Anthony Pierri on early stage startup product marketing, startup GTM, and category-creation
Product State Q&A
Anthony Pierri is a Product Marketer at Headway. He helps early stage founders with positioning, messaging, and go-to-market strategy.
EC: Early stage product marketing: What does it look like in terms of people, team, tools, skills, etc.?
AP: An early stage startup is lucky to have one product marketing manager on their team. I define ‘early-stage’ as pre-Series B.
At Series B, the PMM role tends to shift focus towards managing feature launches (i.e. communicating a new update to existing/new users with changelogs, email sequences, in-app messaging, press, etc.).
But in the truly early stage, the PMM is doing more foundational work of positioning, segmentation, go-to-market, pricing/packaging, and messaging. Strong product-minded founders who don’t consider themselves ‘marketers’ will need to bring on someone who can complement their lack of understanding and who knows how to successfully take a product to market.
Sometimes this work is done by an actual PMM, but other times it falls to the first marketing hire who needs to think like a PMM. At this stage, tooling is much less important than the underlying skills—the most important being the ability to break down the founder’s massive product vision (and colossal TAM) into bite-sized market segments that can be reached (and dominated).
EC: How do you build the first GTM for a startup and its brand new product(s)?
AP: The success (and failure) of any go-to-market strategy depends on one of the most boring aspects: market segmentation.
If you want this to feel sexier, call it ‘being relentlessly focus on the customer.’ And to be focused on the customer, you need to have an actual customer segment in mind.
A good segment is a group of people who…
• Hang out in shared spaces (in person or online)
• Have similar problems
• Evaluate solutions to these problems with shared criteria
• Buy products in the same ways (and have similar ‘willingness-to-pay’ thresholds)
These shared use cases, personas, company firmographics, and potential to be monetized will form the basis of a compelling go-to-market strategy.
After the segment is chosen, the PMM moves into the ‘product positioning’ phase (since the startup likely only has one product, this will also de-facto solve for the company-level positioning.)
Positioning is mapped across seven categories:
1. Target customer (pulled from the segmentation stage)
2. Problems (experienced by the customer)
3. Product Category (of your solution)
4. Capabilities (how the product is used to solve the problem)
5. Features (the actual nuts-and-bolts that power the capabilities)
6. Benefits (the state change driven by the applied capabilities)
7. Alternatives (and their weaknesses relative to your solution)
The way to answer these questions comes from deep understanding and empathy of the customer segment (which can be unlocked through product usage data, listening to sales call recordings, product discovery interviews, talking directly to customers, etc.).
Once the PMM understands how the startup should be positioned both in the market and the mind of the customer, they need to choose which channels make the most sense to get that message in front of them.
There aren’t ‘good’ or ‘bad’ channels in any absolute sense — only in relation to the customer segment you’re trying to reach.
A ‘good’ channel for one group may end up being a terrible channel for another segment. It’s best practice to meet customers where they are already hanging out rather than taking a spray-and-pray, spaghetti-on-the-wall approach to see what sticks.
If the PMM is the only marketer on the team, they will likely need to develop channel specific expertise to actually execute their go-to-market—or get outside help (i.e. if TikTok is your best option, someone needs to understand how TikTok works well enough to get the message to the right people in a compelling way).
From this point on, the PMM needs to move into experimentation mode and continue to test and tweak this approach until traction is made. If nothing is working, the most likely culprit is a mismatch of believability (i.e. it’s not that you chose the wrong segment, your solution just may not be believable to them because you’re messaging at the wrong level).
All problems are multi-faceted, and successful messaging speaks to the appropriate—and believable—match. Startups are notoriously bad at this and will try to speak several levels ‘higher’ than their solution actually delivers (which is why every startup talks about boosting revenue regardless of what they actually do).
To solve for believability, I always suggest PMMs take a hard look at the problem-solution fit (i.e. does your podcast hosting platform REALLY help drive more revenue? Or does it actually just help you store more podcasts in the cloud?)
Your messaging will land better by explaining how it solves a specific pain point — not general aspirational longings.
EC: When and how should a startup team seek to ‘create’ a new category?
AP: Most forward thinking startups are creating a novel solution (very few say ‘I am trying to create an iPhone competitor’), so it’s natural for them to believe they need to create a new category.
However, category creation is a long-term game—and success is only found when other competitors enter the space with similar solutions to yours.
In the meantime, you need to get your business off the ground and start getting customers… which means making your product easier to buy… which means putting your solution a product category that doesn’t necessarily fit your long term vision.
What is Airtable?
Today, they call themselves a ‘low-code platform for building collaborative apps.’
In 2022, we know what low-code is — but when they started in 2012, this wasn’t really a well-known category. So rather than making their product hard to explain—and hard to buy—they chose two existing product categories (‘spreadsheets’ and ‘databases’) and explained how they were better versions of each (i.e. ‘we are a simplified database’ or ‘we are advanced spreadsheets’).
Usually, I recommends that startups try to do both in parallel:
1. Create the new category over time using thought leadership, and
2. Bolt-on to an existing category to get initial traction).