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Scaling the PMM org in a high-growth startup is no mean feat, and can feel pretty daunting, especially for a solo product marketer. Based on my experience doing just that at Segment, I’m pleased to say it’s not only achievable, but I can share how to achieve it with three lessons I learned the hard way.

How many of you get this question a lot?

I got this question every single time a new VP of product candidate came in to interview at Segment. It's not surprising, because as product marketers, we can fill the space between marketing, product, and sales we can live anywhere in that space.

So it's not surprising people want to know, where particularly are you right now? In my opinion, product marketers are like superheroes. We can swoop in to solve a bunch of different business problems.

Whether it's top of the funnel with an acquisition, the bottom of the funnel retention, we can help make sure the product roadmap is going to actually resonate with the market. There are so many things we can do, based on our deep knowledge of the customer. I think this is a good thing.

To be effective as a product marketer at a very fast-growing company that's scaling over time, I think the key is not to try to do all those things at once, but to focus on what you're doing and change over time, your focus, as your company needs change. To focus really on what is the business problem that the whole company has, and to dive in and solve that one and then adapt when that problem is solved.

In short, your job is to find the gap as a product marketer or product marketing leader, figure out what's not getting done that you could go in, and add value. That's the thesis of my talk.

I'm going to focus on:

An introduction

My name is Diana Smith and I lead the product marketing team at Segment. When I first joined Segment, I went to the marketing team meeting, I looked around and I was the only one there. I was the first marketer about five years ago and have grown the company.

To date, now when I walk into our lunchroom, I hardly know anyone, we're close to 500 people now. For those of you who might now know us, just a little background on Segment, what we do is provide customer data infrastructure that helps companies clean, collect, and control their data.

This means that instead of integrating lots of different tools you might want to use for marketing, automation, analytics, data warehousing, instead of integrating them all one by one, you could use Segment to collect your data once and integrate all these different tools, and also make sure that data is clean and correct. That's just a little bit about us.

Lessons in scaling product marketing

Over time, from being the first marketer at Segment to now leading a team of close to nine product marketers, I have learned a lot and I'm excited to share with you the lessons along that journey.

  1. First is finding a gap - how do you find where you're going to focus on?
  2. Second is knowing your customers and,
  3. Third is loving yourself - perhaps the most unintuitive lesson of the article, but I promise, it's important and we'll get there later.

1. Finding a gap

When you think about your strategy as a PMM, or PMM leader, you have to think about what's not getting done? If you're at a high-growth company, there's probably a tonne that's not getting done. You're like tripping over low-hanging fruit all over the halls.

This might be the product team is actually acting more like engineering managers, they're not thinking a lot about the customer. And if there's a real market for what they're building, that might be the gap.

The gap might be that the marketing team has no idea what to write in their campaigns. They don't know what's going to resonate with the market. There's a lot of different gaps that could be there. Also, do you want to layer that on what's the top need for your organization?

What is the biggest challenge? Is it growing top-line revenue and top-line leads? Maybe you have a churn issue, whatever that core business problem is your entire company's facing, that's what product marketing should be focused on.

In an ideal world, you're sitting perfectly in a Venn diagram where you're perfectly in between marketing and product and sales. This is just never going to be the case. In a better sense, you want to be deliberate about where in this Venn diagram you're focused, where are your appendages sticking out? I like to think of it as an amoeba. And this is what the internet gave me for Amoeba...

You want to be deliberate about where it is you're focusing here.

Some options for focus

For some examples, top of the funnel, if that's the biggest issue, user acquisition, you want to be really focused on your messaging and positioning when someone hits your site, how are they going to know why they should buy your product?

You might be focused on validation - who are customers who can have that social proof for your product? Maybe the problem is with sales and they don't know how to go to the market and sell your product, they're being killed by competitors, you would be focusing on something different if that was your biggest issue.

Our growth path at Segment

I'll walk you through how this changed at different times at Segment so that you can understand why we changed focus and just give you a template of how this could be done somewhere, and the main message is, it's okay to shift, it's okay to change as time goes on.

Series A

So early days, in series A when I was the only one around on the marketing team, the main thing we were trying to do was get people to pay us. Not many startups think about that these days, it's out of style. But we were an open-source product and we were trying to get people to buy our hosted version, which meant that we had to figure out:

  • How do we get these people to pay for the hosted version?
  • What are the features that are going to make people want to pay?

