Think goals, not functions

by Giff on June 24, 2010

I just piggybacked on a twitter conversation between Sean Ellis and April Dunford talking about product management versus product marketing (see April’s post). Sean tweeted this comment which I just wanted to highlight:

“Functions” is part of the problem in early stage. IMO goals better: PM fit, then conv eff, then growth… [Ed note: PM fit = product-market fit; conv eff = conversion efficiency]

I completely agree with this.  At the beginning, you need a small, tight-knit, complementary team that ignores function and focuses entirely on goals, splitting up tasks to effectively meet those goals.  With Aprizi, I do any product marketing tasks, and Liz and I split various product management functions.  Function definitions are not relevant, and we don’t feel pressure to do things irrelevant to the near-term goal of product-market fit, save for some effort sowing seeds via relationship building.

“Function temptation” is more of a problem for heavily- funded companies with large starting teams and immediate investor pressure for growth.

At founding, make sure you all agree on priorities.  I was talking to a very talented business development person the other day, and he was stuck on the importance of distribution.  His logic, as I understood it, was that customer acquisition is the biggest struggle for consumer Web startups, so clearly distribution is the most important thing and must happen right away.

I disagree.  A big distribution deal before product-market-fit is a recipe for disaster*, and I’m not talking about the economics.  You might get pressure from the big partner to make what *they* want, not what the customer wants.  Your flexibility to pivot will be severely restricted by expectations, promises given, and a legal document.  Instead of iterating your product in obscurity, and thus relative brand safety, you risk giving hundreds of thousands of people a bad experience.  That bad user experience will threaten your relationship with the distribution partner and possibly neuter future opportunities.

This BD person isn’t an idiot, but rather they are a talent, attitude and skillset that should come on board only *after* product-market fit is found.

My belief in customer development > product market fit > conversion optimization > growth is borne from many scars, mistakes, and a burning desire to do this thing we call “startup” better.

[Update: just to clarify, I'm not saying that you should completely ignore all BD work, since channels are indeed important and they take a long time to develop. I write more about relationship building in the comments below where Sean and April weigh in, and where I think the discussion is better than the actual post.]

  • Sean Ellis

    Hey Giff, great to see you expanded on our Twitter thread. Completely agree with your post. I’ve also seen the “partner requirement” risk first hand – potential “huge partner” opp pushing us to do exactly the opposite of what customers were signaling. This is very dangerous in the pre product/market fit days when you are still figuring things out.nnEven in the early days after product market fit, traditional functions can be a bit dangerous. For example, in my first startup I quickly filled the “marketing void” as manager of online games and was a very effective growth hacker. As we picked up steam I was “promoted” to VP Marketing and thought “oh crap, what’s a VP Marketing supposed to do?” I didn’t have any official marketing experience so I enrolled in a Strategic Marketing Management course at NYU Extension. I began thinking about SWOT analysis, the 4 Ps, positioning, integrated communications… Needless to say, growth stalled until I got back to our key goal of growing the active user base. After refocusing, we added a viral widget (1997), really pushed the metrics driven testing envelop, etc. My promotion to the “function” of VP marketing could have killed us. nnSo I agree “customer development > product market fit > conversion optimization >…” But I’d break growth into 1) use growth hacker to discover scalable growth drivers 2) hire VP marketing to build team that manages growth.

  • Sean Ellis

    Hey Giff, great to see you expanded on our Twitter thread. Completely agree with your post. I've also seen the “partner requirement” risk first hand – potential “huge partner” opp pushing us to do exactly the opposite of what customers were signaling. This is very dangerous in the pre product/market fit days when you are still figuring things out.

    Even in the early days after product market fit, traditional functions can be a bit dangerous. For example, in my first startup I quickly filled the “marketing void” as manager of online games and was a very effective growth hacker. As we picked up steam I was “promoted” to VP Marketing and thought “oh crap, what's a VP Marketing supposed to do?” I didn't have any official marketing experience so I enrolled in a Strategic Marketing Management course at NYU Extension. I began thinking about SWOT analysis, the 4 Ps, positioning, integrated communications… Needless to say, growth stalled until I got back to our key goal of growing the active user base. After refocusing, we added a viral widget (1997), really pushed the metrics driven testing envelop, etc. My promotion to the “function” of VP marketing could have killed us.

    So I agree “customer development > product market fit > conversion optimization >…” But I'd break growth into 1) use growth hacker to discover scalable growth drivers 2) hire VP marketing to build team that manages growth.

  • http://giffconstable.com giffc

    great anecdote Sean. I like your growth hacker > marketing pro split. It requires the patience / restraint to act like a startup while you are a startup and not get ahead of yourself. I’ve really appreciated your overall message, although I sometimes wonder if you get push-back from more old-school investors. Hope to catch up in NYC one of these days.

  • http://giffconstable.com giffc

    great anecdote Sean. I like your growth hacker > marketing pro split. It requires the patience / restraint to act like a startup while you are a startup and not get ahead of yourself. I've really appreciated your overall message, although I sometimes wonder if you get push-back from more old-school investors. Hope to catch up in NYC one of these days.

