Investment Trade-offs Between Go-To-Market and New Features

Imagine your most beloved Product Marketing leader armwrestling with your favorite Engineering leader. Does this really ever happen?  One of my most trusted leaders I have ever had the pleasure to work with once told me that you build products for the channels you plan to sell them through, optimizing the feature sets to provide customer value and the ability of the channel (sales guys, self service models etc.) to quickly sell a lot of your product licenses with little frictional costs. So the big issue becomes ‘What features do I need to build into my product for the channel I plan to sell through?’ How many features should I build strictly for the customer value and how many should I build to make it easy to go through the channel? At first glance there may be a lot of overlap in applicability of those two goals, but increasingly at the edges of the product backlog this question creeps into daily grooming.


Real life examples of tradeoffs include:

  • Building more product heterogeneity or make the pilot / proof of concept experience bullet proof?
  • Build more value for the economic buyer (such as reports or dashboard views) or make the product administrator’s job easier by providing an open data schema and tools for easy import/export?
  • Investing executive and key product leaders in building partnerships for go to market, or retiring engineering debt from an old module built years ago?
  • And so on

The first two points are clear product enhancements and capabilities that have value to both the go-to-market and the end user, but they tend to be more heavily weighed towards one or the other.   When we are prioritizing the backlog, we should be taking these distinctions into account, weighing the mass of prioritizing points against both equally valuable goals.  The high performing product leadership team should drive many of the trade-off decisions based upon the key business goals for this year/quarter.  The third point is one that is often overlooked.  Making a successful product means not just directing the engineering time/calories on the right features but also directing the leadership team towards the right investments on the playing field.

Does the Stage of the Company or Product Matter Here?

Recently I was biking with a close friend who has both an engineering and MBA background and we were discussing our careers with respect to our own individual competency, skill set and experience with respect to the stage a company is in.  For example most of my experience has been around products with at least $10-30M of revenue running in larger companies with that corporate dial tone that provides a lot of systemic support.  But I have also launched products from zero to $10M in four to six quarters and I have advised pre-series A companies as well.   As you are trading off go-to-market and engineering based features, does the stage of the product or the organization matter?   This is a difficult question.  My assertion is that for big companies, the organization has a way of driving the trade-off in directions that works for the company.  It does take some effort in the product leadership to get to the right answer, but the structure is there to solve the problem.

In smaller companies such as start-ups, there is no organizational pressure to make the right trade-offs.  The early leaders have to drive the right combination of feature development for customer needs versus items that help sell the production.  Additional investments need to be made in developing a repeatable marketing and sales model.  This would include collateral and assets as well as a defined customer engagement and sales process so that everyone is on the same page.  What does it take to move a customer from one stage to another?  It is here that early leaders need to participate strongly and work to synthesize and create the repeatable process.   At some point, as my experience has shown, there comes a day when the early leaders realize this and start investing their time and make the trade-offs in both the product and the company’s processes.

The Sales Playbook

One of the best tools I have found is for the early leaders to document their sales playbook.  It would be the document that you hand to your new marketing or sales resources that helps them understand the market space, the product, its value proposition, the buyers, the assets, the sales process and ultimately how to close business.   It is a mixture of the essential DNA of the company with a prescriptive approach on how to identify, nurture, get to trial/proof of concept and ultimately close business.  You can’t hedge your bets here, you need to be explicit about your assumptions and your investments.   If something is wrong, then change the DNA, don’t create a mishmash of strategy and execution for all eventualities.

Big companies have very detailed playbooks, but when it comes to small companies it is important to keep this the key information and processes.  Something you can go through with a new employee in 2 hours maximum.

What happens if you are not making trade-offs?

When all goes well you can see your product revenue and customer successes take off.  Thee are no short cuts or easy ways out.  If you don’t actively make these trade-offs you may find yourself in one of these situations:

  • An awesome product with the right tech stack and a mixture of features with no clear center
  • A few very early successes but no two customers are the same and your sales guys just don’t know where to begin finding customers
  • Unclear marching orders in sales and marketing mean you have churn in staffing
  • Engineering team goes after the feature of the day to close a deal

It is all not doom and gloom, but if you want to build a product with a long and successful future without drama or confusion, you and your product management collaborators need to work together with engineering and sales/marketing to make the right decision.


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