The basics

Name: Josh Zywien
Location: Boston, MA
Title: Director of Product Marketing
Company: SmashFly
Education: BA, English Journalism / Economics
Social handles: LinkedIn

Tell us about your path into the tech world and your product marketing role.

It’s a bit of an untraditional journey. I started college as a math major, but graduated with a degree in journalism and a minor in economics (basically, I can’t make my mind up about what I want to be when I grow up). That led several newspaper and media jobs, until I eventually left that industry in 2009.

In 2010, I was introduced to a Boston-based VC firm — OpenView — through a friend and helped it build out one of the earliest examples of a truly useful content marketing hubs in the industry. Long story short, that led me down a path into tech startups and eventually to a role owning sales enablement at one of OpenView’s portfolio companies — an HR tech startup called SmashFly, where I now serve as the Director of Product Marketing.

How did you know product marketing was for you?

I come from a family of engineers and technical minds, so I’ve spent my entire life trying to decode and interpret their brains. That’s also a key skill in journalism. Often times, you’re not the subject matter expert — you’re the person responsible for understanding the foundational elements of a story, putting the right lens on them, and communicating that story to a particular audience.

For me, product marketing aligns with that comfort zone. I can leverage my creative background and skills, but in a far different way than more traditional marketing roles.

How would you describe product marketing? To a peer? To your parents?

I have a saying I use within our company: “Simplicity over complexity. Context over content. Insight over ideas.” I think that sums up a really diverse, complex role pretty well.

It’s not a product marketers job to simply pass technical requirements and product details to internal and external audiences. Instead, it’s to interpret that information for particular audiences and put it into a context that makes sense. Also, it’s not that ideas aren’t useful. But I believe a product marketer’s job is to deliver insight that helps someone properly frame a particular feature, competitor, or industry shift.

What challenges are you currently facing as a product marketer in your current role?

Resources and time. Our product and our market seems to change every month, which makes it a challenge to keep up with product enhancements, market changes, and competitive intel.

Internal communication can also be a challenge. We’re a startup, but we’re growing rapidly and internal teams all have their own preferences for how to share and receive information. One of my big projects right now is standardizing our information sharing process — ensuring all product and market information is filtered through product marketing before it reaches internal and external audiences. This gives my team the opportunity to ensure the right filter or lens is applied to it, and the right content formats are delivered to specific audiences.

What’s your secret to staying productive?

For me, it’s really simple: Calendar management.

At the start of every week, I’ll block out hours of time throughout the week for the regular activities that ensure I’m educated and informed — on product updates, company strategy, market news, competitive movement, etc. If I don’t do that, my calendar can quickly fill up with meetings and ad-hoc projects, making it impossible to complete the foundational work of product marketing.

What’s your favorite recent read?

It’s not a new book, but Ben Horowitz’s “The Hard Thing About Hard Things” is a must-read for anyone in a go-to-market function. The book is chock full of practical advice on how to build and grow a business.

Another great one is, “Experiences: The 7th Era of Marketing” by Robert Rose and Carla Johnson. If you believe marketing is so much more than top-of-funnel demand generation, you’ll be clapping the entire way through this book. Robert and Carla make a pretty damn compelling argument for Marketing playing critical roles in a customer’s entire experience — from their first touch with the brand, to the way a product is packaged and priced, to the first interaction post-purchase.

What’s your advice to someone interested in breaking into product marketing?

First, expose yourself to as many parts of an organization as possible. If you come from a Product background, spend some time in Marketing, Sales, and Customer Success — either in a specific role or by shadowing those teams. If you come from Marketing, invest time into understanding Sales — what do reps care about, what’s their process, what do they need to be effective?

For a Product Marketer to be successful, they need to understand the business — the economics and mechanics of it, the people who support it, and the various roles required to take something to market.

Second, get familiar with (and learn to love) customer and market research. If you don’t have a background in it, read as much as you can about effective tactics and strategies to learn as much as you can about customer needs, pains, preferences, use cases, etc. The better you understand your market, the easier it will be to develop messaging, product packaging, and pricing that resonates.

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