In this episode of The Pitch Room, Malia is joined by Priyanka Sharma to discuss content marketing and building marketing functions from the ground up in the early days of a startup.
About the Guests
Priyanka Sharma is the Head of Product Marketing at LightStep and was previously the co-founder of Wakatime. LightStep is a distributed tracing system built on top of the OpenTracing standard. LightStep collects, analyzes, and presents high-fidelity end-to-end traces for the requests having the largest impact on your business and the user experience of your system. She’s also an advisor at Heavybit, where she helps with marketing and developer community strategy.
Malia Powers: Hey everyone, welcome to the Pitch Room. I'm really excited today to have Heavybit product marketing and advisor and also a member of Heavybit, Priyanka Sharma.
Priyanka Sharma: Hi, it's very nice to be here.
Malia: Thanks so much for taking the time out of your day to join us for a quick session today, we're going to be talking a little bit about first marketing hires as well as how to do content as an early-stage startup. I think the best place for us to start is for you to introduce yourself and talk a little bit about what you're up to nowadays.
Priyanka: Great, so as you said, I'm Priyanka and I'm an advisor over here at Heavybit. My background is in entrepreneurship and product and marketing. I started my career at Google and the Atsons Team but very quickly, I actually started working with the engineers for internal sales tools that we were building, so that was the first time that I realized that I'm interested in working with developers and developer products.
After that, I had a stint at a startup that got acquired by GoDaddy and then left to start my own company called Wakatime, which is an automated time-tracking product for developers, it's also open source. I worked on that for about two years, the product's still running.
It's unique in that it's the only time-tracker out there that is completely automated, you don't need to start and stop anything, and you can move between text editors or IDEs, which often happens when you're a developer. Because of the strength of the product and our strategic plan of being cross multiple IDEs, we were able to build a really strong developer community of close to 100,000 developers.
Malia: Oh, wow.
Priyanka: Yeah, and not just people who liked the product but people who contributed code to the product.
Malia: Can you talk a little bit about how you were able to build that community of 100,000. Was it just the open source effect, or did you build something within your product that had a network viral effect?
Priyanka: Yeah absolutely, so the thing that we were very good at is being on top of lists. So lucky for us, time-tracking is a pretty searched thing, so SEO was important, and we were number one for most editors. Additionally, the way plug-in based products work is that people check out plug-in directories. So being on top of those was really important.
Wakatime spread a lot by word of mouth and that's true for many developer products.
So what we did was to create a very personalized experience making people want to spread the word because you can't incentivize someone directly to spread by word of mouth, but you can create a very personal experience for the product. The way we did that was by positioning ourselves as the mom and pop shop next door that is a time-tracker, where your friend's building a time-tracker.
Malia: I think I saw a headline in Tech Crunch that you were the FitBit for developer products, which in a sense is very relatable for a highly technical product which is easy to share, easy to spread via word of mouth.
Priyanka: Exactly, exactly, that Fitbit comparison, I came up with that. So that Fitbit line really worked well for us because people would instantly get it. Right away, it was like, "Oh, Fitbit, I get it, it tracks things and it's also very granular." So that worked well and having that sound byte for people.
But we also hosted a lot of online meetings where we found and invited anybody who wanted to be a contributor or even had the briefest thought about it. When you have these clusters of hangouts and meetings happening, you're bound to spread the word much faster than you think because the word of mouth goes beyond the 5, 10 or 30 people on the call.
Malia: So these online meetings, were they completely remote or did you have anyone in the room and what platform did you use to run them?
Priyanka: Just Google hangouts because we never went beyond 30 people, I think, and they were completely remote. The idea was, anybody across the world can just decide to be on and talk about whatever they were interested in related to WakaTime, and the reason these worked was because in general, you'll see in developer products, especially the contributor types, can be anywhere in the world. They're not located only in San Francisco. Often they're in Western Europe, often they're in India or places like that.
Malia: And this was largely before the days of Slack and Gitter. What was your strategy in continuing conversation with them, was it the next meeting, a follow-up email, or did you create a newsletter?
Priyanka: Sure, so we did have a monthly newsletter. Sorry, weekly, which people seemed to look forward to. Again, going back to the strategy of being the friendly, mom and pop type of developer product store, the newsletter was very much like me writing an email to my friends and people literally looked forward to it, one week I missed it and I got all these emails, "Are you fine, are you out of town, what's going on?" But Slack also helped us because that continued the conversation after the meeting.
