Product vs. Marketing

Fred Wilson and Jim Keenan, two bloggers that I admire, had a couple of interesting blog posts over the last few weeks that have got me thinking. Fred’s post was titled Marketing and the Bubble and was a follow up to his controversial Marketing post.  In Marketing and the Bubble he uses the really interesting graph below (submitted by a commenter) to illustrate how in the last few years the pendulum of focus for startups has shifted towards product and away from marketing (the focus of the last bubble.)  Fred says:

 “…I am certain that experience has caused me and my partners to view marketing oriented startups with a fair bit of caution.”  

Pendulum of Product vs. Marketing Focus

Jim’s post is titled Product Surpasses Sales, the key line is:

“The Internet has shifted the balance of power from sales to product.  They’ve always worked together, but it has been sales leading the way.  Things have changed.  With the ubiquity of information, it’s the product that now leads sales.  A good, strong, innovative product is far more important today, than the best sales team in the world.”

Rather than taking a side in the debate over product versus marketing, I’d like to make two points that I think should be kept in mind:

  1. How much you prioritize marketing investment depends on your lifecycle stage, industry, product, customer base and the current market.  An early-stage biotechnology startup trying to develop a vaccine for bacterial infections likely needs to focus mostly on product.  A startup distribution company that resells telecommunications equipment to small businesses probably needs to prioritize their marketing.
  2. Regardless of the above, I believe that your best sales & marketing (externally facing) people should be doing two things: a.) supporting your product and product team by interacting with the market and early adopters, generating intelligence and identifying the products that your customers want but don’t yet know they want and b.) influencing customers and potential customers by telling stories that speed up the diffusion of your most innovative and next generation products into the market.  If you find that your product is so amazing that it gets ahead of your marketing people, it doesn’t mean that marketing isn’t a priority, it just means you need to get those people focused on the harder stuff -- the stuff that your product isn’t doing yet.