A Product Marketing Masterclass with Superhuman's Alex Rodrigues
Interviewing Superhuman Head of Product Marketing Alex Rodrigues
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Today we’re discussing a function that doesn’t get the coverage in SaaS literature that it deserves: Product Marketing.
The lack of rigour and sophistication around Product Marketing, particularly in Europe, is all the more confounding when you consider that we’re in a constrained purchasing environment and buying committees that need to understand product value. This macro backdrop, coupled with companies increasingly going multi-product earlier in their lives, increases the importance of Product Marketing as a hinge point that weaves a product portfolio into a coherent customer journey.
I was lucky to meet Alex at Slush in November and we couldn’t have a better expert to unpack all the essentials of Product Marketing.
Alex Rodrigues leads Product Marketing at Superhuman, a Series C startup that's building the fastest email experience ever made. He brings nearly a decade of industry experience from roles at Google, Plaid, and Venmo, where he spent years leading data-driven marketing strategies and scaling both B2C and B2B products and services. Alex holds a bachelor's degree from the University of Pennsylvania and currently resides in the Bay Area.
Alex, what is your view on when startups should hire their first Product Marketing Manager (PMM)? Is this their first marketing hire?
I might be biased, but I think a PMM is the best first Marketing hire a young company can make, especially if it's still searching for product-market-fit. The timing of this hire largely depends on your current stage. If you've already found your core market, it can be tempting to start with a Growth Marketer to ramp up customer acquisition. But marketing isn't just about ads and content.
PMMs are versatile – they're capable of tackling various challenges as your startup grows. Initially, they might focus on improving your website's signup process and driving more traffic. Later, their role can shift to adapting your product and GTM strategies for different audiences and enhancing features to increase user engagement.
Hiring a PMM as your first marketing role is a strategic move. It places marketing at the heart of your business strategy, ensuring it's a data-driven function aligned with your company's growth and customer needs.
For the first PMM hire, what key responsibilities would go into the job spec (i.e. combination of demand gen, customer lifecycle journeys, branding, and pricing)?
A PMM's key responsibilities really depend on your stage and business model, but a few things are constant:
Market and Customer Insights: Understanding both current and potential customers' needs and market trends.
Product Development: Providing insights and input for product roadmaps to align with customer needs.
Funnel Management: Identifying and improving critical points in the customer journey, from demand generation to retention.
For a Product-Led Growth (PLG) company, initial focus areas for a PMM might also include acquisition and onboarding. These stages are crucial for understanding the market, positioning the product effectively, and driving growth. PMMs should also take charge of pricing and product launches, and are pivotal for attracting new users and enhancing user engagement and retention.
In a more sales-led or Product-Led Sales (PLS) business, PMMs might primarily drive demand generation, creating leads and collaborating closely with Sales teams. They develop customer journeys that facilitate swift deal closures, working alongside Sales to empower them with the necessary tools and insights for success.
I think one other key insight which is often opaque is how interdisciplinary product marketing is inside startups. Can you give us a sense of who PMMs interface with and the solid or dotted lines of reporting? For example, we often see Product Marketing as being an owner of pricing, and at scale we might see Demand Generation become a separate team. Would be great to get a sense of how the function evolves over time.
The variability in the role of Product Marketing across different organisations contributes to its perceived opacity. As an initial marketing hire, a PMM typically reports to a revenue-focused leader – this could be the Head of Sales, Head of Growth, or COO, or alternatively, a product leader role. Regardless of reporting structure, it's essential for the PMM to engage closely with engineering, product, design, and GTM teams, as their work significantly influences these areas.
As the business matures, it's important to install a Head of Marketing. This role oversees product marketing, growth marketing (including demand generation), and aspects of brand or community marketing. The presence of a high-level marketing leader emphasises the strategic importance of marketing.
However, the trajectory to this structure varies. For example, a company with a developer-centric audience might prioritise community marketing and growth in addition to PMM. This adaptability in structuring underscores the dynamic nature of marketing roles within modern startups.
One thread we touched on with Claire Hughes Johnson was the notion of hinge points, which are teams that help shift a disparate multi-product portfolio into a platform that is coherent to the customer. Can you share some of your insights here on how Product Marketing has acted as a ‘hinge point’, maybe drawing on your prior roles?
Absolutely, I've seen firsthand how Product Marketing can serve as a hinge point, particularly in unifying a diverse product portfolio into a coherent platform for customers. Let me share two examples.
