Grant Shirk

Grant ShirkShare

Head of Product Marketing, Cisco Meraki, Cisco Meraki
Grant Shirk is the Head of Product Marketing for Cisco Meraki. With over two decades of experience in marketing strategy, positioning, product design, and leadership, he's truly an enterprise softw...more
Grant Shirk
Grant Shirk
Head of Product Marketing, Cisco Meraki, Cisco Meraki | Formerly Tellme Networks, Microsoft, Box, Vera, Scout RFP, and Sisu Data, to name a few.July 6

Time for some radical transparency. 

I'm in the midst of this right now. Tomorrow is my 30-day milestone at Cisco Meraki. It's been an awesome first four weeks, and I'm really looking forward to what's next. (Shameless pitch - we're hiring, too!)

The size of the company and team adds a layer of complexity here, but in general, this is your best chance to really focus on learning your customer, product, and market here. It's hard to go back and do this again, especially in growth mode, so don't throw this away! Also, don't limit yourself to 90 days. I like framing this as a "First 100 Days." It sounds more presidential and breaks you out of the calendar a bit.

First 4 weeks: Product, Team and Market

- Learn everything you can about the product, what's in flight, and what competitors are doing overall

- Read research, talk to sales, get demo-ready if you can

- Exit mindset: "I understand what we do, and for whom, and how we're doing it today."

Mid-term 4-5 weeks: Customers and Message

- Now you're getting into it. Meet with as many customers and prospects as possible

- Build your point of view on the message, the gaps, and what needs fixing

- Data, data, data. Now that you have context on the business, the numbers will make more sense

- Exit mindset: "I believe I know what we should do next, and what the big problems are."

Closing 4 weeks: Start your Execution

- By now, you've got a sense of problems and plan

- Dig in and start doing. Pick priorities carefully, and line them up with near-term company objectives

- Ideally, have 1 early win under your belt, and 2-3 more on the horizon

- Exit mindset: "Follow me - here's where we're going to go, and how we're going to get there. 

Finally, don't lose sight of key wins you can deliver. These are great ways to contribute, build trust, and start working towards that bigger impact. Starting in Month 2, can you:

  • Get a "big topic" on the blog
  • Contribute an article to PR for publication at a third party
  • Speak on a webinar or customer event
  • Refresh the EBC/Exec deck
  • Fix a broken or inefficient process
  • Update an unloved or overlooked part of your site
Grant Shirk
Grant Shirk
Head of Product Marketing, Cisco Meraki, Cisco Meraki | Formerly Tellme Networks, Microsoft, Box, Vera, Scout RFP, and Sisu Data, to name a few.July 6

Pulling this one up. It's outside the realm of KPIs and measurement, but I think it's really critical. And I have a few strong opinions here. 

If I can summarize this back, as part of your interview process, you were given an assignment to build an overall strategic plan to take a flagship product to market, do it under extreme time and emotional pressure, and summarize it all in a few hundred words. 

To put it bluntly, this is a terrible way to assess someone's skills, is antithetical to what we should expect of someone in the interview process, and really sounds like unpaid consulting work. How is anyone going to do a meaningful job of this if they don't spend hours and hours learning, thinking, and evaluating options?

You have the right in an interview to challenge or shape the assignment. I personally will never ask a candidate to "do work on my behalf" or tackle a project where success is dependent on context and expertise. I want to see how people think. A better way to frame this is to ask a candidate to tackle maybe ONE of these items (how would you break down or improve our current persona work? Can you describe how you built the messaging for a recent launch you did?).

If you do find yourself stuck in this situation and you're given a similar exercise with no flexibillity (for any reason - I acknowledge that sometimes it's hard to push back on these assignments), there are a few things you can do:

  • Define and manage the scope yourself. Not only time-box your own investment in the project, but document your assumptions. I love seeing this. One slide that says "to focus on what's important here, here are the assumptions I made." Hard to argue with that... you can focus on your thinking
  • Ask what is the criteria for evaluation. Once you know what the hiring manager is really looking for, focus on that. If it's a persona exercise, spend 80% of the time there. If it's positioning, learn the competition and focus on gaps. 
  • Overdeliver on one thing. You can't cover it all, but figure out what you are best at and highlight that. 

