Product-market fit (PMF) is a critical milestone for any startup, marking the moment when a product meets the needs of its target market effectively. 

While founders traditionally lead the charge towards PMF, there's a growing conversation about the potential role of product marketers (PMMs) in this early-stage process. 

This article explores various perspectives from industry experts on whether PMMs should be more involved in the journey to product-market fit and the value they can bring.

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The traditional view of product-market fit

Jessica Erven, Sales Enablement and PMM Consultant at GTMEnabler, provides insight into the traditional perspective: "PMMs are typically perceived as resources for scaling out, not defining." She explains that founders, being closest to the vision and customer interactions, are often seen as the best candidates to achieve the initial product-market fit. 

"V1 PMF should be mostly run by founders. Founders should be lean as heck, and do all the work they physically can until they define a market and get their first few customers," Jessica argues. 

This viewpoint underscores the belief that early-stage startups benefit more from a hands-on approach by founders rather than early investment in PMMs.

Challenging the status quo

Jesse Friedman, Product and Brand Strategy freelancer, raises a crucial question: "Why don't more product marketers talk about or find themselves in product-market fit discussions? Is it anything more than founders having tight budgets and misunderstanding our superpowers?" 

Here, Jesse advocates for PMMs to be involved much earlier in the process, suggesting that their skills in understanding both product and market dynamics could accelerate the path to PMF. 

"We have 'product' and 'market' in the name," he notes, highlighting the natural fit of PMMs in these early discussions.

Balancing founder-led and PMM contributions

Ken Oestreich, Founder at Fountainhead Product Marketing, supports the idea that PMMs can add significant value even in the early stages. He states, "Most smaller companies don’t understand PMF at all… they only see things through sales and marketing (and don’t tie-back to product, value, engagement, active-use, CAC, etc.). 

“There is a time to seek PMF and then seek growth." Ken’s viewpoint is that PMMs can help bridge the gap between early adopters and the broader market, ensuring that the product evolves to meet the needs of a wider audience.

Courtesy of Ken Oestreich 

In reference to the graph, Ken explains you must, “understand your value, your audience, and your market. Be able to specifically articulate it to a clear audience. Then and only then, invest in repeatable scale and growth.”

Fractional and contract PMMs: A middle ground

One solution proposed by Jesse Friedman is the use of fractional or contract PMMs. "What if the pre-PMF PMM is fractional/contract/etc.? That way, you can benefit from insight and some hands-on work without the commitment (and dilution) of an FTE (full time equivalent)," he suggests. 

This approach allows startups to leverage the expertise of PMMs without the full-time commitment, providing a balanced solution that addresses budget constraints while still benefiting from professional marketing insights.

Evolving perspectives on product-market fit

The conversation also touches on the evolving nature of PMF. As Jessica Erven notes, "Product-market fit is not at all a 'one and done' event... it is literally evolving constantly." This iterative process means that the role of PMMs in continuously refining and adjusting the product-market strategy can be invaluable. 

Ken Oestreich adds, "Since product-market fit isn’t one-and-done (but a continual process) we have to continually sense and adjust for PMF. And we also need to know how to scale when we’re solidly in PMF."

A case for early product marketing involvement

While some argue against early PMM involvement, others see clear benefits. 

Nicolaas Spijker, Growth Marketer at Bash, who also works as a fractional PMM, highlights the practical advantages: "There is no denying that brainstorming or getting some additional external help really speeds things up and increases the chance of finding PMF earlier on massively." 

Nicolaas suggests that breaking PMF up in stages depending on growth and business progress makes the framework more actionable for founders. Even limited PMM involvement can lead to significant progress in the early stages of a startup.

Final thoughts 

The debate over the role of PMMs in achieving PMF reflects broader questions about the optimal paths to early startup success. While traditional views favor a founder-led approach, there's a compelling case for involving PMMs earlier, either through fractional roles or short-term engagements. 

As the startup ecosystem evolves, so too must the strategies for achieving and sustaining PMF, potentially opening the door for PMMs to play a more integral role from the outset.

If you’re a founder or a product marketing manager, consider how these insights might apply to your startup. 

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