Firstly, on the Google Payments team, we faced a challenge with our fragmented product and brand strategy. We had Google Wallet, Android Pay, and Pay with Google – three separate entities that essentially fulfilled the same function: enabling payments via phone or on the web. Recognising that users prefer simplicity and familiarity across devices, my team spearheaded the initiative to consolidate all payment solutions under the unified brand of Google Pay. This decision was driven by the insight that a cohesive, simplified experience would fuel user adoption.
This rebranding was more than just a cosmetic change; it was a transformative, cross-functional effort that spurred innovative thinking. We started developing features and interactions that supported this unified experience. The result? Post-launch, Google Pay experienced a surge in growth, with users and partners lauding its simplicity and ease of use.
Another example comes from my time at Plaid, a company that provides fintech data APIs. As Plaid's product range expanded to nearly 20 different endpoints, the complexity became a barrier for many prospective customers. Here, Product Marketing played a pivotal role in transitioning from a product-centric to a solution-centric approach. We streamlined the offerings into five clear solutions: account verification, payments, fraud detection, identity verification, and personal finance insights. This strategic shift not only made our offerings more accessible to customers but also significantly reduced the sales cycle by streamlining customer qualification.
In both cases, the underlying principle was simplicity. As PMMs, we operate at the intersection of various teams and have the unique ability to align product presentation with customer perspectives, transcending internal organisational structures. This approach not only clarifies the product offering for customers but also propels the business forward.
Product marketing is especially important in education sales where buyers have to be educated and a product is sold rather than bought. What are some of your learnings with respect to how product marketing teams can help accelerate a category’s maturity in the eyes of buyers?
I absolutely agree that Marketing plays a critical role in education sales. In these scenarios, it's essential to start with a deep and clear understanding of your target market's specific challenges and needs. This knowledge forms the foundation for developing powerful, differentiated value propositions and a robust positioning and messaging strategy for your product.
But understanding the customer isn't enough; it's about authentically connecting with them. Emphasising and empathising with their pain points in your communication is key to effectively introducing and promoting a new solution. This approach not only raises awareness but also drives conversions. A strong PMM plays a pivotal role here, ensuring the team is laser-focused on customer needs and crafting a communication playbook that resonates with them.
In a company's early stages, marketing can also help identify and engage with lighthouse customers. These are clients who not only benefit significantly from your product but also have a recognisable name in your industry or more broadly. Successfully helping such customers and showcasing these success stories through well-crafted case studies can elevate your product's perception in the market. These case studies serve as tangible proof of your product's value, accelerating the maturity of your category and solidifying your position as an essential solution in the space.
At Atlassian a lot of their sellers became excellent product marketing managers, which speaks to how much expertise they developed around the product. This leads me to ask - what qualities make for a successful PMM and how should founders think about building a good hiring funnel?
Indeed, it's quite common to see great sellers become PMMs. The transition works well because the best salespeople have an in-depth understanding of their customers, the market, and the product. They are often deeply involved in providing product feedback, crafting effective sales messages, and collaborating with marketing teams to push the business forward.
When hiring PMMs, I focus on several key skills and attributes:
Leadership - PMMs frequently work cross-functionally, making it crucial for them to influence product and GTM strategies effectively. They should possess the ability to inspire teams with a clear vision, build cross-organisational relationships, communicate effectively, overcome challenges, and make informed decisions.
Product knowledge - While PMMs don't need to be developers, a solid understanding of the product's construction, its technical boundaries, and the ability to communicate these aspects to a technical audience is essential.
Business acumen - Effective PMMs can empathise with the buyer, understanding their decision-making process and how to present solutions effectively. They should have a firm grasp of market dynamics, know how to influence decisions at various stages of the funnel, and be analytically minded.
Creativity and problem solving - Naturally, as marketers, PMMs need to be creative not only in writing but also in conceiving unique campaign ideas. In a world filled with distractions, the ability to stand out is critical. Moreover, PMMs should be adept at identifying challenges and devising innovative solutions.
For founders looking to build a strong hiring funnel for PMMs, it's important to look for candidates who possess these attributes and align with the company's vision and values. Leveraging networks, industry events, and platforms where potential candidates are likely to engage can be effective strategies for attracting the right talent. Additionally, a structured interview process that evaluates both technical and soft skills will help identify the best PMMs. It's also okay to ask for help. Subject-matter experts can be helpful in creating an interview process and helping evaluate candidates if it's not something your team has experience with.
Superhuman has done an incredible job of building a brand around a premium experience in email. We’re seeing more awareness around ‘soft power’ or the impact of storytelling in building enduring willingness to pay. What is your advice to founders thinking about the importance of branding in how they can either rise above a crowded market or create a new category?
Absolutely, I can't emphasise enough the importance of building your brand from an early stage. Often, startups are so engrossed in achieving product-market fit that branding takes a backseat, which can be a missed opportunity. A well-crafted brand identity does more than just differentiate you from competitors; it can ignite word-of-mouth and foster a deeper connection with your audience.
