Redgate Software’s Product Marketing Strategist and PMA ambassador Collette Johnson talks to us all about making mistakes and learning from them, how important she thinks it is to own our mistakes and hold our hands up, how she’s proud of her past mess-ups and they’ve helped her career to date, plus the lessons startups and big organizations can learn from each other, her beliefs on where the industry as whole needs to change and heaps more.

Full transcript:

Emma Bilardi - PMA  0:01

Hi everyone and welcome to the Product Marketing Life podcast brought to you by Product Marketing Alliance. My name's Emma Bilardi and I'm a content marketer here at PMA. Today we're joined by Collette Johnson Product Marketing Strategist at Redgate Software and we'll be discussing learning from our mistakes. Collette has a ton of industry experience in the tech and pharmaceutical fields. Prior to Redgate she worked with GeoSpock and Plextek and she's also a PMA ambassador, an instructor on our product marketing core course, and she also teaches and mentors students at the University of Cambridge Judge Business School, a really impressive CV and I'm super excited to speak to her today. So welcome to the show, Collette.

Collette Johnson  0:41

Thank you very much for having me Emma I feel very lucky to be here today.

Emma Bilardi - PMA  0:45

No problem and can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your role at Redgate?

Collette Johnson  0:50

Yes, so I've worked in product marketing for just over 14 years now, except when I started in the industry, we never called it product marketing. So I'm very happy it's got a full position and is fully accepted. I work in Redgate, I work as a product marketing strategist there in their team and work particularly around the security data protection and data privacy products that we have in the organization. It's quite an exciting role for me actually for product marketing. So not only does it pull on the typical product marketing things like sales enablement, understanding the products, looking at how we position that product in the market, but with it being security and data protection, I'm really starting to get to the grasps of understanding global data protection rules, which was a whole dimension I wasn't expecting at the start of the role, but something I'm really enjoying. And it's one of those things in product marketing, where you realize everything is different in every company, and you're always picking something new up. So it's a really exciting role for me to be in.

Emma Bilardi - PMA  1:41

Excellent. Okay, so, today we're going to discuss learning from our mistakes. So what do you think the biggest mistakes companies make when they're hiring product marketers?

Collette Johnson  1:52

I think it's quite interesting when companies are hiring product marketers. I think product marketing is a very three-dimensional role and you're taking on a lot of skills you're working with product teams, you've got people with sales experience, you've got to have marketing experience. So the experience we have is quite a wealth of experience. I think one of the mistakes companies make a lot of the time with product marketing is they're looking for a complete product marketer, and I don't believe that exists. We all have our different interests. I love doing positioning and strategy. And I love the sales enablement piece and working with organizations and getting them excited about the product. There are some areas maybe that I'm a little bit weaker of or haven't done as much in you know, I do a lot of competitive intelligence in my job. But, when you look at the plethora of work I do, I'd say that is one of my areas of lesser interest. I think what's interesting with product marketers is if somebody has the enthusiasm and the hunger, you can teach them the skills, but you cannot teach them that hunger and that excitement of doing that role because it is such a hands-on heavy going role - every day is different. So I think the mistake they make is looking for that complete marketer and I do not believe anybody in this industry can say they are 100% competency that is equivalent across their CV. And I think that's something we need to understand in this industry is you will have people who have skills or strengths in different areas. So what you should say is what strengths do we want to bring in this role? And then when we bring this person in, how can we make them that complete marketer for our organization? And I think people are starting to see that now in the industry. But I think we need to appreciate that more to welcome young players, particularly when we're looking at these new entrants into the role, people with two, three years experience. It's something we need to start becoming more accepting of in this industry.

Emma Bilardi - PMA  3:35

Absolutely. So we're talking about different roles at different companies and product marketing is such a new role, in your opinion, which responsibilities should product marketers own?

Collette Johnson  3:48

I think product marketers need to own that responsibility of the product in the company. And I think what is interesting is that looks different in different organizations. Some organizations I've worked with that's very much been on the sales enablement and marketing side. Other companies that roles been very embedded within the product team. So actually there are some companies I've been in where I've actually been a part of the product team and not the marketing team. So I think what we should be looking for when we come into these roles is saying, where do I want to fit? How do I want to prove myself? How do I help to position this product in the market successfully? Does that mean that I've got to spend, three, four months with the sales team making sure that this happens, get in with the product team, understand how that product works, how the development works, how the product works? I think one of the things that when people are coming into product marketing, with it being new, is don't try and be everything to everyone. Look at where your short term wins are, look at where the long term goals and actually when I go into an organization, I look at the product and the work that I'll be doing and say what is my strategy for success for this in the short term and in the long term? I think don't think that you're going to achieve a successful marketing mix within six months because I think you will set yourself up for failure and disappointment. I think it's where can I make the biggest impact now as the product marketer? How can I help this product elevate forward? And then what do I need to do long term? And I think that's really important.

