Why You Need New Roles And Skills For Product-led Growth
October 13, 2022
This is the first in a three-part blog series on the roles and skills needed for product-led growth. Check back in the coming weeks for additional installments.
Product-led growth (PLG) companies need to organize differently than sales-led growth companies. Roles need to connect to the product, users’ experience of the product, and how users are getting value. In sales-led companies, revenue generation is typically organized as a set sequence of steps. Contrast that with PLG companies, which operate more dynamically with many activities happening in parallel.
These days, more conventional B2B SaaS companies are looking at how they can add a PLG dimension to their growth. However, PLG is not just about offering a free trial or dedicating people and time to user experience. PLG teams need autonomy if they are to succeed and provide sales with product-qualified leads (PQLs).
PLG companies want to layer in sales, and sales-led growth companies want to add product-led growth motions. But these two distinct types of growth models require different roles and skills to be successful. How do you break down the differences to figure out what you need?
It’s about roles, not jobs
Product-led growth requires a more adaptive and responsive organization than any traditional go-to-market (GTM) approaches. There is a constant influx of data, on top of comments and ideas from users that need to be absorbed and acted upon.
Any PLG organization worth its salt needs to double down on agility, in terms of the product, its people, and its business strategy. And meeting these priorities requires a different approach to talent management.
Rather than focusing on filling in jobs, job descriptions and job competencies, PLG companies need people that can help them cover a diverse number of skills, and a business that can also prioritize any upcoming development needs. Additionally, companies will want to do these in new ways and avoid hiring solely based on past experience or formal training.
Simply put, most people in product-led growth companies tend to play multiple roles, with their roles not strictly defined by their job.
In fact, roles can take more than one form:
- A job as a bundle of different roles.
- Different roles on various project teams.
- Ad-hoc roles, i.e., “I am doing this off the side of my desk.”
- Community roles, which cannot be strictly defined from within the company.
Understanding and supporting all four of these role types is important in product-led growth, as they connect all across the customer journey.
PLG is about parallel growth, not linear growth
Matt Ryall, previously the head of product at Atlassian, developed a nice growth flywheel that captures the essence of product-led growth.
There are three key verbs here: try, invite, and use. Each one needs roles to support it. And at the center is the product. In product-led growth, it makes sense for everything to revolve around the product. When the product guides growth and adoption, most companies tend to change the way they view any roles and skills needed for product management.
As mentioned earlier, PLG roles are not just for people in marketing and sales. These new roles can start in product innovation and flow through to customer success and the creation and support of user communities, not unlike a water wheel.
In sales-led growth companies, growth is generally thought of as a linear process. Marketing gets leads, sales closes deals, there is an implementation phase, and then customer success ensures that the customer is getting value, and that subscriptions are renewing.
In product-led growth, it’s natural for all of these activities to happen in tandem. The parallel processing nature of PLG demands new skills and roles in order to truly implement it as a successful growth model. So, it makes sense that a role-based model works better than a job-based model.
PLG relies on automation
Product-led growth works best when it is low-touch and frictionless. So it will depend on automation, data analysis, and user experience design. It’s even more so dependent than typical sales-led growth products, where the sales team performs a mediating function, by gathering information and communicating value.
The 7 key roles of PLG
A matrix approach can help PLG companies to organize roles and share knowledge throughout the evolution of the business. Trapping knowledge in silos is never good, and in PLG it can be fatal.
Here is a simple Function x Role Matrix that you can build on in your own organization. As you might expect, one person can play more than one role and more than one person can share a role.
The seven roles identified above can be divided into many sub roles, and each company will have its own way of doing this. Flexibility is part of adaptation. Let’s look at the basic responsibilities of these seven roles and what they are expected to deliver to the company.
As an offer matures and moves from early adopters to maturity, roles will also be expected to evolve and move around the org. In some cases people will move across functions, roles being handed off from one person to another, and the role may even be shared for a time.
Roles: Product manager, innovation manager
This is often the role of the product group, as innovation creates the software that delivers PLG. Innovation can be varied, like the following:
- Creating whole new categories of software (such as the AI content generation platforms like Open.ai’s Dall-E or Stable Diffusion from Stability.ai).
- Disrupting existing categories with new value metrics and pricing metrics.
- Restructuring value chains by eliminating or combining links.
- Sustaining innovation where incremental improvements are made to existing solutions.
Roles: Value manager, value analyst, pricing manager, pricing designer
Innovation needs to be directed. And where does innovation best shine? When it offers a solution to a problem, and creates value for a user.
Involving a value and pricing role as part of innovation and product development is an emerging best practice. People in these roles contribute to the design and documentation of the value paths supported by the product.
In practical terms, people in pricing and value roles can also structure packages, a free trial, or help develop the freemium offer that is so important in product-led growth.
Roles: Content marketing, social marketing, search engine optimization/marketing
Successful PLG starts with an initial touchpoint through demand generation. The best companies know how to harness search engine optimization and content marketing to address a pain point any potential users might have. There are loads of ways these roles can bleed into each other, if they all focus on helping consumers to consider both the problem and solution at the same time.
User experience (UX)
Roles: Service design, user experience design, customer experience design
Over the past decade, user experience has emerged as a design discipline distinct from user interaction (UI) design. UX is a more holistic discipline that is concerned with the end-to-end use of a product to complete value paths. It is not about the placement of buttons or the design grid that organizes the screen, but how to design things that work for the user without pain or friction.
Roles: Customer success, user success, customer engagement, user engagement
Customer success is usually a reactive function, where people respond to incoming support requests. User engagement—as noted by its name—is more proactive, engaging with users to help them complete value paths and to achieve their goals.
People in user experience roles are fed data from use of the product and design interventions that are triggered in response to specific usage patterns.
Role: Community manager
Many successful product-led growth companies have created user communities around their product. In some cases, the community exists within the product itself (think Slack), and in other cases, the community is external to the product itself but hooks strongly back into the product.
Roles: Data analyst, data visualization
Product-led growth is all about data, data, data. The product itself creates lots of data, as do the different marketing efforts, and the supporting community. In some cases, external data from social media apps is also important (like what people saying about your product). Making sense of this data is a critical part of this growth motion.
Data collection needs to be designed into the product from the beginning. This can be done directly or through third-party monitoring and support applications, but it should not be an afterthought.
Where do you begin? Start by defining roles
To get started building an organization that benefits from product-led growth, you absolutely need to begin with roles. Don’t get caught up with jobs or where the role fits in the organization.
Remember, roles can be fluid, moving from one business function to another as the solution matures and gains market traction. More than one person can fulfill a role, as a way to initially cover any skill gaps. It also bears repeating that the same person can and will generally perform more than one role.
Not all roles have to be aggregated into jobs. Team roles, ad-hoc roles, even community roles can be more important than formal job roles.
5 key takeaways
- Define roles using skills needed to perform said role and what business impact is expected.
- Define what responsibility is required to manage the role.
- Match people to roles based on their skills and aspirations.
- When there are skill gaps (and there always are), decide how to cover them.
- Expect roles to migrate across business functions as the product matures.