Average PMs discover customer problems and create elegant solutions to those problems with software. Building products is what they’re best at.
Great PMs recognize that building a good product is table stakes and that the way to truly differentiate themselves is by taking a strategic approach to how customers or users find and adopt their products.
In other words, great PMs shift left on go to market, considering and developing their distribution strategy while they’re still prioritizing problems to solve, long before a PRD is written, let alone a line of code.
And they build better products because of it.
For much of the history of professional software development, development has been a linear process, starting with requirements gathering and ending with a product launch.
Historically, QA testing happened right before Launch in one big batch. Testers would hunt for bugs, send lists of them back to the developers, and then the developers would fix them until the CEO got impatient enough to just launch the damn thing already.
In modern software development, “shifting left” means testing and addressing issues earlier in the development process — and doing it continuously rather than in one big step. Instead of waiting, for example, until launch to address security issues, developers address these issues during the design phase.
They do this because they know that bugs and architectural mistakes get orders of magnitude more expensive to fix as the development process proceeds.
The same is true for thinking about Go to Market. The longer you wait, the more costly your incorrect assumptions become.
Go to Market
“Go to Market” is a catch all term for the process of bringing a product to market and making it available to customers.
Depending on whom you ask, a good GTM strategy might include one or more of: market analysis, compelling positioning, a pricing strategy, a distribution plan, messaging and branding, competitive research, enablement for customer onboarding and support, and a detailed plan for measuring and analyzing key performance indicators (KPIs) throughout the launch process.
Although I use it often, I don’t love the term “go to market.” First, it’s vague — there are as many conceptions of what it comprises as there are practitioners. Worse, it takes the business’ point of view: the focus is on the company moving the product, rather than on the customer receiving it.
It can be tempting to categorize GTM as a “businessy” function and thus focus on what the business needs, but activating your customer empathy is just as important in GTM as it is in designing great products.
First time founders are obsessed with product.— Justin Kan ❄️ (@justinkan) November 7, 2018
Second time founders are obsessed with distribution.
Just as you would in coming up with a new product solution, put yourself in the mind of your customer — not abstractly, but on a specific day in a specific place doing specific tasks — and ask yourself:
- Where do I (and my peers) spend time online or in person?
- Where and how do I discover products in this category?
- What's my thought process when I learn about a new one?
- How do I like to evaluate new products?
- If you're cross-selling your new product through an existing product — what features am I using that might trigger me to want to try this new thing?
GTM considerations are not ancillary. They are not extra. How your product is discovered and adopted is part of the product. Furthermore, these considerations are not Someone Else’s Job. If nobody finds your product, if nobody chooses to use it, your great solution and all of the work that went into it will have been wasted.
Once you begin acting as though GTM is your job (it is), you’ll find that you have better ideas not only about how, where, and when to distribute your product, but actually about what to build.
Building better products
Let’s take a look at a few specific examples of how shifting left on go to market can help you build better products.
The product is the distribution
Imagine it’s 2010. You’re looking for a short-term room rental. The pickins are slim, but at least you know there’s one place you can go to find them: Craigslist, at the time the website for classified ads of all types.
You click one of your Craigslist search results, and upon opening it, see the most beautiful Craigslist ad you’ve ever laid eyes on. Photos, nice formatting, good writing. And in that ad, you see a link to another website, Airbedandbreakfast.com, which has even more beautiful photos of the apartment, an insurance policy, a safe way of exchanging money with the landlord, and a fantastic search function to help you find more apartment listings.
Craigslist cross-posting was Airbnb’s marquee product feature.
The Airbnb folks knew from day one that, in order to displace a marketplace as ubiquitous as Craigslist without ballooning their customer acquisition costs, they’d have to create a solution that would grow their distribution organically.
Of all their great product work, Airbnb’s most important innovation was building distribution into the product. The product distributed itself by piggybacking on the reach of its biggest competitor.
Without that distribution, without allowing go to market to shape their product, none of the rest matters, not Airbnb’s secure payments platform, nor their vast UX advantages, nor their beautiful photos.