Emma Bilardi - PMA  5:09

Absolutely. So having worked in startups and larger, well-established companies, what lessons do you think that they could take from each other?

Collette Johnson  5:18

I think it's a really interesting thing actually when you go into a startup, you are doing everything, you are looking at the product brand, you're going to look at positioning, you're doing the sales enablement, you're helping the tech sales teams with their work. So as a product marketer, it's really exciting. I think one of the things that it is expected in startups is sometimes it's one product marketer doing everything, and that can be very overbearing. And I think actually, as companies grow, you need to bring in those specialist skill sets. So I think the startups can look at those bigger companies and say, where do we need a specialism and skill set, and at what point in a product pathway do we need to do this? When I've worked with startups, it's really been about bringing those skill sets on at the right time. I think the other thing, looking the other way of where larger companies can look at startups is actually, it's very interesting watching product marketers. Because they are working in such a multitude of skill sets, they can lend themselves to a lot of things in a business. So for bigger businesses, I think what they can learn from product marketers from startups, those marketers can really bring value to the business where they need it at that time. So if they are looking at overall organization product strategy, and maybe it's not 100% of that product marketers role, maybe they're only looking at one product strand, how can I bring this person to add value to my business? When I am looking at my digital marketing campaigns how can I bring that person in to add value, bring experience, understand that user, build on that persona? So I think it's also saying, they're not just the remit of that job description of that product marketer, but they can add so much more value across the business because they have the oversight of seeing a whole product. So what they're doing if you imagine in a lot of organizations, as that product marketer, you're like that mini startup in the business. Now I would say go with caution. You aren't a startup, you're a big business, you've got revenues to bring in, but you can lend yourself to the business in other ways outside of that traditional role. And I think that's something big companies can start learning from these startups of how to get the most value out of their marketers. And I think there are two sides to that, that will help them marketers grow in their role. It will help them stay loyal to companies, they'll want to stay there because they see it as a challenge and they are developing outside of their role. I think when it comes to startups, learning from the bigger companies as well, it's saying to people, "We value your skillset. And we now need to bring someone else in because we can see the skill set as the product marketer is adding significant value to our organization. So now is the time to bring in that sales enablement specialist and help grow that in the business. So you can focus on those core values and skills that you're bringing to the other side of the business in product marketing". And I think it's something that as product marketers, we shouldn't fear either. I think we fear new people. We fear people helping us takes some of the work off us or doing different parts of our role. But that to me that bringing in those different roles shows us how valuable our skills are as product marketers, and we should open that door, and we should welcome it. And we should be driving more people in because actually we are, as a profession at the moment, we are going through a severe growth phase, everyone's starting to value us, they're starting to understand the value it can bring to business. So as marketers, we shouldn't feel protective of what we're doing, we should open the door to as many people as we can and keep showing that value.

Emma Bilardi - PMA  8:32

Absolutely. So we've talked a little bit about starting out in the business as a product marketer, but in your opinion, what are some of the biggest mistakes product marketers are making, like more established product marketers, I guess?

Collette Johnson  8:48

Yeah, I think there's a number of mistakes we make, I still do it, have I learned? Probably not. When we go in an organization we go in all guns blazing. I am definitely one of those people who go in and go, "Right I've got to make a move", you get in on day one, someone says, "Go and have a look at this go to market strategy" and all of a sudden, you're running at 110 miles an hour. And what you're forgetting to do is build that internal network, get those internal stakeholders on side, go and understand the business, go and understand the product. One of the biggest things, I think, are really important to any marketer is sit back and say, "Go and sit and understand this business for four weeks, sit back, understand that business, know what you're doing. But once you understand that business, you've got the stakeholders, you understand how it works, you'll be far more successful". I think we run and want to evidence things because, day one, here you go, you're on your probation, here's your day one target, and you run with that. And I think actually, it can be a distraction to building those more important relationships. And I think actually, as employers, organizations have, you know, it's absolutely important for them to make sure that they're allowing these product marketers to build these relationships. That to me is the key between a good marketer and a great marketer is that internal relationship. I think it's a mistake we make time and time again. And I think the other thing that I see a lot of established product marketers do, as we move up into those more senior roles, we take on more strategic responsibilities, and that's really important but always remember that customer at the end. Keep those conversations going, talk to those users, talk to the customers, understand those insights. Go and keep talking to your sales team, understand what's happening with that enablement material, see what feedback their customers are doing. Talk to developers, see what tickets have come in with the problems with your technology and things like that. And it's just keeping that going. I think it's very easy when we're stuck in a strategic loop and obviously, it's now coming to the time of year when everybody's looking at their strategy, and I think it's one of those things where we can get distracted with other things and forget the core of our capability. And it is that talking it is, is there an objection to this? Why is there an objection? Understanding that objection, finding your voice, is there a feature that a customer keeps coming back with that's a problem in your technology? How do we remedy this? But you know, I think the key one is talking to people, talking to the customer, talking to people internally, I think it's so easy to lose sight of that or be distracted on other things. But I think that is another thing that I'm very strong about is user insight and customer feedback. I think it really does help elevate your product. So just make sure you keep that conversation going.

