delicate balance between getting things out there and really being agile and making sure that you're also planning the timing of when you're putting things out that it will land well and match up with what the markets willing and wanting to hear. But from my experience when I was working at a larger corporation, which was about 750 million, about 4000 employees, so other end of the spectrum, one of the biggest things, so I was actually there during a really interesting time where we transitioned from a legacy software company to the cloud. And during that time, I was in charge of really defining what that meant for the function of product marketing. And one of the biggest areas that needed to change was we were used to doing these, back to your point about planning, these big annual plans, and doing these big annual surveys to understand what our market wanted, what our customers wanted, and then defining how we were going to do campaigns and strategies, pricing, product roadmap for the year. But when we were moving to a SaaS model, that was a really big move for us, it was transformational change and it was also moving to a model that was a lot more adaptive than we were used to. So in the software agile delivery model, you need to be able to shift features that you're building every week, even every day. And we weren't prepared to support that from a marketing perspective. So that's when I really started to notice a change in the way that companies and product marketers were collecting feedback and making their plans. And so we actually created processes during that time where we were trying to become more agile and really make our own planning, more adaptable. So we had these big blocks that we would aim toward, but the pieces of sand in the middle were flexible so that as we were hearing new things from customers, and we were listening in to what they were saying, across all these channels every day, we could adapt and make changes and strategic action happen every week, so we could basically move at the speed of a startup even though we were a giant behemoth of a company.

Bryony Pearce - PMA  10:07

Yeah for sure. And then outside of the product marketing hat, how have you found the transition of going into this founder CEO role from product marketing?

Lauren Culbertson  10:20

Honestly, I think that product marketers are the best-suited people to start their own companies because the role is naturally a catch-all in the middle of the strategy of how a product is going to market and making sure that it is growing and making sure that it is functional and that it's sold and that's really what the role of the founder is. So much of what I learned and what I've built up as a product marketer was transitioned into being... it's not been a huge jump to be a founder. So I would encourage anyone that's a product marketer that has an idea. Go for it.

Bryony Pearce - PMA  11:08

And then I'm going to put you on the spot here. So if there's anyone listening to this, and they were thinking about taking the plunge and setting up their own company, what would your three tips for them be, skills or behavioural or anything like that?

Lauren Culbertson  11:22

Yeah, absolutely. So one, and again these are all going to be very natural tips because they're what you do as a product marketer, but one, find out as much as you can about your market before you take the plunge. So I spent about a year between the time that I had the realisation that there was an unsolved need and there was a technology forming that could solve it. After I had that realisation I spent about a year talking to potential customers and finding a preliminary product-market fit. That's the hardest thing for any founder is finding that product-market fit and what's great about being a product marketer is that you know how to do that. So if you can spend time beforehand, really vetting that out, that is going to be huge for you and allow you to really hit the ground running when you go all in. The second thing that I would say is make sure that you hire or find co-founders that fill your gaps. That's the number one thing. So for us, I obviously a non-technical founder needed a CTO, what I didn't realise was that our space is so new, that it requires a direct sales function. And my thoughts before starting the company, and in that year of really doing analysis, was we could create something really affordable and simple and you could just buy it online without talking to anyone. But I found that because the concept is new, it requires conversations. And so my learning from that is I really should have hired a third co-founder which would have been someone that had a really strong sales background, we just hired that person now. But I'd say that's tip number two is really evaluate where your gaps are so that you can get the right cofounders upfront. And then the third is if you're coming from a company with a lot of structure, just try to embrace and get into the skillset and practice of being more agile with your planning, I think, as product marketers, we love planning and we love strategy. But the world is moving, especially in SaaS companies, towards flexibility. And so the more of that you can embrace beforehand and just getting into processes of rapidly rolling out new positioning and being flexible, that translates perfectly for when you're in the role of the startup founder.

Bryony Pearce - PMA  13:50

Awesome, thank you. And then in terms of the future, how do you see your role panning out as the company grows, are you quite keen to stay glued into this product marketing side of things, or are you happy taking a step back?

