My 10 Commandments for Marketing and Product in a Software Startup
Reflecting on my 20 years in software and leadership of both Product and Marketing organizations, I’ve seen what works and what doesn’t, working with two giant software companies, one that became one, and 4 that want(ed) to be. I’ve attempted to boil this insight down to 10 commandments that if followed virtually ensure the success of these functions. I am not this grey, this religious, or this conservative, but neither was Charlton Heston when he took on the role of Moses so many years ago.
Some may feel that a Product organization and a Marketing organization are significantly different and they can’t be lumped together and served by a single list like this. I see these functions as birds of a feather who understand markets, facilitate revenue, and help a CEO chart a winning direction, thus I believe a set of universal truths apply.
Product and Marketing, while a big part of the direction-setting success of a startup, however, are just two of the functions that a startup needs to get right. If you are off course though, sales, engineering, operations, implementation, customer success, and finance are also unlikely to be successful. This is written for both members of these teams and executive teams who are committed to getting the balance right to tip the odds of success in their favor. Each of these commandments focuses on our sacred responsibilities needed to increase the chances of turning ideas into enduring companies.
Product-Market Fit is Everything — You know when you achieve it because potential customers choose to seek you out. You have a healthy reference base of competitors. Early majority buyers start to talk to you about sensible additional features a whole market could use. You also know when you don’t have it. There is hardly a recognizable logo on your wall, you build features for a large customer, success stories are hard to come by, and you have to make up news. If you design or market a product and your company hasn’t yet achieved product-market fit you need to drop everything to help it get there. This means gathering data from sales, prospects, analysts, and competitors and finding plausible patterns of what a market needs and then validating this with that marketplace. There are no half measures here. If you are off, you are unlikely to ever pay off your investors and spend years of your life kicking the can of a bad or mediocre idea down the road for ultimately little reward.
Choose to be a Workhorse — In Marketing and Product there are Work Horses and Show Horses. In a software startup, there is so much work to do that you really need to be a Work Horse. Show Horses need big teams to be effective and even then, their big ideas often fail to deliver results as they are too far from the actual work to know what approach would actually work. Keep in mind that you will be out politicked by a Show Horse at least once in your career because that is what they know how to do really well. There are droves of do-little consultants gunning for part or all of your salary every day. Most are Show Horses. While you shouldn’t let it happen, you shouldn’t be surprised if it does. Weaker management teams often times don’t understand the difference or the impact to the company if they do get seduced by a Show Horse. They’ll find out, but often too late.
Be Honest — If you don’t have a needed feature yet, say so. Don’t do a mockup so compelling that a prospect thinks you do. If a potential customer can’t buy what you are marketing within the duration of the sales cycle, you are effectively lying. Startups have to play the long game as most successful companies don’t see an exit today until year 10. If you lie or fib, your customers will ultimately revolt vocally or silently. Maybe not today, but before you are successful. SAP used to be famous for marketing and presenting product mockups two years before they were available and before coding ever started. It took two decades, but today we don’t talk about them much and they have all but rolled up the carpet in Silicon Valley and retreated to Waldorf and the legacy of their maintenance revenue spoils.
Act on Your Data Driven Convictions — If you are afraid of being fired, you shouldn’t be in Marketing or Product. These careers are no place for the timid or fearful. You will be second-guessed every day of your career so you better get used to it. The only antidote is to do your homework. Learn and quantify what people want from features to campaigns. You’ll never be able to please everyone, but if you can quantifiably defend your decisions, you’ll last long enough please many and hopefully see the fruits of your labor. Ultimately for less experienced management teams who don’t come from these professions, Marketing and Product are a black box and kind of like fashion. They’ll just wear the Levi’s until someone with money, influence, power, or just a well-honed patter tells them they’d look better in Calvin Klein’s. You’ll be onto your next venture before they realize they don’t look great in skinny jeans. If this happens, brush it off and find a more experienced set of colleagues who are willing to follow the data to go the distance.
Show Your Value Every Day — In Marketing and Product the perception of others often is that we get to do the fun stuff. From the outside, it can look like we are flying around having long coffee talks with customers or enjoying art class as we develop campaigns. If they aren’t willing to get into the bowels of Marketing and Product, they may never appreciate that it is a ton of work. The best efforts come from wading through tons of detail to get to a product decision or working late into the night to make your story sing and literally “programming” these messages into a detailed campaign. Because of the impressions of us, optics matter. You should plan on always being visible, present, and available. You should anticipate questions before they are asked. You should do a lot of education. You need to always over-communicate and repeat yourself. If you are successful, your colleagues will achieve a fleeting understanding of what you do and begin to be able to understand what success looks like.
