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Early Hiring for Technical Founders: Product Marketing Dana Oshiro

Heavybit works with developer, infrastructure and enterprise SaaS companies. Founding teams generally have a great understanding of their initial users and are highly technical with a good network for engineering and product hires. But I’m often asked to help build descriptions, source, and define metrics for a first marketing hire. Some of the common questions include:

  • What’s the right candidate profile?
  • How many years experience should they have?
  • What’s a stage-appropriate hire?

TL;DR: The right hire is often an ambitious person with a minimum of 5 years experience in product marketing at an early-stage startup including researching, positioning, and launching a similar product to a similar audience. Candidates often have had KPIs concerned with onboarding and activation, new feature releases, pricing launches, and platform adoption. Candidate keywords might include: product marketing, growth, advocacy, platform marketing, user adoption, technical marketing.

WTF is Product Marketing?

Most of the product marketing managers (PMMs) I know at early companies report directly to a VP Platform or Product. This is often very different from someone in a communications, PR or content marketing role. This isn’t to say you should only hire marketers with a past product marketing title, but they should be willing to tackle some of these responsibilities:

  • User Discovery & Positioning: Many startups use early user discovery interviews as a way to scope their initial product offering. But what they don’t realize is that they should concurrently be looking for patterns in user personas, common customer requests, and clues towards packaging and positioning. A good first marketer will work alongside designers and product to document all of this research and support the team towards a key persona, messaging framework and eventual rollout.
  • Launch & Adoption Strategy: Most founders can brainstorm or copy a list of basic marketing tactics. The key is to understand what tactics actually fit into your org’s larger strategy and the correct sequence for each. If the product manager creates the goals and timeline for launches, the PMM builds the external strategy to ensure continued engagement from your end-user. This includes co-drafting launch goals (w/ the product leader), creating the marketing budget, and calendaring all activities associated with your go-to-market.  In some cases, and once you’ve checked the math, the PMM also drafts the first pricing page.
  • Project Management: Once Engineering, Product, and Sales buy-in to a PMM’s go-to-market strategy, the PMM often quarterbacks your rollouts. This might include working with teams to produce developer and onboarding content, building customer testimonial/case studies, creating product pages, and ensuring that the rollout supports sales enablement.
  • Onboarding / Activation / Success: There’s no way a PMM can be entirely responsible for your onboarding and activation, but some of their metrics should roll up to this. The PMM should contribute to your marketing copy, user path, testimonials, tutorials, and overall product adoption. If the product manager is responsible for a slam-dunk user experience, the PMM delivers the lay up. In most cases, post-onboarding, the PMM also reduces barriers through simple demos, webinars, case studies, featured community projects, and community incentives.

How do I find and hire this person?

As with most sourcing, you should ask for in-network referrals and do targeted outreach via LinkedIn. You probably already know which of your competitors and partners have great product marketing teams. Don’t be afraid to ask these teams to socialize your reqs. You can also send your product manager to events like the SF Product Marketer’s Meetup, or sponsor similar events in your locale. Experienced product managers tend to be a good source for PMM referrals as they’ll have either run their own searches, or worked with a great PMM. In short, network and play nice.

Hiring is Selling

Beyond sourcing, your company narrative and attentiveness are key to the hiring process. As most PMMs are technical, know your audience, and have a specific skill set; this is a tough role to fill.

Founders and hiring managers need to understand how to sell the opportunity. First off, you should be able to roughly match the comp package (salary and equity) of similar stage competitors and right-size the package for your HQ locale. But secondly, you need to have your story straight. Beyond comp, here are some of the reasons PMMs have chosen early-stage and often lesser known companies:

  • Being a Part of History: Sometimes PMMs leave their existing roles because while the technical challenges are great and they’ve learned a ton, they’d like to drive adoption towards a product/platform that truly disrupts the industry. In the early days, developer companies like Stripe, Docker and others convinced well-paid PMMs at well-established companies to take this leap. Presumably an early PMM’s role in building this industry-changing narrative also comes with a healthy financial upside.
  • Advancement & Autonomy: Many PMMs have worked on a team to build the product marketing processes in a slightly later-stage org, but they’ve never designed it from scratch and set budgets. Your organization offers them a chance to take something messy and unfinished, and master the creation of an elegant set of adoption-driving systems. This role lets them do everything they never got to do, and is often career-making.
  • Meeting of the Minds: While your company might be early-stage, your founding team might already be well-established as experts in their field. Because the PMM role requires so much collaboration, candidates may simply enjoy a higher-level of conversation and the speed at which decisions are made in a smaller organization.
  • A Better Puzzle: Some PMMs have led the launch, activation and adoption campaigns on portions of a product suite, but they weren’t there for the core and initial product GA. Where some candidates might see a lack of initial product marketing assets and tooling as a messy burden, others might see general availability launch as an interesting process-design and execution challenge.

In summary, as with most early hires, your first marketer should be willing to produce strategic plans, while also executing on them. At most pre-Series B startups, there’s really little room for ideation “gurus” or those interested in highly-specialized roles. In many cases, the right early hire is willing to brute force their way towards user adoption/growth using a variety of tactics, until you can afford to hire against or automate some of your early processes.

For more information on what early marketers can do, check out the below videos:

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