I’ve worked at a handful of startups and mentored founders at many more. Besides the obvious hard skills I needed, there were many soft skills and adjustments to my expectations that I needed even more urgently – and I’ve heard the same from dozens of founders I’ve worked with.
There are six key things I wish I’d known earlier:
- It’s crucial to keep product marketing job descriptions fluid
- You have to be prepared to adjust goals or create new ones
- Roles (and org charts) will need to adjust over time
- Founders don’t know everything
- Tasks need to be continually triaged and re-prioritized
- Data must trump intuition
As we dive deeper into each of these lessons below, keep in mind that they all come with a healthy dose of always managing up and building relationships with the founding team.
Tip #1: Be ready to adjust your job description
Your founders may not know everything about what product marketing means to their startup or, for that matter, where product marketing’s priorities lie. So, whatever the job description says, get ready to adjust and expand on it.
As you work with the founding team, within the first 30 days you’ll almost certainly find blind spots that were never mentioned in the job original description – it’s up to you to address them
Tip #2: Be ready to adjust the goals you were given
… that is if you were given goals in the first place!
As with your job description, you’ll probably need to set and adjust product marketing goals as you settle into your role. That’s because you (and the founding team) will likely discover new priorities, blind spots, and focus areas that need attention.
Tip #3: Roles may need to be redefined
Typically, with a net-new role (like being the first marketer or first PMM) you’ll be taking over responsibilities previously handled by someone else. That means someone (typically a founder or an early hire) will need to hand over certain aspects of their job… but might be reluctant to do so. For example, a founder may be happy to hand over demand generation but want to hold onto messaging.
Tip #4: Founders don’t always know best
As a new hire, you’ll join the company with a fresh outlook on the product, the market, and the target customer. You may very well encounter a founding team that believes they know the product, its value, the buyers, and the best route to market – or that your engineers have all the answers. However, chances are they won’t get it 100% right.
That could be because of their closeness to their product (everyone loves their own baby the best!), or it could be because they don’t have any experience in building marketing programs – there are any number of other reasons why your founding team might not get it right.
In your mind, challenge every assumption about the product, who it’s targeted at, and even the core problem it solves. Follow the data, talk with customers, and ask questions. You may discover some inconvenient truths that you need to share with the founding team.
Tip #5: Prioritize and triage your tasks
Triaging and deciding which tasks to prioritize is crucial. This is among the most challenging set of decisions you’ll need to make, and will be instrumental to your success.
Because you’ll be inundated by requests from others in the company and run the risk of becoming a service bureau for other colleagues. If you don’t get your priorities straight, you’ll be distracted from the important tasks and never get anything that matters over the finish line.
If it’s getting hard to say “no” to external requests, then go to your manager and get their explicit support to focus on what you both agree on and say “no” to non-essential requests together!
Tip #6: Let data trump intuition – and be sure to experiment!
With founders in many of your meetings, the loudest and/or most senior voice may often determine the outcome. Unfortunately, those voices may be biased. Your job is to collect and present data – on the competition, marketing strategies, pricing, and more – and carry out experiments to draw data-driven conclusions.
Remember: Even at a small startup, it’s essential not to make assumptions. Instead, you should try experimenting with different audiences, messaging, SEO (search engine optimization) strategies, outreach, and go-to-market channels to see what works best. Work with your manager to run small trials, gather data, and spot trends that will guide big decisions.
With a few small wins under your belt, you might even persuade the founding team to experiment further and begin relying on data rather than intuition.
Final words: Why it’s important to manage up
My experience at startups was that they were at once exhausting, frustrating, and absolutely thrilling. You’ll learn tons. You’ll also feel inadequate sometimes. You’ll see valuable opportunities for improvement that others don’t – or worse, they resist.
Despite these challenges, it’s important to stay true to yourself and do what you know is right. Ultimately, the rewards of working at a startup make it well worth the effort.
As a new hire and the first PMM, you’ll be bringing a fresh perspective to the company. But change – even if it’s grounded in reason and the best of intentions – can be hard for startup founders to stomach. Leaders may not want to cede control, founders might not want to shift direction, and many may not even believe that it’s the right time to invest in marketing at all.
If you want to be effective in these trying circumstances, it’s crucial to get management’s backing and approval.
That means working with your manager – often the CEO – to ensure they understand what product marketing means in practical terms, building strong relationships with other members of the founding team, and identifying other potential partners within the company who have informal influence that can be leveraged.
Finally, I leave you with this thought:
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.”