The Journey From Product Marketing To Pre-Sales: (Yet) A(nother) Rationalization For Posterity
In 2016, after five years of working in technical Product Management, I made a decision about my career. I was going to pivot into Product Marketing.
I had some strong beliefs in my youth, but chief among them was the belief that selling software is harder than building software.
I believed that, given build v sell measured against time x difficulty, build was trending downward towards “easy”, while sell upward towards “difficult”. Software dev was commoditizing. I wanted to be on the right side of history.
In fact, I was so confident in my thoughts and so compelled to communicate them in detail that I wrote a manifesto of sorts on Medium which is, to this day, one of the most popular articles I’ve written here.
Perhaps it is ironic, then, that I return here, five years later, to write another about my move away from the role altogether. And perhaps not.
Even with something of a forlorn forward-facing fear of becoming old and further cemented in my own beliefs with a closed mind, I remain more convicted in that belief than ever. That’s why I’ve decided to call the spade a spade.
I’m a technical sales guy.
How Did We Get Here?
Since my last missive, I’ve spent the last 5 years in various capacities learning the art of Product Marketing.
I built the discipline out with the first PMM team in a scaling start-up; used its tools in failed pursuit of developing side hustle joint ventures at a capital firm; and practiced it with a global sales army and an ARR-significant product in the “big leagues” of PMM, at the godmother of the discipline for SaaS.
It took 5 full years to make the pivot in earnest.
Along the way, though, I made a specific execution decision based on some advice I received early on: “to be a great product marketer, you need to be a great salesperson.”
But while I loved helping the sales teams I was supporting throughout my career, the thought of joining them filled me with a tremendous amount of reticence — and a pinch of disgust.
I was not a salesperson. I’m not a “hustler”. I’m not into snake oil. I don’t listen to Gary V. I’m not going to sell you this pen. I just want to get shit done and I want to know the technical nitty gritty and I want the customer solutions to work and I want the product to sell because it’s good, not because it was “sold”.
I watched Glengarry Glen Ross and The Wolf of Wall Street the night I received that advice: a sort of litmus test. Jonah Hill’s fake teeth and Alec Baldwin’s murderous (👀) fits of anger left me, to say the least, non-plussed.
But a few special people in my life encouraged me to take the plunge — and I would never look at the build and market side the same way again thereafter.
Discovering Technical Sales
In working my way up through the corporate ranks in the big leagues back towards PMM, I found myself in a technical pre-sales role.
For those unfamiliar, companies with larger and more complex product portfolios—not necessarily just software—often employ technical professionals who help map a potential customer’s complex needs to the specific products and services that the company sells.
Sometimes this can be considered “consulting”, but in a product-oriented world, it’s more accurately considered “solutioning”.
As a solution consultant, or a solution engineer, most of your time is spent learning the customer‘s business intimately so that you can correctly and carefully map the customer’s unique needs to your specific products.
When done well, this involves all of…
- Deep customer discovery
- Jobs-to-be-done definition
- Technical and enterprise architecture mapping
- Value proposition design
- Solution development
- Narrative deployment (e.g., presentations, demos, conferences, etc.)
- Stakeholder management
As I learned the trade over the interim years on the path back to PMM, I found myself confused. Were these not the jobs of the product marketer if not the product manager? Am I doing the exact same job I was doing as a PM and a PMM, only with product that was already built?
The thought was fleeting as I proceeded to execute on the above as a solution engineer for two and a half years before returning to PMM proper last year.
A few months of trying to do the above across varied industries and varied customers, from a single product-centric vantage point, ensued. Conference shows, analyst demos, messaging and positioning debates, enablement sessions, content reviews, campaign planning — all proceeded in turn.
Yet, I caught myself all too often staring out the window of the classroom towards the field beyond.
The Inflection Point
I stayed the course, though, until one day, while watching a Drift webinar, the following Venn Digram flashed on the screen:
I quit the webinar immediately. Drift was dead wrong, I thought, and the next and perhaps final phase of my career was, in that moment, solidified.
An experiential learner and late bloomer, I was stunned in revelation.
The intersection of product, marketing, sales, and customer success is not product marketing: it’s pre-sales.
I was already doing everything I loved about product marketing in the field as a solution engineer, with more specificity and fewer corporate complexities.
Product Marketing and Pre-Sales are stunningly similar — the former is simply more concerned with casting a broader, generalized narrative outward while the latter focuses on honing the narrative inward toward the specific language and nuances and concrete details of a given customer.
Pipe gen, campaign execution, positioning, messaging, enablement, GTM — all of these things are equally relevant and equally in the purview and control of both roles. Yet, the ability to deliver immediacy and relevancy to a customer, along with the direct control of the message and lack of political and organizational friction necessary to deliver it, is not possible as a PMM.
And I’ve yet to see a Product Marketer in the middle of a customer account helping to debug current implementation issues in order to pave the way for the stakeholder-driven direct sales pipe gen that yields this year’s big deal.
The best top, middle, and bottom funnel resources are those with insights, stories, and details generated by pre-sales. The best customer stories are born from strong pre-sales engagement before, and after, the sale. The best enablement? Run by pre-sales. The best voice of customer feedback and compete intel to guide the roadmap? The key data and insights needed to influence and push the GM to act? Take a guess.
And so was writ the third epoch of my career.
The Third Epoch
I began my career as a software developer. Though I had longed to be a writer, and I did spend much time as a technical writer early on, I spent my early years fixated on the build side, on the product: I was obsessed with the thing.
As I developed in my career, I became passionate about the problem. That led to the transition into product management, to help orient the build towards a real problem that was valuable to solve, and later product marketing, to help communicate the problem’s value-driving solution to the market.
Now, as I approach almost twenty years in the software industry, I find myself focused on the person. Who needs help and what do they need to get the job done? How can I use the things we have to solve the problem they have? And how can I communicate to them clearly, in and on their terms?
To me, the evolution seems natural, and while I will never fully abandon the build and the funnel and the tech and the process necessary to make the business I work for hum, it is the customer and the cure for their immediate and long-term ills that has me hyped to embrace this third epoch.
Product marketing isn’t dead, but it’s not for me. I’m a technical sales guy.
Now how do I win that Cadillac El Dorado?