Exercises when done well should be a showcase for what makes you great, not a way for the team to get free feedback and ideas on their own strategy. Be wary if that's the vibe you get. 

Grant Shirk
Grant Shirk
Head of Product Marketing, Cisco Meraki, Cisco Meraki | Formerly Tellme Networks, Microsoft, Box, Vera, Scout RFP, and Sisu Data, to name a few.April 13

This is a fun one. An aphorism we could coin here is that "Competitive battlecards are just like datasheets. Every salesperson desperately wants a new one, but nobody ever uses them." 

The challenge is that most competitive intel and content is boring, too detailed to use in the moment, hard to find, and usually out of date. What that means is that great competitive intel is a content marketing problem at heart. It has to be relevant, it has to be interesting, and it has to be easy to consume.

The most dependable way to figure out what works is to try a number of different things early, get feedback from sales, and then when you pick a path, measure utilization as best as you can. And then only update the docs that get used.

I've personally found that there are three kinds of competitive content that have real impact:

  1. Announcement responses
  2. Onboarding / Sales Ramp materials 
  3. Negotiation tools / "CompHot" squads

Announcement responses are my favorite because they're real-time, lightweight, and truly advance your and the org's understanding of what a competitor is actually doing. The scenario is: Tier 1 competitor X launches a new product or drops some PR. You digest it, read between the lines, and provide sales and customer success (yes, CS desperately needs compete info too) with a quick precis of the announcement:

- What the competitor announced (headline and a few details, incl. claims)

- What it means for your product or GTM (interpretation and implication)

- Reactive messaging (when asked, how do we address this problem or use case, better)

- If applicable, what call to action you offer customers and prospects

Build these over time, and you'll quickly have relevant, interesting, and well-read libraries of content on your most active competitors. And you don't have to work that hard to build them.

The other two times that sales is most likely to truly digest and internalize your competitive intel is in their first month on the job (the firehose phase) and when they're deep in a competitive negotiation. This is where you can both teach the most and have the biggest leverage. Invest everything you can in framing the market and competition in customer-facing employee onboarding sessions. The "competitive breakdown" in Sales Boot Camp is the highest-value investment you can make in compete. Especially if they're graded on it as part of their certification. The other is when commission is truly on the line. Set up a "CompHot" squad or special ops team that can drop into late-stage sales cycles with that last push over the line. You'll not only make a lot more money (and advocates for life from your top AEs) but you'll also learn what your competitors are really saying about you. 

Grant Shirk
Grant Shirk
Head of Product Marketing, Cisco Meraki, Cisco Meraki | Formerly Tellme Networks, Microsoft, Box, Vera, Scout RFP, and Sisu Data, to name a few.July 6

This is what makes PMM so fun. And also a little chaotic. You're frequently context-shifting between strategic investments (a 12- to 18-month horizon), quarterly operational work (those "big rocks" and Tier 1 launches), and the daily/weekly/monthly execution below the scenes.

And then a competitor (or new entrant) does something you have to react to. Engage competitive skillsets!

I've found the best way to manage through this is through a few tools:

  1. Clearly establish what your high-impact priorities are. And then communicate them until you're blue in the face and sick of hearing about them yourself. 
  2. Understand the relative value of any activity or impact in the scope of your GTM. For example, how valuable is a datasheet vs. a battlecard vs. a microsite or landing page. How much pipeline does it influence? How often are you hearing a given objection?
  3. Declare clearly what "done" looks like.

This approach can help take some of the heat off of firedrills and help put requests into perspective. To evaluate this, I still really like the Important vs. Urgent framework (also known as the Eisenhower Matrix ). 

