As a product marketer, if you are stressed or feel like an imposter, you are not alone.
Besides all of the deadlines, lack of understanding of what you do, or general mentorship, many of us PMMs experience a broader tension: What level am I supposed to be at? What’s the path for me?
Unfortunately, I can say with confidence that more than 50% of startup PMM roles are wrongly leveled. This is a real problem, both for businesses and for employees.
Navigating Your Product Marketing Career Map
To help solve this issue, I am excited to share the Startup PMM Career Roadmap. By creating this, I hope to help you, current PMMs, and job seekers, understand what title you should target based on your experience and career goals.
So let’s dive in to understand this map in more detail.
Two Factors for Career Growth in Product Marketing
To begin, growing and advancing in product marketing is a balance between 2 factors. The first is the amount of guidance and oversight needed (Y-axis), and the second is strategic work opportunity (X-axis). As you progress in your career, you will (generally) need to do more strategic work and be increasingly independent.
The Four Main Roles in Product Marketing
Based on the mix of these 2 factors, there’s a natural progression of four main roles in product marketing:
1. The BEGINNER (Associate PMM)
This is a role for someone with 2-4 years of total work experience. Look for this kind of role if you’re just getting started in your career and trying to break into product marketing. Companies generally hire for this role if there is a lot of tactical work that needs to be done.
You should get plenty of guidance and mentorship in this role (from a Director or Sr PMM), given you will need to be trained from the ground up. Offering this level of guidance is often not a priority for leaders, which is one of the reasons I believe there are very few Associate PMM roles on the market.
2. The KICKSTARTER (PMM)
This is the traditional starting point for product marketing. However, that doesn’t mean it’s an entry-level job. PMMs generally have 4-7 years of total work experience, since they need to be capable of supporting large strategic projects such as positioning and messaging while executing multiple projects (sales enablement, product launches, etc).
Leaders should aim to spend 30-70% of their time coaching PMMs to help them gain confidence and navigate more complex projects. As a PMM, evaluate whether you are getting the amount of guidance you need to succeed in the role. Based on my discussions with hundreds of PMMs, lack of guidance is the #1 cause of stress for PMMs.
3. THE ADVANCER (Sr PMMs).
Sr PMMs are experienced individual contributors who have mastered the core areas of product marketing. They are expected to launch Tier 1 products with minimal support, design and implement research studies on their own, and meaningfully contribute to positioning and messaging work.
Leaders should aim to spend ~20-30% of their time coaching Sr PMMs. They are also generally high performers with a clear track to becoming a leader. If you are a Sr PMM, ask yourself if you are being given the scope that will stretch and help you grow.
4. THE LEADER (Director of Product Marketing)
The Director needs to be a people manager. While most Directors need to roll up their sleeves and become players/coaches to some degree, this role is distinguished by leading other product marketers and owning the entire PMM function for the company (or product line).
As a Director, you will set the strategy, liaise with other teams, and mentor your reports. You will generally not require much oversight from senior leadership and are the functional head entirely responsible for the results of your team. The coaching from senior leadership is likely focused on executive functions (communication skills and people management), rather than core PMM skills. The expectation is that you are already a master of your craft.
Special Cases in the Product Marketing Career Path
This is the standard leveling and path at most startup companies—anywhere from Series A to IPO—but I’ll include a few caveats:
The First PMM: At very early-stage companies, the founders or general head of marketing will likely complete product marketing functions. The level of the first hire will depend on the company’s needs, but I would be cautious about seeking this kind of position unless you are a Director level (so you can implement a strategic plan immediately) or Sr PMM level (so you can do the hands-on work and grow into a strategic role when it’s time to expand the team). A mistake would be joining as a junior PMM, as they may be expecting you to replace the role of the founders.
Head of PMM: This is simply a title used to call the person at the top of the PMM food chain, which could be at the Director or VP level (confusing, I know!) The VP-level title is a natural progression from the Director level and generally is present at later-stage startups only.
The IC PMM: What if you want to be an individual contributor, rather than progress up the management ranks? That’s totally fine. People who want to pursue that track generally take Sr. PMM roles and can have a great career there. However, given the collaborative and cross-functional nature of product marketing, even an IC PMM needs to be able to work well with other people.
With those outlier situations explained, I hope you have a good understanding of how these roles progress. But if you are looking to find your place in the PMM world, there are two particular anti-patterns to watch for.
Anti-Patterns to Watch Out For
1. The Stressed-Out Doer (PMM without enough support)
This is a very common case I see. This could be a Sr PMM or even PMM asked to manage a large number of tactical projects with little oversight.
They are hired with the promise of ownership, but that ownership came at the cost of real mentorship which they need. People in this position often just take orders from the Sales team or launch what’s needed, but don’t have the expertise to develop the PMM functions that companies really need.
If you find yourself in this situation, seek out mentorship or coaching. If this is not available within your organization, ask around in your network for product marketers who might be able to advise you. There are lots of great resources available online. I’d recommend ShareBird—or, you can always set up a call with me!
2. The Glorified IC (PMM leader, but only in title)
This is someone who has the title of Director but has no authority. Maybe they are really not managing anyone, or perhaps they have an overbearing manager who makes all the strategic decisions above them.
Either way, it will be very hard to show value in this role and the person may feel bored or underutilized. Although this can be frustrating, it’s actually a great opportunity: Impress your boss by asking for more responsibilities and opportunities to make decisions.
Be Cautious but Optimistic
In summary, your career success and your mental health can be significantly affected by how well your role is designed, and how much support you are given. Comparing your current role and responsibilities to the Product Marketing Career Map above will help ensure you are at the right level and on the right path to be in the best place to succeed.
If you are a job seeker, spend time asking the hiring manager thoughtful question to really understand the scope and support they can provide you. If you get stuck, here is a set of reverse interview questions that can help.