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Career Life Stories: Elain Szu, VP of Marketing at Narvar

Before beginning her role as VP of Marketing at Narvar, Elain Szu was Executive in Residence at Accel. In the following interview, we learn how studying economics and then management consulting led to her career in marketing, and she debunks some of the common myths about product marketing, as part of the Robert Walters Career Life Stories.

What does it mean to be an Executive in Residence?

It’s a great question because the role was really dependent on the person; as such, there really is no single definition. For me, I was part of the Accel family for over a decade. I was an early employee at Trulia and then as part of the early exec team at MoPub, where I had the privilege to get to know Rich Wong, who had been at the forefront of the mobile wave for over a decade. Jim Payne (MoPub’s CEO) actually found me through an Accel referral, so Rich and I just clicked very early as former management consultants and marketers.

When I was at Kellogg and working with Shasta Ventures, I spent a lot of time working with founders on their marketing challenges. It surfaced that there was a gap in the market for mental models for founders on how to approach marketing. After Twitter, I wanted to focus on sharing this advice at scale with startups through my blog. The EIR role has been a great platform to gather more data and pressure test some of these frameworks for founders. I’ve been doing everything from meeting entrepreneurs and evaluating companies to advising founders on their product-market fit and brand positioning, to hiring strategy and talent. It’s been a fantastic way to add value across many teams, get smart on a few new categories, and build some new relationships. It’s also organically allowed me to build a community of talented marketers, product experts, and founders that I think will help spread the product marketing gospel so to speak. For that, I’m eternally grateful to Rich and the team for all their support.

Elain Szu

How do you describe the role of a product marketer?

I think the function has unfortunately been a little bit of a red-headed step child in the Valley—partly because it’s not well understood and partly because the value is difficult to gauge. I’ve found that companies struggle with how to best utilize and focus the role of a product marketer, partly because the scope can be so broad. A PMM can be responsible for everything from strategy to tactics depending on the team and company. This might include positioning narratives, originating thought leadership content, building event narratives, customer insight, go-to-market planning, competitive research, creating sales collateral, internal product trainings, evangelism, pitch decks, case studies, talking points, video production. I find the list really bleeds depending on the other talent you have within the broader team, as well, not just in marketing, but also product, sales, and growth if that exists.

As with most marketing functions, the foremost goal is still to attract and acquire customers or users. This might extend into positioning the company to the broader market of partners, investors, etc. but a deep focus on users is paramount. I believe in tech that the best product marketers, or marketers in general, have a deep passion for and understanding of the product. The best ones, in my experience, have at least 80% as much knowledge about the product as product managers themselves. This knowledge allows them to understand what to emphasize and de-emphasize within the overall marketing strategy.

In B2B companies, product marketing tends to be sales-driven, revolving around product launches and sales enablement. In B2C companies, product marketers often focus on product launches and on enabling other channels like email, SEO, and content. In either case, product marketing, done well, is a critical asset, and done poorly, is considered merely as a support function. But to do it “well”, you can’t just be focused on sales enablement; you need to have the space and resources to do customer insight - both qualitative and quantitative, market research, and really know competitors. An under-resourced product marketing function will tend to drop the competitive research, which is absolutely critical to positioning your company and your platform in B2B effectively. This can then result in sluggish or even declining sales, as more agile and proactive competitors undercut you in your weak points. The best product marketers can represent the customer voice and market problem, and partner very closely with product management and design to help shape the solution that product managers ultimately need to own.

How did you go from studying economics and then management consulting to marketing?

Frankly, it’s not a very common path to marketing. But the common thread is really ingrained in my lens on the world. I’ve always had a fascination with psychology, and I’m naturally a pretty analytical person, so the application of data and structured analysis to explain patterns in human behavior has sort of been the driving force behind every phase in my career.

I started in management consulting because it was a fantastic crash course. You learn how to structure amorphous problems, get exposure to the c-suite, and how to take a diligent approach to complex problems and spaces. But I knew startups were my true calling, which had been my passion in college. I interviewed for a business analyst role at Trulia and it was actually the head of HR who suggested that I also interview for a marketing role, as well. The then Head of Marketing, Heather Fernandez, saw my inner marketer perhaps and took a chance on me.

I ended up being almost a mini-GM of email at Trulia. I looked after everything from the product management to the content strategy, but marketing really became my passion. Being a PM was compelling because you get to own the solution, but I’ve always felt more driven by owning the user problem and the market. When I look at the media, the markets, or startups in general, my mind goes to the market opportunity, codifying their customers’ problems in my head, the psychology behind the pain points being expressed, and the uniqueness of the technology used to solve them - all of which fall more into the marketing domain if you had to classify them as one function.