We already had a lot of interest from a niche audience of developers from the Hacker News community, the Y Combinator community, so that wasn't as much of an issue. And we didn't have product managers at the time, we just had engineers, so I was kind of playing that person as well, trying to make sure that we weren't just building for ourselves that we were building for a clear audience.

Series B

Fast forward to Series B, our main issue was tapping out of that initial, very tech-forward, reads the same stuff, kind of audience, and we had to look at that chart and make it keep going up to the right. This meant that the shift for what product marketing needed to focus on was education.

  • How do we help people know that this product which previously didn't exist, and there wasn't really anything like it on the market, that if you had a problem similar to this, that it could be solved with software?

This is when we found out that to write deep technical content in our position, it was really good to have product marketers focused on that because to get anyone in editorial, it's a bit more difficult for them to get deep in the product.

So this is where we focus and our key metric was top-line signups, how our educational programs were driving into the top of the funnel. The sales team was still pretty small at this time, we were still in one office, we hadn't expanded globally, and they were learning through osmosis, sales enablement was not an issue at this time.

Series C

When we moved on to series C, that's when our investors said, "Okay, you've proved that you can grow and scale really quickly. Now show us that you can become a multi-product organization, that you can generate higher deal sizes for each deal and by selling new products into your base".

At this point, product marketing started to focus really closely on aligning with the product team, incubating and launching, and enabling the team to sell new products.

Series D

Fast forward to today, the biggest issue we have is enabling the sale sales team to be really effective in terms of, we're hitting our top of funnel lead numbers, but we're having trouble making sure that we're turning those into revenue at the same rate that we want because we've hired so many people and we need to go back to the basics of figuring out:

  • How do we simplify the message across all of our products?
  • How do we make sure it's very clear what the message should be to the Self Service segment versus the enterprise segment?

And that's where we're focused a lot today. So whatever it is that you're focusing on, I mean, you do have to do a few different things as a product marketer, but my recommendation would be to try to make your metric and your Northstar as close to the biggest company need as possible, and then communicate your focus, especially if it's changing.

When you're so cross-functional in nature, if you don't tell folks what you're doing now, and if that might be different than what you were doing before and the why - the why is so important -they won't be able to fill those gaps either.

2. Know thy customer

The second lesson is knowing your customer. This may sound obvious to all of you product marketers, but I think it's so important because knowing your customer is the only way that you're going to drive credibility and value no matter where it is that you're focusing - any of those options I recommended earlier.

You need to constantly be curious and refine your understanding of your customer, their problems, the alternatives they have in the market. This will help you build messaging that actually resonates, that they can connect with, will help you influence the product roadmap if that's something you're having trouble doing to get that seat at the table, and will also help your greater marketing team develop effective campaigns.

3. Use the tools at your disposal

There are so many tools at your disposal to know your customer better. My favorite is just talking to them, customer interviews, figuring out what it is you're trying to learn, setting up an interview program, riding along on deals - really getting direct customer expertise.

I also love to recommend starting with existing data sets that you have at your company. Somebody's probably collecting NPS, there's a treasure trove of information in those comments, some will make you sad, but they're very interesting.

You might have a lot of closed one and loss analysis in Salesforce, you can analyze. You could talk to analysts, you could do competitive research, there are so many different things you can do to know your customers, it's really important to prioritize doing that, even if you feel like you have a lot of other things you need to do.

4. Synthesize!

It's not enough to know your customers and have all these insights swimming around in your head. You need to synthesize and prioritize:

  • What's the most important thing?
  • What's the most important thing to know about our customers? And,
  • What's the most important ask to make to the product, for example?

If everything's on fire, nothing is on fire.

As a product manager, the people you're trying to work with they have so much data that's coming at them every day, you have to empathize with them and know that the value you bring is if it's the clearest and most concise stack ranked recommendations based on all of your customer analysis.

So I really recommend you think about how do you synthesize that research that you've done, and then iterate not just on the product, there are probably things that you learn that are going to have an impact on marketing. Maybe there's a message you're sharing out into the market that's not resonating. Maybe there's an objection that the sales team is getting a lot that you could probably address with a little different approach.