Malia: Alright, well switching gears a little bit, so as an advisor to Heavybit, a lot of times you come in here and you're working with companies who are usually technical founders, maybe a few other engineers and you're advising them on marketing strategy and kind of really how to lift the entire marketing function off the ground.
Malia: So where do you start?
Priyanka: That's a great question. I think for me step one is having a detailed conversation with the founder about what it is they're doing, what stage they're at, and most importantly, what I'm trying to get at is what's made this product and team click to the point that they got into Heavybit. How did they get to where they've gotten? Everybody has a unique story over there.
I actually do not believe in cookie cutter approaches or playbooks because identifying the thing that makes someone tick is always a unique process and then the strategies you apply around that, you can kind of borrow from different playbooks.
So I can give you an example. When I first met the LightStep team, it was very clear to me that this startup was very different from others and the reason was first of all, this was the most experienced team that I had come across, I had worked with a ton of developer products already but this was the most experienced sort of expert, verticalized team.
Malia: Yeah, the former Dapper founders at Google.
Priyanka: That's correct. Just to give a quick overview of LightStep, it's a distributor systems observability platform which utilizes tracing technology. So the founders are, as you said, people who created Dapper and ran it for a long time at Google.
And once I met them, what I realized is that their expertise in the space is what's going to draw the audience, the users, and the lead gen will happen through that. So the strategies I've suggested for them and that have been worked on are completely different from what I would suggest to a postman, which is a mass-market developer product with like four million users already.
Malia: Great, and I believe for LightStep, they did not have any type of website presence and you kind of helped them build a website and essentially launch a blog. Can you talk a little bit about that experience, basically launching a company from Stealth and then what the process was in figuring out how you wanted to build your blog. What your voice was going to be, and how you were gonna get content onto it.
Priyanka: Yeah, so to be fair to the team, they did have a couple of pages up, but there was absolutely zero call to action. It was like a poster, almost.
Malia: Yeah, I remember like a single landing page.
Priyanka: Yeah, so once I got started working with them, I saw that well, this is basics, right. Everybody needs a site that they can reach people with. And we were a little nervous, actually, because the product was and still is in early access. However, my point of view was that even for early access, you wanna make sure that people can at least tell you that they're interested.
But at the same time, the product and the strategy was not solidified at that time to want to put everything out there so we took an intermediate, step-by-step approach. I did make it my first priority because it was the lowest-hanging fruit possible and I first created a website myself using Square Space and the focus was getting the content and copyright. That took us a couple of weeks because the team is extremely hands-on and they want the right things said, precision is really important to them.
I think in the early days, if a founder's not involved in your messaging, then you're doing it wrong.
They're the ones that are talking to your customers, figuring out the product market fit, and once you're able to identify that, that's when you're able to really hone in on what that right message is, that ultimately converts.
Priyanka: I absolutely agree with you, it was really good that they were super hands-on about it and also, if you look at the level of how technical that product is, it's impossible that a non-engineer, no matter how technical, like I'm self-taught at this point but it's just not gonna translate as well. So step one was creating that Square Space site and instantly, we saw way more people than we expected to be filling the form that we had.
So that was a good sign, and then we decided that the site was really ugly. And so I looked through my network for a really good designer-developer duo who helped us implement the next version, which is what you see up right now.
Malia: And can you talk a little bit about content strategy for startups. So you work with startups and Corral engineers who are not writers by trade, don't like to write, don't want to write, don't have the time to write, but have to make them write. How do you go about approaching them and then kind of staying on their case and seeing it all the way through to publishing?
Priyanka: So in the early days of a company, where you're not gonna have technical writers or data analysts that can churn out content and as you had said before, the founder's voice is really important at that point, so getting them to write is important.
Now, the 'how' is different in every team. In one case, what I saw is that, if I saw customers asking questions and I was like, "Hey there should be a blog post around this, I'm just going to start writing something," and shared it with people, they were like, "Oh my gosh, this has so many things that need to be fixed, "let me fix it right now," and that was like stealth content creation, so that was one way.
In the case of LightStep, as I said, the first thing to identify is what's the pulse of a company. In this case, it was the founder's expertise. So I decided pretty quickly that that's what the content strategy is about, it's about thought leadership and spreading the word that these are some really talented people working here and they have some great thoughts. That resonated with my team, so that was step one, you want to get consensus on what the voice is.