Rahul Vohra, Founder and CEO at Superhuman, recently delivered an insightful talk on Creating a Brand at Slush, which I highly recommend for any founder. Here's a brief rundown of his key points:
Start with an ideal: a short and memorable phase that describes how your product or company makes the world a better place. Something that will stand the test of time.
Develop a positioning statement that's targeted at a specific audience, rooted in tension, and supported by your unique value props. Start very narrowly focused and expand the position over time as your product matures.
Create brand attributes: a set of 3-5 words that describe your brand. Some places to start
Emotions: how should your brand make people feel?
Personality: if you were to meet your brand at a party, what would they be like?
Empty spaces: in your industry, what is an attribute that isn't used?
Grow your brand by picking a few complementary channels and focus exclusively on those.
Category creation is one of Product Marketing’s most important achievements, but this can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, using messaging that has worked for incumbents lowers your CAC since it’s proven, but on the other hand you become seen as a commoditised vendor. Defining a new category comes with the ostensible benefit of less competition, but less awareness among buyers, no pre-existing budget… how do you think founders should thread this needle?
Navigating the challenge of category creation in product marketing requires a nuanced approach. In an established market, two key strategies are crucial:
Anchor the solution in insights: It's vital to deeply understand and address your customer's pain points. At Superhuman, for instance, we emphasise the increased responsiveness our customers experience after adopting our product. This approach effectively highlights the relatable value and benefits our product brings to customers.
Establish Clear Differentiation: Your messaging must distinctly set your product apart from competitors, even if using similar language. While it's tempting to label your solution as "better" or "easier," these descriptors are often too generic and lack substance. For a more impactful approach, focus on specific, tangible attributes of your product that directly address customer needs. For example, with laptops, discussing specifics like CPU performance, screen resolution, or battery life provides clear, understandable benefits that resonate with the challenges the customer faces.
For founders considering category creation, it's about finding the right balance. While leveraging existing market language can lower CAC due to its familiarity, it's more important in the category creation stage to avoid being seen as just another commodity. Try to find a foothold with a specific customer segment that cares a lot about the problem you're solving and they will quickly become your biggest advocates among colleagues and friends.This approach can help build gradual market awareness and carve out a niche for your product.
What are the best OKRs that you think we’re aligning on as an industry for Product Marketing?
Revenue acquisition stands as the top priority for PMMs, especially in the current market landscape. PMMs should be owning or influencing revenue that's coming in, and focus on strategies that sustainably increase growth over time rather than just causing temporary spikes. It's also essential to set and monitor objectives further up the funnel, like increasing signups and boosting website traffic.
Adoption metrics come in as a close second in importance. Key factors like user activation and feature adoption are crucial for both drawing in customers and ensuring their long-term retention. These metrics give insight into how well customers are engaging with the product and are a good signal of product-market-fit..
Whenever launching a new product or feature, we consistently evaluate its potential impact: Will it attract new customers, add value for existing users, or both? Based on the answer, we set specific goals tailored to the intended outcomes. Our campaigns and initiatives related to these new features or products are directly aligned with these objectives, ensuring that every effort is strategically focused on driving the same goal.
From your time working in fintech product marketing at Plaid and Google, you’ve seen what it's like to market platforms and infrastructure - what are some key insights you’d share from that experience? We see DevRel become a staple for developer tool marketing, for example.
A lot of my best tips mentioned above apply to platforms and infrastructure companies. Things like being laser focused on your target customer, distilling the product down into something that's very easy to understand regardless of if the audience is technical, and having lighthouse customer case studies.
Investing in community building is becoming increasingly vital for SaaS companies. For platforms and infrastructure, DevRel is a significant aspect of this. Building a community can take various forms, including hosting live events (both in-person and virtual), creating online spaces for customer interaction (like Slack channels), and nurturing relationships with your most enthusiastic advocates.
Establishing yourself as a thought leader is another effective strategy. Companies should articulate a clear vision of their industry's future and how their products fit into that picture. This not only inspires customers and prospects about the possibilities with your platform but also reinforces your position as an industry leader.
Finally, leveraging partnerships with established players in your industry or adjacent sectors can amplify your brand and product visibility. Identifying and nurturing mutually beneficial relationships with these partners can be a powerful way to extend your reach and influence.
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Quote of the week
‘In fact, it is dramatically easier to build a company going “$4m to $15m of ARR with an NPS of 80” if a customer subsidy is core to the value prop. Building net-new, efficient frontier-expanding products is hard - giving money away is much less hard.’