I distinctly remember the day I had to play the role of a startup therapist.
It was a sunny afternoon, which was unusual for Seattle at that time of the year. I was sitting in the offices of a local VC firm I was partnering with. They asked me to come in to mentor a few of their founders on product marketing and what the function could do for their businesses.
I initially thought that this would be an odd necessity. I mean, it’s product marketing. How difficult is it to understand? I didn’t understand what was going on until I met the startup founders.
Two things were common across the entire group:
- Product marketing was critical to the success of their businesses. Check: They all understood that fact.
- They needed to hire product marketers ASAP. Check: Absolutely, no doubt about it.
So, what was the problem? Well, there were two.
- Some of the founders couldn’t get a single product marketer to apply to their job listings.
- The ones who did hire product marketers picked the wrong fit and were now stuck with someone who couldn’t do the job correctly.
This wasn’t the first time I had heard of this problem, but it was the first time I was tasked with helping the ailing startups figure out a solution with such urgency.
What Is Product Marketing?
Wait, Who Are You?
Before we move forward, allow me to introduce myself. I’m Bryan Dsouza, and I currently lead product marketing at Berkshire Grey, a Boston-based, high-growth startup that builds AI-powered software and robotic systems focused on transforming the supply chain industry. Prior to Berkshire Grey, I led product marketing at Grammarly, where I was focused on building and launching our business offerings. And before that, I was in various product management and product marketing roles at Microsoft across subscription-based and cloud-based products. Throughout my career, I’ve operated in a variety of fields — B2B and B2C SaaS, PaaS, and now AI robotics — while staying functionally focused on product marketing.
I describe the way I got involved with VC firms and startups as a “side hustle” or, more eloquently, as an “extra-curricular, voluntary learning experience.” In short, my passion for solving complex problems in monetization and product-market fit pushed me to throw myself into the constant font of complex (yet impactful) problems: startups. Also, the VC firms typically didn’t mind my taking such gnarly topics off their hands.
The confluence of my product marketing background and the world of startups is fortuitous. Hiring product marketers continues to be a problem causing many sleepless nights for many startup leaders. I’ve probably spent more time advising on product marketing job descriptions and hiring strategies than I have on actual product marketing itself in recent months.
Part of the problem is that product marketing continues to be a sizzling hot market. It’s one of the few functions (besides engineering) where both Big Tech (Microsoft, Google, Meta, etc.) and startups (seed stage and beyond) are actively and aggressively recruiting. The upside is product marketers have a variety of opportunities to choose from to best fit their expertise. The downside is that it’s become that much harder to hire the right product marketer who’s a good fit for the startup’s current stage and where they are trying to go.
A Little About Product Marketing
Product marketing has many definitions (try this one, this one, or this one for starters). I like to describe it as the connective fabric of a company across product management, marketing, and sales (B2B)/growth (B2C), all in one function. This fluidity is why you’ll see product marketing variously sit in the product group, the marketing group, or the sales/growth group, depending on the company’s structure. I dive deeper into the basics and motions of product marketing in a Udemy course I published a little while ago. Feel free to check it out.
Because of its “connective fabric” nature, product marketing is and should be practiced differently based on the growth stage the startup is currently in and where it’s looking to go in the next two or three years. Herein lies the problem, however: Many founders, unfortunately, don’t craft the role based on these criteria. Instead, they conduct a job search based on their ideal of a product marketer and what they should be doing.
Let’s Unpack This With an Example
When I was hiring product marketers for my team at Grammarly, I had to understand where the company was and where we wanted the business to be in the near future. Grammarly is now a household name thanks to the awesome impact our AI-powered writing assistant has had on people from all walks of life over many years.
Our growth story at the time was organically driven (again, great product), and we were looking to augment our value by highlighting the competitive advantage our users could derive by using polished writing in their organizations. This strategy meant we needed product marketers who were experienced in scaling products and enabling sales teams to drive customer acquisition coupled with product-led growth motions. And so, I went looking for candidates that fit such a vision. Lo and behold, I found a couple who are killing it in their roles and having a massive impact on the business.
Now, what if I went with a product marketer who was highly experienced in all things product marketing but had never worked in scaling a startup or supporting a sales organization? Moreover, what if I was hiring a product marketing manager to start but I had zero vision (or visibility) for leadership growth for the role? Well, on paper, that person would still be a great product marketer, but in the context of Grammarly and where we wanted to go, the job/career path wouldn’t be a fit.
So, what would happen? Hypothetically, one of three scenarios:
- A street-smart product marketer of such a background would see the job description and run far from it because, even though the tactical needs were similar, the experience and vision were not aligned.
- A not-so-street-smart product marketer would apply to the role and get rejected in the first round.
- Worst of all, a desperate hiring manager would hire the not-so-street-smart product marketer in a rush to meet the situation’s urgency and the startup would lose crucial time trying and failing to get to product-market fit. Oh, and the product marketer or the hiring manager would be fired, or the founder would get a not-so-nice-talking-to from the investors on the company’s hiring capability.
Hire for More Than Just Cultural Fit
Product marketing is complex in and of itself. But you can simplify it if you stay focused on where you want your startup to be and keenly understand what kind of product marketer can get you there. Looking up other product marketing job descriptions is fine, so long as you don’t copy-paste the job description you like just because it listed all the tactical things a typical product marketer would do.
Culture fit has been extensively and rightfully explored, so I won’t dwell on that any further. What I am talking about is what I call ”journey fit.” This concept is the alignment that exists between a candidate’s experience/expertise/passion and the journey that the startup is on and where it’s headed.
Does this sound super ambiguous and subjective? Absolutely. That’s why it’s hard. And this approach to hiring the right product marketer for your startup includes a lot more introspection than just sourcing resumes.
Note that I didn’t call this “destination” fit. That name is intentional because anyone who has built or worked in a startup knows that, while the destination can (and should) be a great motivator, the journey is what delivers the most toil, sweat and gratification. If you hire someone who isn’t aligned with the journey you’re on, the destination won’t matter because it will always feel out of reach for that person.
What Does Hiring for Journey Fit Look Like?
Remember when I said finding this alignment can get quite ambiguous and subjective? Well, I meant it. But let me try to put down a few “statements” that I use when thinking up product marketing job descriptions for my team. You can use some or all of this as you please, but again, make it your own. Note that this is NOT something you only do during the interview process, but this is how you can begin thinking about the job description.
- What got us ________, will not get us ________. Who is the delta?
- We are a team that will look like _______ when we get to ________. Who is missing?
- Our company is going through ________ blockers to our goals. Who can help?
- Most of us think like ___________. Who can think differently?
- Our individual/team battle scars are _________. Who has gone through something similar? Or, who has not?
As you can see, your job as a hiring manager doesn’t get any easier with this approach. But what I guarantee it will do is help you develop job descriptions that scream empowerment, leadership and vision, over and above the usual experience and expertise a product marketer likely requires. Posting such a job description, you may or may not open the floodgates to applications, but whatever applications you do get (and you will) will give you a better problem to have: selecting the right candidate from a pool of excellent product marketers with a specific journey fit to your startup.
No silver bullet exists for hiring the right product marketer for your startup. But hiring for journey fit will increase the chances of making the right hire. Just as hiring managers are continuing to differentiate themselves to attract the best product marketing talent, product marketers are getting smarter at reading between the lines on a job description. If yours looks like any other, or worse, exactly like another, then your application pool will look very dry. But if it showcases the journey you’re on, where you’re headed, and who you need to join you, you’ll find the right product marketers who want to come along for the ride.