This Relay series aims to offer an insightful window into how founding/first operators help bring more structure and meaning to different SaaS functions that founders have already begun to shape.
She dives into: the range of registers — rigorously customer-driven, deftly cross-functional, and boldly imaginative — that the function constantly requires one to operate in, the story behind “Compliance that doesn’t SOC 2 much,” and how founders can best enable this team.
— Joining Vanta as their first product marketer
— Finding a (research-driven) window into what customers really felt
— Achieving product marketing’s customer-led, cross-team impact
— Where emotionally resonant (and cohesive) messaging comes from
— How a founder can set the first product marketing hire up for success
— How to make measurable sense of a first PMM’s first 90 days
I joined Vanta in November of 2020.
Size-wise we were probably around 40 people at that point. The product itself had already found product-market fit. Vanta was in a unique position as we brought in product marketing much later than most companies, in terms of ARR growth.
We didn’t raise an institutional round until we were at $10m in ARR. And I was hired just before that. The role was unique in the sense that I was propping up the function, whereas a lot of PMMs are charged with the difficult task of figuring out PMF in a silo.
When I came in, we only did SOC 2 compliance. The offering was based on Christina’s [Vanta’s co-founder and CEO] insight that a lot of startups, in order to get their first enterprise sale, needed that compliance, particularly in the US. Vanta was built around that insight.
Since then we’ve expanded and are fully multi-SKU. We’ve evolved from just being a SOC 2 automation service to what we’re calling a trust management platform.
That features everything including the 20+ compliance standards we support now, vendor risk management, access reviews, and a number of other security workflows that teams need to go through to both improve their security and also prove it to customers.
Tactically, the number one thing I saw that demanded immediate attention was our website. Which, back then, was just a single page with a picture of a llama and a request-a-demo button.
That was it.
There was nothing about what Vanta did or what the ROI for our customers was. So that was my first order of business. Making sure that the website helped visitors understand what we did and know us better.
That, along with putting together some standard messaging and positioning.
Because we didn’t have a marketing team that was reviewing every piece of content as it was going out the door. Our sales team was sending things to prospects that would refer to Vanta one way. Christina would do a podcast and refer to it as another thing.
Everyone saying the same thing was (and always has been) really important because we’ve been category creators twice: first with automated compliance, and now with trust management.
Again, I had the massive benefit of joining when the company had already found traction.
We knew what we were selling, the specific persona we could target, and the specific moment in time when they needed us.
So, I just talked to a bunch of people.
Both Vanta customers and folks outside of Vanta.
And asked a core question: What does it feel like, to have 1 engineer and staring down this enterprise deal that could change the trajectory of your company, and all you need is this single pdf to close it (and getting that pdf is a year’s work)?
My early work was centered on really understanding that feeling and asking a lot of similar, deeper questions such as:
- If you didn’t have Vanta, how would you have approached the problem?
- What would you have done differently?
- Think back to how you first learned about SOC 2? What was that process like?
- How would you have resourced the team to solve for this?
- Would you have brought on consultants, instead? And why?
Then, based on what I was learning through these conversations, I tried getting more specific around ROI and teasing out their pains more clearly.
For that first year, this was the name of the game. Finding as many founders or early-stage tech leaders as possible, describing this specific scenario to them, and documenting what they were really experiencing when they found themselves in it.
Today, of course, it’s more complicated.
Because we’ve moved upmarket, we have mid-market customers who’re already coming to Vanta with detailed compliance programs.
Essentially saying: “I know how to get a SOC 2, I know how to get ISO 27001, what I’m really looking for is how to streamline my processes. I have a really small team. Budget is an issue. I want to get the most out of the limited resources.”
In response, our messaging is also starting to shift.
Because for these early security hires, it’s much more about the fact that they want to focus their time on building out security programs and preventing breaches, but they’re still required to go through all this go-to-market stuff.
Such as going on sales calls and filling out security questionnaires for potential clients. If their company wants to enter Europe, say, they need to research new standards.
Thus our messaging needs to cater to these new personas and their different needs.
As a product marketer, no one can represent all sides of an argument better than you can.
Which means, you need to have a huge degree of empathy for all stakeholders. You need to work with the product to understand what they’re building, what their vision is, who they want to be using the product, and what they want it to be used for.
Then also work with sales and other customer-facing teams to learn what they are really selling and why people are buying what they’re selling.
At Vanta, for example, product marketing helped articulate what features were being built on the security side. And then also because people bought us for revenue generation, we honed our pitch to address how we could help them grow at a scaling startup.
Representing both sides of the argument and finding something that’s comprehensive of all of them is a critical job for a product marketer.
What this means, tactically, is that you need to have some sort of regular cadence to bring together PMs and the field. I think the most effective way to do this is to have bi-lateral kick offs on a quarterly basis.
First, for the field to give EPD feedback on what is landing, what gaps they are seeing, what the top loss reasons are, etc. Then, for EPD to present back that quarter’s roadmap and how they are addressing the feedback (or which pieces they are not).
For larger launches within a quarter, there is then a working group that meets regularly to adjust the plan, review progress, report out on status, etc. As we’ve grown at Vanta, a lot of these working groups are also async on Slack.
The only thing that’ll sway people one way or another is either data or real customers. And as data only goes so far (there isn’t enough of it) in a new space, talking to as many customers as possible and bringing their collective voice into the room is everything.
Nobody can argue with that.
It’s about talking less about your opinion or what the PM/salesperson thinks and more about what the customer thinks and how you can best represent that in the conversation because they aren’t in the room.