Lauren Culbertson  14:05

Yeah, so as a company that really focuses on making the lives of product marketers better, I want to always stay close to the role because it honestly just helps me understand where I still have challenges trying to do the product marketing function and where my own software is not helping. So it helps me build the roadmap because I'm a user and I deeply understand the market. And, frankly, it's one I'm super passionate about, and I don't think I will ever find another job that I love as much as product marketing, because it's just really fun to me. But I think at one point, if we grow and we do want to grow fast, and we want to really create a category for customer feedback analytics, then we'll absolutely need a team of strong product marketers because they'll bring the same value and more value to our company in terms of just staying close to the market and really building out the function.

Bryony Pearce - PMA  15:13

And then what would you say the top three skills are that have helped you get where you are today?

Lauren Culbertson  15:21

Yeah, so top three skills that have helped me get where I am today. I'd say the number one is persistence. And that's a very common one you'll hear for entrepreneurs, but it's definitely a lot of long hours, a lot of being told 'no' and just really having that grit to just believe in yourself and put it all on the line and keep going because you will be tested. The second trait I think, is just not being afraid. Which can be challenging when, especially for women, it's more common to be drawn to being perfect and being right than it is to be drawn to risks and maybe failing so that you can become better. So really being open to risks is absolutely huge. And then the third, I would say, is really being analytical. I think that's unique and maybe not required for entrepreneurs in general. But it is for the company I started which is really an analytics company. And I think some of the best product marketers have really strong analytical skills. And I think for this day and age when data is everything, and really we're going into the era where data is everywhere, what do we do with it? What can it mean to us? And we talk about things like machine learning, and product marketers that have that analytical sense will be so valuable. And really, I think that's definitely one of my secret source skills that I lean on.

Bryony Pearce - PMA  17:10

Awesome. Out of curiosity, I see a lot of conversations on Slack and just online in general, what's your stance on KPIs? I know it kind of splits opinion, some people think they don't belong in product marketing, some people think they do.

Lauren Culbertson  17:22

I, being that I'm super analytical, don't see how product marketing could exist without KPIs. So I'm very strongly in favour of KPIs, for me the way I've built teams is always holding them to KPIs around revenue, new customer acquisition, and more recently as I left the corporate world, I was really trying to hold my teams to customer retention as well just because, again, customer experience is becoming more and more critical to keeping customers to stick around. So everything that a product marketer does should be driving revenue and value, we should not be a cost centre, we should be a revenue-driving function. And that requires close coordination with demand generation, with sales and sales enablement, with the front lines. But absolutely everything that we do should really tag back to dollars.

Bryony Pearce - PMA  18:31

Yep. And then in terms of direct one-on-one customer contact, how often does that happen with you at the moment?

Lauren Culbertson  18:41

Well, for me, it's a little crazy because it happens throughout the day because I'm also trying to learn as much as I can about our customers at this stage. So I try to get on at least three or four phone calls a day and I'm in the Slack channel, which is awesome, just learning and staying in touch. I think for product marketers in general, again, this is kind of my soapbox, so I'm extreme on this topic, but I think for product marketers, the most important role that we play is being that voice of the customer. And so the more that you can talk to customers, talk to prospects, go to events, it should be energising and it should give you ideas for how you change product roadmap, pricing, positioning, customer experience, that's really what gives us the power to be the centre of strategy at an organisation.

Bryony Pearce - PMA  19:39

Awesome. And then in your opinion, if anything, what do you think needs to change about product marketing?

Lauren Culbertson  19:47

I think the biggest thing that really needs to change, and I think it is changing, is related to the topic of being strategic versus tactical. I think that it can be really easy if there's not the right focus given to the role, for product marketers just to become executors of what product management or other strategic functions of the organisation say. But I again believe that by having access to data, and really leveraging that with the voice of the customer, that product marketers can show up and provide value to these functions to really guide them on how they are doing their jobs. So moving from being a tactical executers at an organisation to be strategic influencers, I think is key. And in order to do that product marketers really have to focus on getting into data, being very KPI driven, and staying extremely close to the customer. Because that's really today, a huge value that will be impossible for any function or company to ignore.