What’s the biggest misconception about the role of a product marketer?

Misconception #1: Product marketing is purely qualitative, not quantitative.

I think this one is starting to change with Growth, paid acquisition, and the rise of marketing attribution tools like Marketo, etc. but this has been the biggest gaping hole specifically for tech marketing since the first dot com boom. I think the best approaches have to include both the quantitative and qualitative angles, and healthy iteration involving both. A good product marketer should able to set a strategy aligned with broader company metrics like sales or acquisition, use analytics to support their proposed go-to-market strategy, and evaluate the ROI of various campaigns. The challenge still is that changing consumer or business perception and thus behavior takes time - at least when you’re doing it at scale. Which means it may take much longer than a single sales cycle, before all the fruits of your labor become clear. Marketers have to be able to persuade management of both short term indicators of a campaign’s relative success, and that this longer term benefit is yet to come and will continue to reap rewards for some months, possibly even years in some cases.

Misconception #2: Anyone can do marketing.

If you’re not an engineer, chances are you’re not going to touch coding at all at your company. And yet, there are plenty of companies where other functions are involved in marketing. This can take the form of writing a blog to actually managing the marketing function altogether. There are many downstream problems with this, most of which I plan to cover in my blog, but the most basic takeaway is that just because you can write a blog post, newsletter, or name a new product, it doesn’t mean that you know the optimal and most effective ways to competitively position, develop resonant messaging, or how to maximize the leverage of a campaign like someone who is trained as marketer.

Misconception #3: Good content is easy

This is tied very closely to the previous point, but high quality content is incredibly hard. It’s difficult to create and doesn’t happen overnight; as most good executives know, it’s probably three-five times easier to edit something than to originate it, and that’s just evaluating the time let alone the mental effort. A single “genius” advertisement, for instance, is usually the result of hundreds of iterations. A clear and concise blog post for a product launch is the consequence of weeks of editing.

Great marketers are like professional athletes in a sense. Those at the top of their game, make complexity appear effortless and obvious to the customer, partners, and the market. Put another way, if you ask a product manager or sales person to write collateral without this lens, it can have a much more pernicious effect on your company brand as the impact snowballs over time.

Can you talk a little bit about your experience as a female leader in Silicon Valley

Gender bias is one of the strongest biases in history, and though we are making progress, I’d be surprised if it ever fully goes away as cynical as that sounds. I think the more interesting question is how can we leverage our gender differences to develop a more robust perceptual map of human needs and emotions and a worldview that is more representative of reality. I recently watched the Obama interview on David Letterman’s new show where he discusses how racial biases were rooted in false biological distinctions between blacks and whites. And suddenly the obvious comparison clicked for me. Gender biases are much tougher to overcome because to some extent, they are rooted in both obvious and implied biological differences. The problem is that we also have plenty of similarities in our neurology for example, which are still being discovered by neuroscientists. Ideologically, the best solution is obviously for us to focus on the individual rather than the group, but that’s clearly not an overnight shift in thinking. So the only way to really get past the bias then is to encourage people to celebrate differences.

Over the course of my career, I’ve noticed people tend to fall into two camps on the topic of gender equality. One camp chooses to completely ignore the male-female differences, biases, or gender discrimination and overlooks any differences - good or bad - which is short-sighted and just isn’t realistic in society these last few years. The other camp believes we should be talking about inclusion, diversity, and ‘leveling the playing field’ as often as possible. My experience is that the latter can be alienating in its own way.

No matter your philosophy on the topic, though, my assumption is that most women have experienced at least some degree of gender discrimination.

Aside from being groped and verbally harassed, I’ve been instructed to hire a male since I am in a ‘female’ function and asked to help out with recruiting because my ‘look’ would draw in applicants. When I was 23, I received feedback from a more senior male member of my consulting team that I should try to smile more because I come across intense when asking questions or delivering analysis. I took his feedback seriously at the time because, of course, I didn’t want to come across unfriendly or intense. This is pretty typical feedback that women get—that we should be polished, friendly, and soft. Looking back, though he didn’t intend it as such, his feedback was, by definition gendered, since what he communicated was that people didn’t want to hear what I have to say unless I say it with a smile.