The second step was creating blog cadence, which everybody agreed to. The first time we did it, we had it as part of our OKRs, which I think is really important if you're going to make any progress whatsoever, and that helped us, I think we had 10 blog posts for the quarter, on the list, and we got to 10. I care a lot about numbers, so we had the 10 numbers so were gonna make it.
Malia: And behind each one of those 10, from my experience, I'd say each blog post takes like 10 to 15 hours for a very high-quality technical post, would you agree?
Priyanka: Yes, I do agree, and that's been a source of contention on the team.
We figured out a way that works for all the goals and competing priorities, is to sculpt the topic down very narrowly.
The nature of our team is that people are very very precise, people are experts and they could technically write treatises on.
Malia: More content than you need.
Priyanka: Yeah, so we really tried to narrow down, everybody has to approve a thesis with what we call an outline sort of thing that needs to happen first, which I work with each person on. People give a lot of feedback and when that's approved, only then do you put pen to paper.
And the goal is to spend not more than a couple of hours writing, two, three hours, and then the polishing. There are hiccups, ups and downs, but you just plod through the process repeatedly and then it's always helpful if you can share the stats. Do you know that engineering team, is writing 20 blog posts a month, or whatever the stats you can find to share.
Malia: Yeah, so when you're working with all of the engineers on this content, who are highly technical and conversing with you in very highly-technical terms, what is your opinion on how technical a marketing hire should be, that is, a company first marketing hire should be?
Priyanka: That's a great question and I think the more technical, the better. Personally, I have a Poly-Science degree, but at this point, I've self-educated myself to understand, I definitely know about development and I understand distributed systems fairly well. I think, even if somebody does not have the requisite knowledge, what's more important is their ability or desire to dive in and test the product, to play with it.
This is my number one piece of advice to any marketer who asks me, and I say that no matter how complicated your product, you need to understand how it works, you need to do it yourself. There's a lot of resistance, unfortunately, to that idea from many marketers, and I understand it's very uncomfortable and many people are like, "Well my job "is Lead Gen, my job is that, how does it matter?" I think it's the most important thing.
Malia: Yeah, I completely agree that your marketing person must be intimately involved and knowledgeable about your product, and for that reason, oftentimes I think companies hire their first marketing person too late.
You should start acting sooner than later to find this person for a couple of different reasons, one being that they do need to get familiar before they're going to start ultimately selling your product to your developers and then turning around and figuring out how they're going to sell them to enterprises.
And then secondly, these hires take a while, you need to start seeding these relationships, attending meet ups, joining marketing groups, before something's gonna come through and find that right person.
Priyanka: I do agree, absolutely. And it's also just like, I think not only does it make you better at your job in the pure sense of the word, to be more technical as a marketer, it also makes you much closer to your team.
So I believe half the reason why so many Heavybit have asked me for advice and so many founders talk to me is because we can relate to each other. Having founded a developer product definitely helps.
But the fact that I'm interested in, "How exactly does that work, oh, let me test that out." I'll give you a quick example. We had a thing called Bacon Bar at LightStep which is like a hackathon.
Malia: Oh my gosh, how fun.
Priyanka: Yeah, it was super fun, and in those two days, I did some things that I wanted to do for marketing that I didn't have time for, but I also took one of the days to build a Go application, a small sample app, and do tracing in it, and obviously it's something super easy for the rest of the team but it took me awhile, but I got done with it, and I just viscerally understood the product so much more and my team was so excited for me, so it was really great.
Malia: That's a great story. I think for marketers, a good place to start and just kind of get the lay of the land a little bit is GitHub.
Malia: There's so many tutorials out there, there are Meetup groups, submit your first Polar questions. It's pretty exciting.
Priyanka: I definitely agree. Actually, I would highly recommend all the in-person educational meet-ups, I went to a mentor-week meet-up by Docker to learn how Docker works and it was a four-hour long thing, but there were tons of mentors and I got through their certification process by the end and I'm confident that self-study would have taken so much longer.
Malia: Cool, so it sounds like interest in the product is an absolute must, and that just has to kind of come within just finding your passion. And there's a lot of soft skills involved, it's the work ethic, being able to hold yourself accountable to a strict content schedule.