Emma Bilardi - PMA  11:23

Absolutely. So what mistakes are people outside of product marketing making that's hindering the industry? Do you think?

Collette Johnson  11:31

I think the biggest mistake that people are making generally is about what our role is, as product marketers, I think a lot of people see us as an extension to that marketing team. So they see us as marketers, what I think people don't see is the work we do with the sales team. I see myself as an extension to the sales team, I'm working on helping them to make sure that they can sell the product, understand the product, they've got the right materials for them. And I really want them to be successful. If they're successful, my product's successful. I see that exactly with the same the product team I work with as well, I want to understand the features, the research they're doing, what's coming back from their customers. So I can understand really how to position ourselves as strong as possible I don't think people necessarily always see that, I've spoken to people, I've mentored people in product marketing, and they found that a difficult position to get people to understand what their role is. So I think we have a role to educate them but people externally I think need to understand and maybe question a bit more about our role as well. I never take offense when somebody asks me what actually a product marketer does. I think to me, that is important because it really helps people understand what we do in the industry. I think the other one is about clients and things like that as well, and customers, understanding what we do as a product marketer, how we help, how we support, that we can help our customers with their case studies and help them understand the conviction case for them getting the product into their organization. So I think there's a lot of work we can do but I think it's about people understanding really the complexity of our role, what we do, the multiple skill set in our role, and that we are more than just the people who produce the content and the wording for that product. But actually, we are absolutely under the skin of that product in every single part of the organization, because that's what makes us really successful. That's what makes great product marketers is being that multi-skilled person.

Emma Bilardi - PMA  16:48

Okay, can you talk to us about a mistake that you've made and perhaps a lesson you've taken from it?

Collette Johnson  16:55

Yeah, actually, and it's really important I think you know, that we talk about these mistakes. It's something that's very close to my heart, and it was a mistake I made quite early on in my career, and I will never ever do it again. I can't believe I'm admitting this now, if any of my colleagues and friends are listening to this, please do not mock me heavily. But it was very early on in my career and I was helping a company to launch a, it was a pharmaceutical product, and it was being launched in Asia and we decided on the launch date, we got the naming, we'd done all the user research, we were ready to go. And we thought this is absolutely fantastic. This is going to be amazing. All the research led to us that this was going to be a big impact. We'd gone out to the press, we'd gone everywhere. And when the results came back on the initial first couple of days of this release, I was really sort of sitting at the digital team thinking something's not right here in the sales team, we can't get meetings, we can't get traction in Japan. Japan was meant to be our biggest market for this product that we were launching. And it was a celebration of the Emperor in Japan, and the whole of Japan was on close down for a week. And it was a big thing that I'd missed. I laugh about it now, it's one of my favorite stories, but at the time, I just remember just thinking, "Oh, I just want to cry". I was young in my career as well. I hadn't been long into this space. And I just thought what on earth has happened? And I remember just thinking, I have to go to my boss and present these numbers and I'm going to have to explain that we made a massive mistake. It was probably one of the most nerve-wracking times of my career, but I'm so glad I did it. And actually, it made me realize the importance of good leadership. Because we sat there, we went through, they sat with me, two directors, and they sat with me and said, "Okay, we're gonna pivot this, how are we going to do it?" And we sat in a room for a couple of days and we pivoted it to success, but I could have walked in that room, and they could have not been like that with me. And that was a very big key point in my career, saying, "I will never, ever let somebody take that on their shoulders. I will always support them. I always help people through this". And I think that's something in this industry qe need to think about. I mentor a lot of people Emma, and actually the number of people who will email me or WhatsApp me and say, "Can we have a mentor meeting now I've got a bit of a problem". And they've made a mistake, and they don't know how to deal with it. I talk them through the situation, I tell them how they need to deal with it, what evidence they should go in, look at how you can rectify what's gone on, go with the solution. But the number of people who call me and go, "I'm going to get sacked if I go in there and do this", and I just think that's wrong of this industry. Good leadership supports people. We can get through anything together. You might not want to go to your boss as the first port of call, but go through and have that conversation. And I remember that conversation. I remember walking into that room and feeling absolutely dreadful and thinking, "Oh, this is the end for me". And I walked out of that room and felt really confident. But I tell you now, I know how to deal with the problem because of that, and I will always look and think, "Okay, how do we get out of this?" There is always a way out of a mistake. There's always a way out of a problem. But having that right team and leadership with you to get out of that is key.