Make sure that you're not just giving these insights back to product but you're also taking a look in the mirror and saying, "How could we do better based on what we've learned?"

5. Love yourself

Our next lesson, the one you may be most curious about, love yourself, and I'll be more specific - love your lanky, awkward teenage self.

This was a recommendation that came about from an event where I heard one of our investors speaking, his name is Ali Rowghani and he's a partner at Y Combinator. He mentioned that startups are like awkward teenagers. They're growing faster in some areas and slower in other areas, and this creates growing pains, but some places might be more mature than other places.

That's totally okay, that's totally normal.

There's never going to be a time where you could cover everything that's going on, that you can manage all the potential things that you could do, and you just have to be okay with that at a high growth company that some things are going to be going better than others. What I've learned to embrace in this craziness of growth are a few things.

One, that giving clear ownership over the most important things is going to help your team focus. Two, you want to watch out for the orphans. What are the things you're saying no to time and time again? Write them down. And third, that no org structure is perfect. So don't spend too much time agonizing over that. I'll give you some examples.

6. Give clear ownership

Throughout my time at Segment, different things have been clear owners. When I started as a first marketer, I was mostly focused on messaging and positioning, demand gen, some case studies, anything that wasn't completely on fire was an orphan.

As we got bigger, we started to have some light specialization in the product marketing team, where some people owned different features, they had metrics associated with that feature, whether it's revenue or lead generation, and then they had a minor. So their major was a feature and their minor was in something sales enablement related like competitive or sales content.

7. Watch for orphans

At that point, we realized AR and PR was becoming an orphan, we were doing it, or I was doing it not very well, and we realized that was actually something super important to drive our growth into the enterprise. And that was something we had to focus on hiring next.

Essentially, I say this to say, when you're doing your best at a high-growth company, you need to ruthlessly prioritize what's the most important thing. And if you try to do everything, you're not going to do anything well. Just take note of what those things are that you can't do and whether or not they're really going to make a big impact if you could hire someone to do them.

Another lesson I learned the hard way is that when you're trying to adopt these new orphans, and you're trying to grow as fast as possible, you might want to rush your hiring process. I definitely recommend against this.

You want to make sure that you're truly assessing if the candidates are going to be a good fit for your culture, and have the experience that you need. Pink flags will turn into red flags later in the hiring process, so don't hire too quickly. The orphan can be an orphan for a little bit longer because it'll take you more time to adjust your team if you don't pay more attention at the beginning of the hiring process.

Why no org structure is perfect

I've had so many conversations with different product marketing leaders about this. What's yours like? What's mine like? What are the pros and cons? There is no perfect situation here and that's okay.

If you organize by product line, this is very common, you're going to have a great relationship with a product team, there's going to be 1 PM to another PMM and they'll have a great relationship to influence the roadmap. The problem is you may not be as good at doing cross-product messaging across all your product lines, you need to make sure somebody's thinking about that.

The flipside is true if you align by customer segment, you may be really close to sales, they may feel really prepared, but you may lose a little bit of your influence on the product side.

Another common structure is go-to-market, where you have people more like solutions-oriented folks, and then inbound product marketing-oriented folks, the great thing about this is that you can cover more of the spectrum of the scope of what product marketing can do. But the con is that you might have to double up on resources for some things, or some folks maybe on the solution side may lose a bit of the technical product knowledge, and that may need to be addressed as well.

So this is to say, align based on what's most important, but don't spend too much of your effort really worrying about the product structure, you can change it if the needs change. Those are most of the lessons I want to share with you today.

Why you need to adapt in business

To recap, one, focus on where your gaps are as a company, then communicate what that focus is.

Second, know your customer better than anyone else. This is how you're going to add value and provide insights, no matter where it is you're focused on the many potential things you could be focused on as a product marketer.

Third, know that some things will grow faster than others, some things you're not gonna be able to get to. That's okay. That's what makes working at a fast-growing company fun. And that's why I for one, like working at a company like Segment.

I want to leave you with one quote from one of our customers, the CTO of Glossier, which is a hip makeup company. He said,

"We like to do pain-driven development. Where there is pain, we fix it".
I'll leave you with that. Thank you.

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