There's always a priority shift between urgent and important tasks. What you can do is understand which a task is, and then how much time and effort you will put into it.

Also, remember: PMM, messaging, positioning, copy, and even strategy are constantly evolving things. Allow for iteration. Many times, getting to "done" is way better than getting to "right." The only person who can really tell you if you're right is the customer, anway. 

Grant Shirk
Grant Shirk
Head of Product Marketing, Cisco Meraki, Cisco Meraki | Formerly Tellme Networks, Microsoft, Box, Vera, Scout RFP, and Sisu Data, to name a few.August 16

A "head of role" is a very different focus. Before we can talk about standing out in the interview, I think it's important to define what a leader in marketing can and should be. 

Rule #1.#1. You are no longer a marketer. Not really. Your real focus is twofold: building the team, and strengthening the company.

At this point in your career, you already know how to do the job. The pivot now is to build a team that can do the job better than you and at larger scale. And then you have to leverage your expertise to help guide the overall company to a better, more predictable, more exciting outcome. 

Rule #2.#2. You have to understand other teams' functions almost as well as your own. You have to speak sales, demand gen, finance, talent, product, and CS. And you show that knowledge through the questions you ask.

What does this look like?

- You are continually recruiting, hiring, onboarding, and leveling up your team. Find their strengths, build their skillsets. You can measure your success when your peers (and your leadership) start talking about your team members more than you

- You are leading projects that have little to do with vertical marketing. You're leading a pricing strike team, or building the company's first Sustainability program. You're spending 30% of your timing improving the candidate experience during the hiring process. 

- You're finding problems and evangelizing their priority to solve, even if they're outside your scope. 

So, for a standout "Head of" candidate? I'm looking for someone who:

- Can clearly define what success / meaningful outcomes might look like given minimal inputs 

- Brings a clear point of view on how to build, coach, and develop teams (and has the receipts)

- Can go deep on a functional topic outside of their core area (like sales process, MOPS, etc.)

- Continually returns to the priority of building the team

- Has a clear, pragmatic POV of what's working and what's not in their current company

Grant Shirk
Grant Shirk
Head of Product Marketing, Cisco Meraki, Cisco Meraki | Formerly Tellme Networks, Microsoft, Box, Vera, Scout RFP, and Sisu Data, to name a few.April 13

This is a great one! It's also something few people do well in an interview setting. It's a bit challenging to do verbally, but if you think it through in advance, you can be prepared when the opportunity presents itself.

The first thing - the success of your positioning in an interview setting is best shown through anecdotes and specific details. Just like in real life, it's very hard to say "my positioning increased our pipeline by 15%." That's a complex calculus, and not easily justifiable. Instead, tie it to a story. For example, "we made this adjustment to the message for this audience, and it really helped these kinds of deals move forward."

My favorite example to talk about (related to another answer here) is about the competitive positioning framework we built for a sales boot camp. It lived for years after I left that role and left a lasting impact on the field there. That's impact that resonates in an interview.

Back the the interview, though. At the core of every PMM interview, every person you meet with in a PM or PMM function really wants to know how you break down a value prop and translate it into scalable positioning. So, use bridging techniques. 

One of the most common intro questions you'll get (or you should get, if the interview is well designed) is, "Tell me about your current product or solution." Repeat after me: THIS IS NOT A QUESTION ABOUT YOUR PRODUCT. This is a question about your POSITIONING. Talking about the product, features, capabilities is how you fail this question.

Instead: talk about who the product is for, what problem it solves for them, and how you do it uniquely. Then talk through each of the core pillars you created. Bonus points: relate it to a time when you had to dial up or dial down the focus on one of those pillars for an audience or in response to a market shift. If you do that, particularly with a hiring manager, you will ace that conversation. 