In terms of customer knowledge, a variety of input gets factored in. Including:
- win/loss interviews
- A customer advisory board and product advisory board
- Reviews online (and ensuring we are seeing things on social, hacker news, etc)
One framework I use is to group feedback by personas to pick up on trends. Then, you can prioritize that feedback based on what personas you are most focused on serving at that given moment.
When considering feedback, it’s also important to consider:
- How broad is the feedback (how often does it come up)?
- Who are you mostly hearing it from (what persona)?
- What is the impact it has? Ex: is it a deal killer or a nice to have?
- How would implementing it fit within your product strategy? Ex: what’s your confidence level that you can solve that pain point?
- What’s the effort/tradeoff?
I think it lies in the ability to extract signal from noise. Maybe you’re hearing something new from a customer, but it rhymes with something else that you’ve heard before.
How can you take an answer from someone, extrapolate from there, combine it with information you’ve gathered from a different source, and create something truly unique?
The Henry Ford quote applies equally to marketing. If you give people exactly what they want, you’d be talking about faster horses. You can’t draw positioning based on exactly what your customers are saying and simply repeat it back to them.
It’s really about combining inputs from multiple places. Data that tells you where the market is headed, but also what customers are asking for. Then there’s the creative mind element to this. Which is what makes product marketing so much fun.
You’re a marketer.
You’re on the creative side of the house. But you also deeply understand what your company’s unique proposition is and how that ties to customer needs.
You can merge the product’s perspective with your reading of customers and the market to produce something unexpected. A lot of B2B products instead just say exactly what they do. “This is an expense management product, if you need expenses done, it’s the tool for you.”
At Vanta, we’ve always focused on keeping our messaging cool and delightful. And have it evoke something along the lines of: “we do need to get SOC 2 compliant, but I also like the way you’re talking to me and how it makes me feel empowered to do my job better.”
A specific example comes to mind, here:
SaaStr 2021 was our first in-person conference (as a company that was born right before the pandemic), so we took out a billboard on the 101 right off the exit to the conference.
It was a big milestone for us as a company and so we wanted to put up something that captured people’s attention. We had a brainstorming session, and I came up with the idea: “Compliance that doesn’t SOC 2 much.”
It was obviously a bit provocative to imply that compliance still might suck with Vanta… but I spoke with a few customers who thought it was hilarious and gave me confidence that we were hitting on an emotional truth.
So we ran it and it went viral — got shared everywhere on Facebook, Twitter, Reddit etc. A few weeks later, the CTO of what was at the time our largest enterprise customer was driving down the 101, saw it, and requested a demo!
It was proof that we could build serious tech without having to take ourselves so seriously.
Another thing that helps with this is that I oversee customer advocacy, product marketing, corporate comms, content, and brand. Those things coming together have had a few wonderful effects.
When brand and product marketing play well together is when you get really great copy and creative.
You end up with ads that make people say, “oh wow, they really understand me and this isn’t just a design agency in a room coming up with taglines based on what they think of me.”
For instance product marketing helps define the new category (trust management) we’re creating. And because this team works closely with PR and comms, we’re able to create content, pitch media, and have a holistic engine that reinforces our message through analyst relations and through corporate voice.
This goes back to my initial note on speaking the same way across the company.
Our product team, our sales team, our CEO, all talk about trust management the same way and everyone really gets what we mean every single time.
The thing that I appreciated the most about Christina is that she had a lot of respect for product marketing. This wasn’t a short-term focused, check-the-box (“oh, our website/messaging sucks, we really need to bring someone in”) hire.
To set an early-stage product marketer up for success you have to:
- know the function and what it can bring to the table,
- have them in the room for critical product and go-to-market discussions,
- give them access to important information.
Because so much of product marketing involves synthesizing different ingredients in new and unexpected ways. This team needs access to all those necessary ingredients.
The other bit is having clear expectations from the function.
Understanding the different marketing functions. There’s that classic scenario of assuming that just because someone is in marketing, they’re into demand/lead gen.
You really need to have a sense of the type of marketer you’re looking for. Especially so for a first hire. Obviously, a good product marketer knows what a good demand gen manager looks like and can hire them. Or vice versa.
But the founder must have clarity on the vast difference in marketing skill sets.
What else can a founder do?
Just spend time with the hire. Connect them with key members across product, sales, and other teams, so that they’re able to do the work that they were brought in to do.
On the other end of this, what can founders expect from product marketing?
I like to think that a good 90-day project for any first product marketing hire is putting together a messaging matrix.
That is, having the top-line messages and positioning for the company. Plus: short, shorter, shortest boilerplate copy that anyone can use to describe the product very succinctly.
That’s a good first expectation.
The 2nd thing is that you should, within a few months, see a material change in the way that people are communicating about your company. And that would come from the website and other collateral, all telling a more cohesive, clearer story.
It will also reflect in how tightly your product and revenue teams intersect with each other.
With respect to specific KPIs, this article does a great job of laying out PMM KPIs by company stage. But for the First 90 days, you’d want to track:
- Win rate: Though this is dependent on more than PMM, you should start to see win rate inflect with more focus on competitive intelligence and clearer, better messaging across marketing and sales
- CTR / campaign performance: With better messaging and targeting, you should see conversion rates improve across the funnel
- Sales uptake and utilization: Sales people are great at sharing stuff with one another that is helping them close deals. Store your assets and collateral in a tool where you can track sends and views.
- ASP: If focused specifically on packaging and meaningfully communicating the value of the product, you will see this metric start to shift