Emma Bilardi - PMA  19:57

Yeah, I think there's something to be said for holding your hands up as well, and kind of building trust in that way. You know, nobody's perfect.

Collette Johnson  20:07

Yeah, and you know what Emma, I would say that, hold your hands up. That's a key tip I would give to anybody listening to this now is do not hide that mistake. I have had a member of my team who hid a mistake from me. I can tell this story because it's quite funny now, again, it's one of those stories at the time. We were doing a piece of healthcare work and in healthcare, you look at connectivity, and that's how a system will connect to a hospital IT system, how it connects to X-ray imaging and things like that. They went off and did this project, came to present it to a board of directors, and pre the board meeting, we had a meeting. Thank goodness we did because they thought connectors was a three-pin plug. So it said connectivity "plug USB", and I was thinking, "Oh no", luckily they realized partway through they'd made a mistake but decided best not to say anything and carry on as they were getting on. I was like, "Oh, no". And actually what it meant is a team of I think it was, at least a handful of us just sat there and thought, "Right, we'll get this done now before we go into this board meeting", we did it and we turned it around but I would say when you make that mistake, just hold up to it, try and find a solution, talk it through. The longer you hide that mistake, the more painful it can be for a company, and for you - just own it. We all do it. We're all human. If anybody tells you they've never made a mistake, they are lying to you. We've all done it. But only the best of us admit to it and laugh about it a few years later.

Emma Bilardi - PMA  21:33

Yeah, and would you say that picking yourself up and like learning from those mistakes is something that gets easier over time? I think it definitely can come with age and experience as well.

Collette Johnson  21:46

It does, and you do make mistakes and you start to recognize them more and you think about, "Okay, how do I fix this? How do I go and do this?" and you start solutioning it. I think the thing with it is you will always make those mistakes. I've learned more from the mistakes I've made in my role, then I've done from the things that are successful. And those mistakes, I think, have made me a better, stronger marketer. And I think you just have to get them, I think you do, the more experience you have. I think the other thing that is really important in this industry is talking about them to each other. One of my big things at the moment is that open conversation about mistakes you've made, talking to other people, because as we talk to other people, we become more comfortable with dealing with those mistakes we've made and those mistakes we own. And actually, over time, they'll become easier because we do talk about them. I love going to events and it's fantastic when people stand up and tell me how fantastic their sales enablement program went. But for every sales enablement program that goes well, there's one that doesn't go so well. So talk about it, share it, have those conversations. In my previous company with my team, we used to have a monthly meeting and we'd always talk, one of the agenda items which somebody would take is mistakes I've made this month, and we would talk about them and remedy them and say how we could improve them going on. So actually having that team conversation, even if it's just a group of you just start doing that, I think it's so important to the culture of great product marketing, that's why I'm a real advocate of it. You know, if I interview somebody, and ask them about a mistake, and they say, "I've never made one", I think, "Well, I think you probably have", because nobody's looking for perfection. What we're looking for is people who can pivot from that. And as you do more, you will pivot. As you have more conversations about it, you will understand how to pivot easier and quicker and stronger.

Emma Bilardi - PMA  23:28

Absolutely. There is some core problem-solving skills that can come from making humongous mistakes as well.

Collette Johnson  23:37


Emma Bilardi - PMA  23:39

Excellent. So I think that's a really great way to end things. I want to say thank you so much for joining us and thanks for your honesty. It's refreshing to kind of sit with someone who admits they're not perfect all the time. None of us are.

Collette Johnson  23:57

Yeah, no, and thank you very much for having me, Emma. And any advice to anybody is we all make mistakes, we all own them. And if you ever need to reach out and talk to somebody, and there's nobody there, I'm here, people in the PMA are here. So feel free to just own them and discuss them. And thank you very much. I've really enjoyed this conversation. Now I'll be making a list after of all the other mistakes.

Emma Bilardi - PMA  24:18

Absolutely. I mean, definitely reach out to the Slack community. They're such a great bunch, super passionate, and really helpful. And they just love to talk about product marketing. So again, thank you so much for joining us, Collette.

Collette Johnson  24:33

Thanks. Bye,

Emma Bilardi - PMA  24:34

Bye. Take care.