Despite these negative encounters, I still think there needs to be some level of empathy toward men who have the right intentions. Specifically young men when they are teens and still shaping their world view. But even baby-boomers or millennials, who may be the most well-intentioned peers, fathers, husbands, or brothers. While everyone may agree now that change needs to happen, it doesn’t usually mean they have a deep understanding of how or the resources and emotional tools to change the way they communicate overnight. In addition, there is a clear double-standard at play when it comes to gender biases. We hear a lot about how there aren’t enough woman at the top of tech companies, entertainment, or politics, or at the partner level within venture capital, but why aren’t we also talking about why most administrative roles are occupied by females? I don’t think there is a shortage of males who would be interested. Similarly, there are also fewer men being brought in for entry-level roles, so I think we need to be mindful that every bias has an inverse challenge.

Unfortunately, there are also many studies that demonstrate that women also exhibit the same gender biases, albeit not to the same extent and not when it comes to sexual misconduct or assault. But women, too, are susceptible to the same mistakes, and it’s particularly clear as you rise up through the ranks and observe women managers and leaders’ treatment toward their reports. This isn’t a mental framework that’s only unique to men. The problem lies in a mentality and set of social constructs with which we’ve been raised, men and women alike.

What advice do you have for other young females in or on a path to leadership positions?

The balance that I would recommend to others, and that I strive for, is to acknowledge but not overly fixate your mind on the differences between us whether those be differences in gender, race, or age. Your differences should be celebrated and embraced because they represent a different perspective that will ultimately lead to better analysis, better product, better decision-making, better team, and better company. Wherever possible, work toward finding similarities with people. There are plenty of sociology experiments that point to shared experiences as the true source of bonding between individuals. So finding common ground with your colleagues, whether that’s through activities or projects will only strengthen your relationship beyond gender expectations and roles.

There is a short video on twitter featuring an interview with Secretary Hilary Clinton prior to her presidential race which is packed with incredible advice for young females regarding the need to develop thick skin and an ability to listen to critics. (Link to the video here.) She delivers a powerful message, and regardless of political affiliation, I highly recommend it. She does an excellent job driving home that women, especially, should not allow critics to destroy your confidence.

What is one question that you always ask candidates who are interviewing?

One question, specific to product marketing, which I like to as is:

Let’s say tomorrow I tell you we are considering launching product X and that you’re responsible for the success. What would you need to know from me?

It’s very opened-ended and unstructured. It’s a good way to assess someone’s product interest, project management skills, intellectual curiosity, and how they think.

A good product marketer can ask and answer ‘why?’

As we wrap up our discussion today, what are some resources (books, podcasts, blogs, etc) you would recommend to someone growing their knowledge around leadership and marketing?

Much of my personal lens on marketing is tied to psychology and understanding human behavior, so I find it useful to consume as much information as possible on the intersection of psychology, sociology, and philosophy.

I’m an endlessly curious person so being able to understand the “why” behind human behavior is critical to my learning. As far as blogs go, I think ‘Wait But Why’ does an excellent job dissecting a particular market of customers and highlighting the most pertinent parts to remember.

Farnam Street is also an excellent read, focusing more on mental models. It may not be marketing per se but it’s a great way to shape your thinking to be more analytical about initiatives if you don’t have a background in consulting or finance.

I’m also a big podcaster due to all the commuting time between meetings these days. One of my favorites are ‘Hurry Slowly’, which is fantastic in helping you find ways to be more creative and is also really inspirational as an investor.

Books-wise, I personally love Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, the father of heuristics. In it, he breaks down decision making biases and framing methods that every good marketer would probably understand deeply.

On a practice level, Grammar Girl is a blog which shares a daily grammar tip. The more I write, the more I appreciate a strong command of the English language beyond our daily tech media. Poor grammar can also be hugely distracting if you’re owning the creation and publication of any kind of content - which as a marketer, you’d better be owning.

On the grammar nerd subject, there is also this fantastic NPR piece by Geoff Nunberg called After Years Of Restraint, A Linguist Says 'Yes!' To The Exclamation Point. He basically talks about the way we over-analyze the way we write, especially when it comes to exclamation points. It’s funny, well-written, and it has an interesting message about how our writing communication and culture has evolved.

Finally, some marketers may want to check out a Stanford course called The Creative Habit which is an extended learning class about cultivating a daily writing practice.

If you’re interested in learning more about Elain, you can access her LinkedIn profile here, and if you’d like to read more career stories from other tech leaders, check out the following interviews: Emily Eagon from Medium, Anjali Jameson at Rally Health, and Caroline Ingeborn at Toca Boca.