  • http://www.rocketwatcher.com April Dunford

    I love this post. There is so much that’s different between companies with established products and those that are starting out, it’s easy for folks to get confused. A lot of what we see in traditional marketing and product management training doesn’t apply to early stage companies so it’s left for the marketers themselves to figure out what to focus on and what to toss.nnI’ll disagree with Sean a little bit in that I do believe that some of it DOES apply. The trick in early stages is know what big company marketing things you should ignore, which you should modify and which you should slowly bring in. The key is to always keep your eye on the prize which in the earlier stages, growing the active user base. If the stuff you’re doing doesn’t help with that then don’t do it. For example I personally never got anything out of a SWOT analysis (heck, even when I was an at IBM I didn’t get what SWOT could really do for me) but I am a big believer in integrated campaigns, especially on the B2B side, and every marketing person on the planet should know how to do good messaging IMO.nnSomeone needs to build the definitive 1 day startup marketing course to help people do this (she said, giving Sean the eyeball :) .nnApril

  • http://giffconstable.com giffc

    Thank you April. So much is indeed necessary — copy and messenging; splash page test; introductory videos; understanding the competitive landscape; thinking about how customer acquisition dynamics might affect product design, etc. But above all, I would stress that you must start building relationships early – they do not happen overnight. This is a blend of marketing, sales and BD. Whether it’s prospects, partners, bloggers/media, whoever — start building those relationships early. Talk about the problem you want to solve and the opportunities you want to create. It’s just part of customer development — or perhaps “ecosystem development”.

  • http://www.rocketwatcher.com April Dunford

    I totally agree with you on that point. People really underestimate how long it takes to build good relationships and they start way too late in my opinion. I’ve been talking a lot about pre-launch marketing lately because I think there’s so much that companies can do even before they have an MVP or beta in market to start working with media, start developing a community, hone their problem definitions, start building an email list, etc. nFunnily enough, this is a great example of something that big companies routinely do that works very well for startups (albeit in a stripped-down way). I did this stuff at the first startup I worked at and later in my career found out at IBM it has a name: “Market Development”.nApril

  • Sean Ellis

    Actually I think we are on the same page. Many traditional marketing activities are important in the context of driving sustainable user growth. But at this stage, activities should be prioritized based on their role in driving scalable user growth. Agree 100% that messaging is extremely important here.nnInteresting thought on a 1 day startup marketing course.

  • http://www.rocketwatcher.com April Dunford

    I love this post. There is so much that's different between companies with established products and those that are starting out, it's easy for folks to get confused. A lot of what we see in traditional marketing and product management training doesn't apply to early stage companies so it's left for the marketers themselves to figure out what to focus on and what to toss.

    I'll disagree with Sean a little bit in that I do believe that some of it DOES apply. The trick in early stages is know what big company marketing things you should ignore, which you should modify and which you should slowly bring in. The key is to always keep your eye on the prize which in the earlier stages, growing the active user base. If the stuff you're doing doesn't help with that then don't do it. For example I personally never got anything out of a SWOT analysis (heck, even when I was an at IBM I didn't get what SWOT could really do for me) but I am a big believer in integrated campaigns, especially on the B2B side, and every marketing person on the planet should know how to do good messaging IMO.

    Someone needs to build the definitive 1 day startup marketing course to help people do this (she said, giving Sean the eyeball :) .

    April

  • http://giffconstable.com giffc

    Thank you April. So much is indeed necessary — copy and messenging; splash page test; introductory videos; understanding the competitive landscape; thinking about how customer acquisition dynamics might affect product design, etc. But above all, I would stress that you must start building relationships early – they do not happen overnight. This is a blend of marketing, sales and BD. Whether it's prospects, partners, bloggers/media, whoever — start building those relationships early. Talk about the problem you want to solve and the opportunities you want to create. It's just part of customer development — or perhaps “ecosystem development”.

  • http://www.rocketwatcher.com April Dunford

    I totally agree with you on that point. People really underestimate how long it takes to build good relationships and they start way too late in my opinion. I've been talking a lot about pre-launch marketing lately because I think there's so much that companies can do even before they have an MVP or beta in market to start working with media, start developing a community, hone their problem definitions, start building an email list, etc.
    Funnily enough, this is a great example of something that big companies routinely do that works very well for startups (albeit in a stripped-down way). I did this stuff at the first startup I worked at and later in my career found out at IBM it has a name: “Market Development”.
    April

  • Sean Ellis

    Actually I think we are on the same page. Many traditional marketing activities are important in the context of driving sustainable user growth. But at this stage, activities should be prioritized based on their role in driving scalable user growth. Agree 100% that messaging is extremely important here.

    Interesting thought on a 1 day startup marketing course.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_SWQOLHTCILMPJVPG6XFFQZPU2M Margaret

    Thanks for the post. That’s what I’m talking about. It is critical to get the first web product correct the first time. Generation Y and X only give you one chance!