Prepare to Get Up to Your Elbows — The best product managers and marketers have at least a working knowledge of everything. It is easy to just lean in to a never-ending set of scrum meetings or become a self-proclaimed SEO expert, but fail to understand why it matters. This again, requires some double time. We all need to understand what Sales is facing and work harder to make their job easier. In marketing, in particular, there is a ton of waste that no successful startup can afford. As a leader, if you don’t know what an SEM agency should deliver or what a successful PR campaign looks like, you are likely to squander precious resources. Team members need autonomy for sure, but you need to be able to have a value-adding conversation with every one of your colleagues or direct reports to collectively make better decisions in a resource constrained environment.
Always Remember that Revenue is What Matters Most — The most important thing to internalize in Marketing and Product is that nothing matters if the product doesn’t sell, especially your opinion. Revenue cures all ills, but it only comes if the product fits, the customer is well educated, the price makes sense, and the company can explain itself. Marketing and Product ARE part of the commercial team and should be judged as such. You better have a few trusted sales colleagues that you are talking to or collaborating with on a continuous basis. If they don’t make sales happen, you don’t win nor does the company.
Measure Every Experiment — When you thing about it, every product feature and every campaign is hopefully a researched bet that that you execute to help your products appeal to more buyers (and users who influence buyers). Where I find startups go south is they don’t face this music. They spend years building a feature set because someone thinks he’s Steve Jobs and doesn’t need to do the homework. They pay through the nose monthly for Search Engine Marketing (SEM) that they aren’t even sure is working. If what you are doing isn’t making it easier to close new or more business, it isn’t working. The only way to know is to measure it. Both product and marketing goals are ideally tied to revenue because, in the big picture, facilitating revenue is why both functions exist. Better targeted, more usable, and more feature rich products are easier to sell. More engaged prospects are more likely to buy. We all want to work on something that matters. What matters in a startup is revenue so you need to measure if what you are doing is making a revenue difference.
Collectively, the Customers Know Best — A trap startups fall into is that they listen to a small collection of early adopters. These early adopters, the experts like Geoffrey Moore tell us, have their own lofty agenda that is not indicative of a larger market required to create a successful startup. If you are working to the beat of just a handful of observations, you are probably wrong or incredibly lucky. Most successful startups end up having to fire their early adopters when they rabble rouse too loudly for a direction that is inconsistent with serving a market. The only way around this is to develop very good systems for collating what a market needs by finding ways to add up the insight of every prospect and customer. Every customer visit from any function is a chance to learn more and should be systematically recorded. Every action a prospect takes in a campaign is a vote — for or against — how you describe how you add value and whether or not it matters to them. This all adds up to building for markets and not customers. You will almost assuredly fail if you build for individual customers. In the best case, you might create a ho hum lifestyle business, but your investors won’t likely keep you around to bask in its mediocre glory.
Always Think Like an Owner — It is healthy to step back and realize the great privilege we have as employees in a startup. We borrow time with borrowed money for the chance to create something new and lasting in the world. By lasting, with rare exception, this means something that adds value to the world AND is profitable. The rare exceptions may be some of the most fabled startups like Salesforce or Uber whose bets were so sure, they didn’t need to make money for decades and found investors willing to bet long and bet it all on red. For every one of these, however, there are 99 mini Juiceros, where someone should have asked what the economic value really is of squeezing a bag of juice. If you think like an owner, which you most certainly are if you are reading this, you make calculated bets. You do the research, you learn what things should cost and spend money like your own life that depended on it, you save resources for a rainy day. To steal from President Kennedy, this means not focusing on what the startup can do for you, but rather how you can make the company successful. I find that it can be easy for people to get caught up in the mere existence of a new breed of company where you can eat anything in the fridge and people are more likely to say yes than no. They ascribe unrealistic personal and career expectations to these environments and feel they are not accountable. Check yourself and remind yourself everyday what a privilege it is to be able to try to create something from nothing with other people’s money. Then work like a smart dog to bend the odds and make it happen.