The second chance you have to showcase messaging and positioning is in the launch scenario. "Tell me about your most recent product launch." Again, DO NOT TALK ABOUT THE PRODUCT. Talk about the goal of the launch, who you were trying to reach, how the launch reinforced or changed your messaging... and then bridge to the positioning you put together and why it was effective/different/compelling. 

Grant Shirk
Grant Shirk
Head of Product Marketing, Cisco Meraki, Cisco Meraki | Formerly Tellme Networks, Microsoft, Box, Vera, Scout RFP, and Sisu Data, to name a few.December 15

Okay, this is a fun one, so I'm going to start here. As a former UI designer (at Pixo and Tellme Networks**), this is probably the most fun you'll have in product marketing. You're bringing together three functions that thrive on different kinds of creativity. Words, emotion, and structural design all coming together. 

Other than "strap in and see what happens," there are a few things you can do to escalate the fun and the output of this dynamic mix:

  1. Don't start cold. For a group to really gel, you need equal parts trust, common ground, and some practical familiarity. I would *not* recommend doing this as an icebreaker or new team get together. But, because product marketing can be the neutral ground between these teams, you can build those relationships over time. Small projects and product reviews; brand and product messaging exercises, product launches, even critical comms situations. 
  2. Do set a goal or focus. A lack of limits limits creativity. Start the team with a clear objective for the conversation, and define some constraints (together). This will keep the team focused without having to resort to judging or blocking ideas along the way. Constraints naturally create good editing. For example: "We're here to define the emotional impact we want our product to have on customers." Or, "we want to introduce our product to a completely new vertical. How could we introduce ourselves uniquely?"
  3. Write everything down. Don't lose ideas that are before their time just because you've moved on. 
  4. Do it regularly. This shouldn't be a once-a-quarter-summit-of-ideas. Treat these teams like an extended writers room. Encourage everyone to bring problems, concerns, small ideas. One of the best things we ever implemented at Tellme was our weekly Design meeting. It wasn't a comms meeting or status, but "bring something to the table you want to workshop." We dramatically improved the product, the service, and the company every time we met. It was infectious. 


Grant Shirk
Grant Shirk
Head of Product Marketing, Cisco Meraki, Cisco Meraki | Formerly Tellme Networks, Microsoft, Box, Vera, Scout RFP, and Sisu Data, to name a few.August 16

The pressure's on for this one. Feels like this is the kind of topic first chapters in business books are devoted to. 

A successful GTM is hard to describe in detail. Every business, customer, product, team, and marketplace are different and the right path through can vary widely. And the details shift as the market matures; competitors enter, different problems take priority, macroeconomic uncertainty can loom.

But, there are some characteristics of success you can look towards to judge if you're on the right track:

  • It's predictable. You have a process and plan that you can plan to. Whatever the spreadsheet looks like, you can confidently match the inputs (content, $$, people, activities) into outputs (opportunities, pipeline, bookings, recognition) in a measurable way
  • It's repeatable. You don't need completely new tactics, markets, products every 6 months to keep it going. You have a relatively steady attainment rate for sales, whether it's 70% or 90% - and adding similar new tactics (add a webinar and an event, for example) adds an incremental amount of output
  • It's trainable. You can consistently hire new reps, new demand gen pros, new customer success leads, and they quickly and reliably onboard, certify, and get to fully ramped on a predictable timeline. It means you've figured out the customer, process, and value prop. 
  • It's copied. Imitation, flattery, you've heard this one. When you start seeing competitors pop up that look like you, talk like you, act like you, try a lot to be like you.... you've hit the fairway. There, I think I mixed Eminem with a sportsball reference. Business allegory achievement unlocked. 

Then you get to have some fun. You've got cushion to try new things, push some boundaries, see what else might work. 

Grant Shirk
Grant Shirk
Head of Product Marketing, Cisco Meraki, Cisco Meraki | Formerly Tellme Networks, Microsoft, Box, Vera, Scout RFP, and Sisu Data, to name a few.April 12

There are a number of templates available online. My first recommendation is to confirm your CMO's expecation - it's rare for a CMO to *not* have a favorite format for this. 

