What's the earliest stage a startup should consider hiring a Product Marketing Manager?
I'm biased of course, but I believe PMMs should be one of your first marketing hires. The insight PMMs can bring in terms of product-market fit, positioning and messaging are just as valuable, if not moreso, at a smaller org as in a big one. Having a PMM early on will help you set the foundations for the future, and help ensure you have the right product, the right target audience, and them messaging that's going to resonate with them before you start spending a ton of money and resources on marketing and sales activities. Plus, you need someone to help you launch things right? ;)
Of course, often this work is already being done to some extent by others in the company - but this is PMM's area of expertise so, why not hire an expert?
The two startups I joined as the first PMM were ~100 employees and both were for technical software products.
In this space, my perspective is the founding and technical teams should be maniacally focused on building for a target customer or segment. Once they’ve established those early adopters, PMM can be the one to help that product-market-fit scale to the next customer or next segment.
I think PMMs are more impactful at a smaller organization, simply because you own a bigger portion of the GTM efforts than at a larger company.
I was one of the first marketing hires at Chili Piper. I personally think there's an arguement to hire product marketing first or second. Positioning, messaging, segmentation, sales enablement, these are all critical things that should be focused on early. If not, you'll waste a lot of time and money churning out content and ads that miss the mark.
Seed funding is when I've generally seen PMMs hired. They're generally hired at the same time or just after a PM. Legendary HBS professor Clayton Christensen's research shows that 95% of products fail because there is no market fit. A product marketer's role in an early stage company should be to validate the market, research the customer, and identify the pain points. This type of qualitative and quantitative research is necessary to ensure your company is developing a product the market needs.
Earliest stage: soon as you have a product in customers hands, you could use product marketing. That's not always realistic... sales, engineering, product resources take priority. And there's always that question in leadership, why do you need PMM so early if you have product management? But the ealier you have someone learning, building a knowledge base of customer insights that'll help the GTM teams excel like bringing new features to your early adopters, establishing an understanding of where you fit in your market, those things can pay off huge as you scale the business.
A PMM can contribute to an organization that has already found an element of product-market fit, but it'd be important not to confuse them to be the first product marketer.
Often, the first 'product marketer' in an early stage company is the CEO, Head of Sales or Head of Marketing, depending on who wears which hat.
Subsequently a PMM hire is important when the company has 'nailed it' and now wants to 'scale it'. It could be above a $1M, $2M, or $5M run rate. The key thing is to establish a somewhat repeatable sales cycle before you bring the PMM in.
After a series of experiences ranging from fairly early stage startups to post series-D companies, I've realized that there isn't a standard definition PMM available on the market. A startup PMM needs to be more focussed on getting the message right than a big company company PMM who needs to be more strategic.
For an early-stage company, it is of the utmost importance to differentiate between hiring a product marketing title and hiring product marketing skills. Regarding someone with that title, the answer is a universal: It depends. On lots of things. And I'll leave it at that.
The skills question is more interesting, given how often people (seemingly) answer it wrong. The right answer is: Yesterday. The most fundamental thing that product marketers do is absorb information and use it to build business cases.
There are a lot of other outputs that PMM is associated with, things that can perhaps wait, but you need someone on the team that can separate themselves from the day-to-day and really hone the company's "reason for being." What this person's title is is unimportant (in retrospect, I was doing product marketing for well over a year before I'd even heard the term "product marketing").
Founding teams often have one of two issues: chaos or tunnel vision. Sometimes founders are scattered all over the place, constantly chasing shiny objects, and testing new concepts without a clear idea of what the company truly is/does. On the other hand, founding teams can sometimes be so laser-focused that they miss what's going on around them, and end up similarly out of touch with the market.
So, no, you don't need to have a decksmith right away, but you do need someone capable of doing that outside-in observation and translating what they see into actionable business cases.
Because Product Marketing is a strategic function, it can add value at any stage - even as early as defining the product strategy and vision alongside the product leader. The earlier the company hires a PMM, they more they will understand how to position their product and avoid many pitfalls that startups are prone to hit.
Startups need to hire product marketing managers
when hiring for PMM roles in a high-growth environment, it's critical to pay attention to the PMM's soft skills. My favorite must-have soft skills for PMM in a fast-growing startup:
💛 Hight user empathy.
PMM should absolutely love talking to users. In most startups, personas, ICPs, value props, messaging, product features need to be constantly improved. This is normal to search for the best users to provide your features, with the best value prop and messaging. That's the essence of working in startups: build, learn, iterate. And it's impossible to do without talking to users, constantly.
🧠 Ability to learn new products fast.
Onboarding time in startups is much shorter than in other companies. PMMs should learn about company products very fast, so they will be able to translate complex technical ideas into values for users and speak users' language. This also goes to learning all tooling startup is using or rapidly adding (for example analytical products, that could be more niche). If PMM loves trying new products, this is a perfect match for the startup.
☄️ Adapting to changes and bias towards speed.
PMM in a startup will move very fast. The more traction startup is having, the more launches, case-study, sales presentations, research, re-designs, collaterals PMM will need to make and re-make. Priorities can change, the direction can change, and almost everything can change in a startup super fast. So the ability to adapt to new realities and execute on them is an extremely important PMM soft skill.
🧘♀️ Skill to build a structure to chaos.
Startups are messy. If PMM doesn't have the soft skill to organize mess into the structure, all cross-functional projects, like product launches will be a nightmare.
💛 Love for cross-functional collaboration.
With a lot of moving parts and fast team growth, it's very important to be ready to go the extra mile in your communication. Collaboration in startups is different: you can take more ownership (nothing is "someone else job"), you can lead & teach other functions, and you can overcommunicate (as tasks can get lost :) PMMs in startups must be great with communicators, empathetic leaders, and brutal doers (even if it's not in their job spec).
At most startups, the business founder is the first product marketer. This makes sense bc the founder knows the problem deeply, as well as the market, the product vision, and the opportunity ahead, and is willing to do the work to get those first sales across the line. The challenge is, knowing the landscape and the challenges is VERY different from knowing how to action your knowledge into playbooks, so very quickly, not having PMM to scale the story and GTM process causes problems.
What I typically see when I join a series B company is
- sales struggling in vain to copy the founder's approach to closing deals (it's an impossible ask -- only the founder can close founder-story deals)
- lots of back-and-forth debate about "who is our buyer" and product roadmap priorities
- one very junior PMM running around in circles, taking orders from every department (and drowning)
- extreme relief I'm joining, as well as a completely muddied view of what my role will be
While I think early companies benefit from the vision and direction of the founder, and can rely on the founder sale to close those first 5-10 customers, getting a product marketing lead early can really save you some pain. It seems like a lot of companies focus on demand first, and wait until they hit series B to bring on any real PMM leader, but I would argue a senior PMM and a scrappy junior demand person can be a GREAT combo/differentiator for an early startup. The faster you get clear on how to continue knowing your market and evolving your product, the faster you get VERY clear on your messaging and personas (even though they evolve) and the faster you can use strategic PMM insights to drive your demand strategy, the faster you will get to a point where things feel fun, and even EASY (if that exists in a Series A, B, C world!)