Why You Need a Product Marketing Function Sooner Than You Think

Aeri Shan
5 min readFeb 24, 2021

This is a cautionary tale. I’ve seen this play out over and over. A growth-oriented tech company sets up shop and starts out with a clear product vision and roadmap. They have a solid business & revenue plan that looked great to investors and got their seed funding. At first the growth looks awesome. A real rocket ship. There’s no need to dwell on positioning or messaging or even write a Go-To-Market plan because, hey, we’ve got growth and everybody is happy. We’re at least keeping even with our competition or maybe we are eating their lunch. Maybe we’re lucky and there is no real competition. Profitability is around the corner and you go to Series A.

A few quarters go by and you’ve hired like crazy. The product scope and feature set has grown and your marketing & sales channels are all over the place. Most likely the initial novelty of your product is starting to wear off and you’ve tapped the low-hanging fruit of your addressable market. There are new competitors who are copying you feature-for-feature. Your CEO is under pressure and so full of ideas you spend a lot of energy containing them.
To keep up the momentum investors insist you expand sales channels. You should hire more AEs and more SDRs and more people to tap ever an expanding expanding set of industries and verticals. This looks great on paper so you’ve concluded your Series B round.

By now your marketing is is a mixed bag, with pressures this way and that and it’s starting to lose cohesion. The marketing folks have got their hands full responding to this need and that and not much is coordinated. Your sales team is pitching one way and your Developer Relations team is pitching another. Your website is a mish-mash trying to be all things to all people. You blew millions on ideas that were poorly received.

First, because surely we know what we are doing, you engage leadership to figure this out. Your CEO feels they understand everything perfectly so they want to be involved in creating personas and imparting their vision. But this process takes a long time and is messy because none of you really have time and while the VP of Marketing certainly has the experience, she’s never been a PMM. So she spends nights googling “Messaging Framework” and “How to define Personas” for ideas. It ends up being a half-assed and half-finished effort and nobody really listens anyway.

A quarter or two goes by and that growth momentum continues to slip. The market traction that looked so good from the inside has slowed. Customers are talking about how the competition is a better fit. Your brand is damaged by product defects brought about by competing pressures for features. You are no longer the default option. The fundamentals of Go-To-Market strategy like Product Market Fit, leave you feeling like you are playing catch-up. You are being reactive.

So you hire someone to handle Product Marketing to bring back the cohesion and get your marketing, sales, and product pointed in the same direction. Your shiny PMM or Director or VP of Product Marketing embarks on a grand plan. They interview everyone, they talk to customers, they research the market. There’s a lot of history and the scope of the task is so much bigger now. Meeting after meeting and finally, after a quarter or two, they have it: The Go-To-Market plan. You’ve got personas and messaging and a really cool position statement. At last, clarity!

The buyer’s journey has been mapped out but it will take another quarter to do the engineering to bring the product back into alignment with that. You see, we made some compromise decisions early on to satisfy some initiative we’ve now forgotten about and now we have to untangle that mess. But don’t worry, you’ve got a great SWOT and you worked hard on a pricing strategy and product roadmap that will surely have the competition quaking in their boots.

But you are 4–5 quarters into slower growth and your next round of funding starts to seem like a pipe dream. Your relevance, the VC folks say, is questionable. They are not impressed that your bloated engineering team says it will be 2 quarters at least before they have achieve feature parity with Competitor Z. You’ve been supplanted in the market and while we appreciate you trying to “re-invent” yourself we’d rather place our bets on something that looks more…. together. You’re engineering is in disarray and you’ve had trouble retaining the best because engineers HATE it when things are messy and reactive.

You look back on this and ponder, what could we have done differently? Why did we always seem to be several steps behind in keeping our product vision and our marketing aligned when it seemed all so clear at first? We thought we understood the competition and had faith in our engineering and yet we lately seem to be always missing the mark in shipping products that align with our customer’s needs. We thought we understood our customers because we WERE those customers… a long time ago before we started this company. What happened?

It won’t be a bad acquisition but it doesn’t match the heady projections when you started. You had hoped for so much more…Slowly, it dawns on you. You should have hired a Product Marketer from the start to make sure your identity and position in the market stayed optimally pointed at the greatest revenue opportunities and grew with you. To ensure that you always understood your customer and that in the fast initial growth curve you remained laser-focused on delivering value so they’d never have cause to look elsewhere. To ensure the product would always sell itself and everyone would use the same language.

Ah well, it wasn’t a bad exit. On to the next one…. maybe this time I can convince them of the value of investing in product marketing. Or not.

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Aeri Shan

Story-teller. Data-wrangler. Product visionary. Empath. Non-binary human.