Malia: The marketing teams sometimes seem to have looser road maps than product, oftentimes, but it takes the right marketing person to really hold your team accountable for their deadlines, for their content.
Malia: Can you talk a little bit how tough that is, as a marketer, to feel like you wanna do what's best for the company?
Malia: But you also wanna keep your engineers' and your founders' eye on the prize, maybe they've missed fundraising, maybe they're running up a big product deadline, maybe they're trying to close a big customers. So how do you find that right balance?
Priyanka: Yeah, so the answer to that is that it does depend a lot upon the company's goals for the quarter and what stage they're in, so for example, like you said, if they are fundraising, they probably do want a lot of content out there, but the kind of content they want out there is more about how well they're doing as a company, right? And so that would impact the kind of content you wanna put out and therefore the response of the team member to write it up, so that's one thing.
In the specific case of LightStep, we've been very flexible. So there are people who are more prolific writers, there are people who are slightly less prolific writers, so you work with that, and then there's also a minimum bar that I think needs to be met .
And sometimes the marketer needs to just write the post themselves. Often some people prefer that. "Hey, I have this all in my head but I am just having so much writer's block". Then being technical enough to be able to hear what they're saying and create a post out of it is going to get you 90% of the way.
So these are just strategies to use but being able to adjust with the team, especially in the early stages is actually kinda important because your content engine is building up but it's not at the point yet where everybody realizes that, "we need four articles a week or we'll have hundred less leads". When the company is not there yet then you have to really manage the soft skill and get it done.
Malia: So as an early-stage startup, how should you optimize your content delivery?
Priyanka: Interesting question. So often, people actually ask me that. I'm of the firm belief that following the first few steps of getting consensus from your team on what the voice is going to be and then starting putting out content on that decided voice is much more important than optimizing in, I would say, the first three months, the reason being that content does build over time.
So you first need to get that going anyway and that's the first priority. The second thing is that to really optimize your content, a lot of it, you kinda need to do a deep dive. So this, for example, is my plan. After having gotten the content channel sort of running, the goal is to do an SEO deep dive by the end of the year and the next year, focus on implementing best practices from that and also incorporate how to pick the right topic based on keywords and all that stuff.
Now, had we done this first thing, we would not have the baseline information we already do of what our stats are right now in an optimized way, and also it would be overkill for developers who are just getting used to the fact that they have to even write anything at all.
Malia: I think an easy exercise to do in that earliest days are to get into a room, think about your product, and then say, "Let's think about every question a developer could write into Google search about our product" and then "where do we want our product to bubble up from these questions", and that right there is some blog content, just to get things off the ground before you, like you mentioned, really start getting into a deep SEO dive.
Priyanka: Exactly. And as long as you're focused on that special thing that makes the startup tick to this point, you'll do well because in the case of LightStep, the articles that have been posted have been very much about engineering experience as building the product and they have resonated, even the ones that don't go top of hacker news, we have a very healthy read rate.
And the reason for that is, it's just interesting. And the reason it's interesting is it caters to the thing that our team is good at, the things that make them tick. So I think that's number one, and then after that you can make an essay or plan, do a bit more instrumentation, you need to have the metrics instrumentation to even measure who all is getting views and all that and then you can start improving those. It's also very hard to do all of that when you're just one person, so pick your battles.
Malia: So we have time for one more question. I'd love to know if you have one specific piece of advice to give marketers at early-stage dev tool companies.
Priyanka: Sure, so my biggest piece of advice would be that, if you're at a very early-stage company, then don't be just a marketer. The reason I say that is because while you'll see tons of work available for the marketing protocol, you need to really prioritize the company's needs first and those needs could be that, yes, we need a website, we need a forum, we need some content marketing, but it could also be, we need someone who is helping the CEO in the sales process.
It could also be we need someone to be involved on the product side to engage with customers on announcements and feedback and metrics. And if you're that involved, a) in my opinion, that's a much more fun job, and b,) you're so well-positioned for the future already.
You'll understand the end to end of your company that when your company's grown and you're focusing on lead gen and branding, you know exactly how to get those leads and what looks like a good lead, so your relationship with the sales team will be really really good because you truly understand the product, the vertical, and the company.
Malia: Great, well, thank you for that piece of advice and this entire conversation, I've really enjoyed it, so thanks for joining us.
Priyanka: Thanks for having me, I had a great time.