However, if they are truly asking you to build something up from scratch, there are a few basic elements you need:

  • Target audience. Who you are trying to reach. This is both persona (multiple) and firmographic
  • Problem and solution. What the customer's core problem is, and how your product/solution addresses it, uniquely
  • Positioning statement. This is the core of the document. Two sentences. One that that describes the problem and solution, and for whom (per the above). And a second that starts with "Unlike," that defines your unique selling proposition (USP)
  • A message house or framework that identifies the 3-5 key pillars of how you want to deliver the message to this specific audience. This normally looks like a table with a column for each pillar and detail for each. 

That's it. If pressed, you should be able to fit the entire thing on a single slide. You're not defining copy, you're not going deep on features or capabilities. What's the simplest, most differentiating way you can talk about your solution to a specific audience. 

More on that Positioning Statement

There are a number of different models for a positioning statement, but the one I like best is based on Geoffrey Moore's classic "Crossing the Chasm." 

For (target customer)

who (statement of the need or opportunity),

(product name) is a (product category)

that (statement of key benefit — that is, compelling reason to buy).

Unlike (primary competitive alternative),

our product (statement of primary differentiation).

It's a little bit like marketing haiku. It's intentionally rigid and short to really focus your attention on what matters. And it doesn't have to be perfect. You'll iterate on this continuously over the life of your product. 

Grant Shirk
Grant Shirk
Head of Product Marketing, Cisco Meraki, Cisco Meraki | Formerly Tellme Networks, Microsoft, Box, Vera, Scout RFP, and Sisu Data, to name a few.August 15

There are two questions here, and I'll address both. One answer is much shorter than the other.

How do we collaborate across industry and core PMM? Constantly. At Meraki, we do have an Audiences team focused on both industry and a few specific LOB personas. The give and take is pretty regular. We collaborate on content, messaging, and thought leadership to make sure we're helping attract and meet customers on their terms. 

That's the short answer. Your second question about being the first vertical PMM is more nuanced. To start, if your company is successful enough with a horizontal GTM, you've got a huge tailwind pushing you forward. There are probably already a number of high-profile wins you'll be building on. 

But, that also means you're going to have to be an evangelist, a change agent. I'd argue that the first thing on your agenda will be to understand the business's current understanding of your target industry(s). And then diagnose what poor assumptions they've made. 

It will feel like you're spinning your wheels, but you really have to dig in. Understand clearly the reality of the situation:

  • What does product think the problem is in that industry? Do they think it's different, or the same?
  • Why does exec leadership believe these industries are the right ones to tackle? Is it expansion or growth of existing? 
  • What does sales think? What does the data say? Are these deals larger? Smaller? Harder fought?
  • What industry-specific niche compeitors exist? Why are they better than you (they're better than you)
  • And, finally, what do your current customers in that industry really think? What did they compromise to choose you? Why did they make that compromise? Would they make the same decision in hindsight?

From there, based on what you learn, you may need to go on a bit of an INTERNAL roadshow to convince everyone of the pragmatic reality of the market. Where are you strong? Weak? What are the actual problems customers care about? Is your problem high-priority enough? And, where are the key product gaps you have to cover to be competitive?

Once you have that, and you've given that ptich roughtly 3 dozen times, then you're probably ready to start really going to market with a revised plan of attack. 

Oh, and make friends with PR early. They'll be a huge asset in winning credibility in your market. 

Credentials & Highlights
Head of Product Marketing, Cisco Meraki at Cisco Meraki
Formerly Tellme Networks, Microsoft, Box, Vera, Scout RFP, and Sisu Data, to name a few.
Top Product Marketing Mentor List
Lives In Pleasanton, California
Knows About B2B Product Marketing KPI's, Messaging, Brand Strategy, Influencing the Product Roadm...more