Bryony Pearce - PMA  21:01

And then outside of your own tool, do you have any go-to tools that you use day-to-day that play a big role in your job?

Lauren Culbertson  21:11

Yeah, absolutely. So little tools, like Slack, obviously are great for collaboration, but I also have been using a tool HotJar that allows us to see more engagement on how people are using our tool. And I think that could be really valuable for product marketers, just to get a sense and get closer to UX. One tool that I really like that is maybe growing, it's not super popular, but I really enjoyed it, is Autopilot and that has helped me set up trigger-based usage journeys. So really getting into the weeds of, what are the metrics that are driving value for our customers? And if we set those up in the product, and know when they completed those activities, how are we talking to those customers? How are we getting them the valuable information they need? And then obviously using CRM tools that are key for segmentation and understanding user data, we use HubSpot for that. And then JIRA for product management, but getting less into that.

Bryony Pearce - PMA  22:24

Yep. Awesome. Thank you. And then if there were any new or aspiring product marketers listening to this, what would your advice to them be?

Lauren Culbertson  22:34

Yeah, so my advice to new and aspiring product marketers, you know, this is the field that I got into as well. And I think it's important that you find a space that you're passionate about, because it should become something that you live and breathe every day. I started out my journey in product marketing focused on CRM software, which to some people might sound totally boring. But I was super passionate about that, because I believed in the power of what a CRM could do for a company and how it could empower, typically we were working with nonprofits, but how it could empower them to better connect with their donors and raise more money. I moved in my career to a different vertical that I wasn't as passionate about, and I didn't realise how important that would be until I made the move. But it's really hard to act as the voice of the customer for a market that you don't connect with. So I would say if you're looking to get into product marketing, aside from the obvious recommendation of building up the skills that you would need in analytics and content writing strategy, would really be to make sure you're entering into product marketing in a space that you can connect deeply with.

Bryony Pearce - PMA  23:53

And then what would you say is, or do you have a favourite part of product marketing?

Lauren Culbertson  23:59

Yeah, so my favourite part of product marketing would, it's pretty obvious based on the company that I started, but is customer feedback and so really analysing feedback from customers and prospects and using that to drive strategy across the organisation. So the analytics and really understanding how needs are changing, how the market's moving, I find it super fun. It's kind of like fortune-telling to me. The trends of what's happening, I really like that.

Bryony Pearce - PMA  24:34

Awesome, and then final question, what does the process of keeping on top of what your competitors are up to look like for you? And how often do you go through that process?

Lauren Culbertson  24:45

Yeah, that's an interesting topic. And I kind of go back and forth on this one because actually our tool, there are some capabilities to listen to competitors, but I mean just even thinking about it for what we recommend for product marketers is kind of the same of what I think about it for myself. My opinion is that companies should focus inward foremost, and then use what their comparable companies or competitors are doing around them as a benchmark. But I've just found it really ineffective to just go chasing after competitors. And I know that's a huge part of the product marketing role, and especially with sales enablement, and just making sure that sales are educated on how to speak to the differences and the value propositions over competitors is obviously key because that's part of the buying process. But when it comes to really staying on top of competitors to make sure that you're doing more or the same as them, I think it becomes ineffective because if you really focus on what your customers and what the market is saying they need, you can get ahead of them and leapfrog them, versus just playing this incremental game of cat and mouse with them. So I would say it's important to stay aware and there are great tools out there for you to do that. But to be careful about getting too wrapped up in staying on top of it.

Bryony Pearce - PMA  26:18

Yeah, no, I completely agree. That's a really good answer. Awesome. Well, thank you so much for your time today Lauren, it's been really nice speaking to you. And I wish you the best of luck with your new venture.

Lauren Culbertson  26:30

Thank you so much. It's been great.

Written by:

Bryony Pearce

Bryony Pearce

Bryony's the Head of Content here at Product Marketing Alliance and you'll find her behind most things written!

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Product Marketing Insider [podcast]: Lauren Culbertson