The Four Minds of a Product General Manager

Two years ago HubSpot made the decision to create General Manager roles that would be accountable for each of our three product lines (Marketing, Sales, and Service Hub).  The rationale was quite simple: it turns out we didn’t have a single DRI for an individual Hub, how it could and should be growing, how it competed in the market, etc. I was lucky enough to be the first external GM brought in (the other GM roles were filled by a few well-deserving internal superstars). Now that we are looking to expand the product portfolio, I wanted to shed some light on what it’s like to be a Product GM, both at HubSpot and beyond.  

4 Minds of a GM

In the most obvious sense, a good GM has to be of two minds, considering both Product and Go-to-Market in their day to day. The trick to being great is in your ability to overlay these considerations on top of both a near and long term horizons. This means you’ve got to divide your efforts across four different disciplines.  Here’s a handy 2x2 to help articulate it:

4minds

Let’s talk about what a GM might have to consider in each quadrant:

Mind 1:  Near Term GTM

In this state, it’s pretty obvious that a GM needs to spend their time making sure that the current product and the current positioning is being executed through the business in the right way. That means partnering with sales, marketing, and services leadership to help validate, reinforce, and improve the messaging and the way it’s brought to market. Additionally, it’s helping to make sure that the existing go to market motion, whether it be freemium or enterprise direct sales or other, is working effectively and whether there are levers that can be pulled to improve them. 

At HubSpot we execute on a freemium motion with a dash of enterprise selling sprinkled in, so you’d be right to assume that I spend a lot of my time digging in to make sure that the freemium funnel is working the right way and that the sales team is able to execute effectively.  GM’s should spend loads of time with front-line sales and service reps on everything from message testing to competitive intel to closing deals. At HubSpot we have the additional benefit of an incredible partner community to engage with. Partners are often one of the first places I go to dive deeper into an issue or brainstorm a new approach.

Mind 2:  Near Term Product

On the “product” side of the near term horizon, having some product management chops becomes really valuable in order to help guide and enable your product teams. In HubSpot’s case product management reports up to the GM and we have general accountability and oversight of the product delivery. However, one of the things that makes HubSpot great is that the product teams (along with engineering and design counterparts) are highly autonomous. So the role of the GM ends up being to provide a set of goals and guardrails to those teams so that they can execute independently.  The role of the GM is not to “seagull” in and make product recommendations or bring their pet rocks to the team to prioritize over other things. My team is probably reading this and laughing because sometimes it’s hard to resist—if they only knew how often I DON’T do that! Luckily when it does happen our teams feel empowered to push back. 

The other key part of the near term product mind is to focus on team health. We want to make sure that the team triads (the PM/Eng/Design leads) are working the right way together.  I view my main job here as ensuring that everyone is crystal clear on what the goals are and where we’re headed (we use a high level product “Compass” and OKR’s). The best thing you can do as a product leader is to clearly articulate and reinforce the vision, make sure your teams understand it, and then get out of their way.

Mind 3:  Long Term GTM

Now, on the long-term go to market side you can imagine that the role the GM is quite an interesting one. It’s not about setting quotas or marketing budgets--we have incredible teams at HubSpot that take ownership of those things. The role of the GM is to determine where to play and how to win.  Determining where to play requires deeply understanding your market dynamics, target customers, and competitors. How to win is about unlocking growth in the markets you choose. Sometimes this requires thought leadership (e.g. HubSpot’s use of Inbound Marketing), other times it’s introducing new business mechanics (freemium, channels, etc.) to the mix to better capitalize on a market.

Unsurprisingly, many parts of this job come down to pricing and packaging. Some would argue that everything comes down to bundling and unbundling and pricing and packaging. I personally spent a fair amount of my time here because it’s so important for us to get right.  What I’ve learned is that pricing and packaging goes far beyond what you put on your website--it impacts internal teams, customers, partners, competitors and sometimes entire markets. Given the complexity, this part of the role is intellectually stimulating and often where you partner the most with the other leaders in the organization.

One interesting example we run into a lot at HubSpot (given the large product surface area) is whether we should be charging for certain features or not.  Is this product being commoditized and do customers expect it to be free? Would it provide further differentiation for our free products? These are all decisions a GM is empowered to make. If a product line doesn’t have a freemium motion, you may want to consider ways to introduce ways to put that in place.  For example, HubSpot has a great free Meetings tool that our customers love. We could have easily added that into a paid edition, but thinking more holistically about how that product could potentially drive demand and virality was a key factor in keeping it free. 

Mind 4:  Long Term Product

The final piece is the long-term product vision and strategy. This is the one that most product leaders love to sink their teeth into because it feels most comfortable. Product leaders must be both storytellers and pragmatists, and this is where those two pieces come together. I’ve seen plenty of great approaches to product vision, and have narrowed them down to a set of principles that have helped guide me through the years.  As a GM and product leader it’s on you to connect the dots between today and what will be an incredible future state, and these principles provide the framework to do so. Here’s how I think about it:

  1. Tangibly define the thing you want to create.  Write it down and describe what it could be, with some specificity.  It will change, but it’s important to have a guidepost. It’s amazing how so many teams can’t do this.
  2. Overlay that definition onto existing (or new) TAM.  If you can match your clear product definition with a clear landing spot in the market, you’ve already got an advantage.  Poke and prod to make sure your plan holds up, and you’re on your way to product market fit.
  3. Provide scaffolding to win from a technology and GTM standpoint by setting achievable milestones that help connect the dots.  Elon Musk’s Master Plan is an amazing example of connecting the dots between today and a future vision.
  4. Have wide guardrails to allow for iteration and course correction.  Your initial vision won’t be perfect, so your team needs the autonomy to find their own path.  Provide the guardrails (e.g. product performance, target market) that keep things pointing at the goal without dictating every step of the journey.
  5. Use the customer as your compass, with their feedback underpinning all of the above.  HubSpot is the most customer-centric company I’ve ever been a part of, and we’ve created a product culture where not thinking this way would be unimaginable!

Does this sound like the kind of product management team you’d want to come work with? Check out our latest open roles.

Lou Orfanos

Written by Lou Orfanos

Lou is a General Manager and VP Product at HubSpot.

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