Prototype your positioning to drive prioritization
One of the most important ways to shift left on GTM is to “prototype” your positioning while you’re generating and prioritizing solutions. (If you only take one of these examples to heart, make it this one.)
Positioning is defining, in your customers’ and potential customers’ minds, where your product stands in relation to other products in your market.
Yours truly, in the Cynical PM Framework
Even as you’re drawing your first napkin sketches, do what I call The Website Test. Spend an hour writing the copy for your new product’s marketing site. Write the tagline. Come up with pithy lines for a few of its key benefits. The Website Test is a lot like Amazon’s press release first process, but tighter. In some ways, it’s harder to be pithy. In others, it’s easier. Choose the method that works for you, but choose one.
Having a hard time? Better to have that hard time now than after you’ve already built the thing. Get input. Collaborate. With your peers and with your (potential) customers. This is an opportunity, not a burden.
Most importantly: do you find yourself wishing that you could make a positioning statement that you don’t think your current plans justify (yet)? Good news: you’re the product manager; you can change that. Allow the positioning exercise to help you hone in on where the value is, then build that.
User experience continuity
In your ads and in product marketing, you set your potential customers’ expectations about what they’re going to get from your product and your company.
Those expectations are part of the user experience of your product. They are your first chance to shape your user’s mental model of how to use your product and, critically, how it delivers value to them.
One of my favorite examples of this kind of expectation-setting is Apple’s positioning for the original AirPods. From the press release:
AirPods eliminate the hassles of wireless headphones, by just flipping open the lid of its innovative charging case and with one tap, they are instantly set up and ready to work with your iPhone and Apple Watch.
The press release is the user guide. This is the apex of shifting left on go to market.
But, Frank, you might protest, my product has a lot more inherent complexity than AirPods, to which I’d respond: then it’s even more important that you think about go to market earlier.
Your UX design partners are experts in delivering products that fit (and shape) the mental model of your users. Why not equip them with more information about that mental model — i.e., the expectations you want to set and shape in your positioning — so that they can design an incredible onboarding and product experience that fits those expectations like a glove.
Knowing your customer by articulating your GTM strategy earlier allows you to ensure you internalize the value they want from your product, speak to that value in your marketing, and design an onboarding flow that gets them to the point of that value as quickly as possible.
An antipattern, for example
How do you feel when you’re using some app, cruising along, when all of a sudden some modal window pops up trying to upsell you on something?
These modals are sometimes effective, but they’re always horrible. They interrupt users and they’re usually contextually irrelevant. They are a brute force upsell method, bolted on after the fact. YouTube is notorious for interrupting users with a YouTube Premium upsell modal right as you’re trying to watch a video.
Don’t get me wrong — they work. But these modals are the result of ignoring go to market for too long.
Shifting left on GTM creates opportunities for you to consider much more elegant ways to inform users about new products or features while still driving conversions.
Take one of my favorite apps, Canva, for example, which includes upsell CTAs for Canva Pro features in context, where you’d normally use them.
In discovering the Backround Removal tool (see screenshot), I was already looking for effects for my video. I tapped it intentionally. I was in control, the upsell was featured contextually, and I happily paid for it. Because I needed it.
Call to action
Are you a PM? Go to Market is your job. Are you a founder? Go to Market is your oxygen.
Working on a PRD right now? Coming up with a new startup idea?
As soon as you’re done reading here, I want you to go into your PRD or into Notion or into your stack o’ napkins and add a Go to Market section. Then, I want you to think back to all of your customer conversations and user research and get really clear with yourself and your team about how those customers are going to adopt your product.
Then, think: what is one thing we could improve in the product to help align it with how (not just why) our customers purchase software like ours?
Let me know how it goes.
I’ve highlighted a handful of examples of how successful product companies avoid “bugs” in their go to market by shifting left (and a few counterexamples for good measure), but we’ve just scratched the surface. I’d love to feature additional examples in a future post. Comment below or shoot me an email to share your favorites!