The 3 Go-to-Market Highway Lanes: Marketing-led, Product-led, Sales-led

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Do you always stay in one lane when driving on the highway (freeway for us Californians) or do you use two or even three lanes? Right, let’s use all of ’em. Now, what are our three lanes in the go-to-market of software and tech products: Marketing-led, Product-led and Sales-led.

When I talk to startups, I very often hear “or” but not enough “and”. In this article, I would like to give an introduction to the differences and how the individual tracks can be combined. In addition, I will incorporate our learnings from the shift from Sales-led to Product-led.

What is the Go-to-Market Highway?

My good friend Sangram Vajre (Co-founder Terminus) describes the Go-to-Market (GTM) in his new book “The MOVE” as follows: Go-to-market is a transformational process for accelerating your path to market with high-performing revenue teams (marketing, sales, and customer success) delivering a connected customer experience where every touchpoint reinforces the brand, values, and vision of your company.

GTM is a process to bring your (product) experience to market by aligning product, marketing, sales and customer success teams to generate revenue and to build your brand. Easy, right?

What are the 3 Go-to-Market Lanes?

I categorize the different tracks into three areas. All three are not new inventions and exist in various forms. The categorization makes it easier to understand which product category benefits from which GTM track.

It is important to understand the addition “led” correctly. For example, marketing-led does not mean that GTM is based purely on inbound lead generation, but that it is the primary approach.

  • Marketing-led: Inbound Marketing with marketing automation for lead generation and nurturing
  • Product-led: Product is the main vehicle for acquisition through easy access to testing and using
  • Sales-led: Active sales outreach and account-based marketing for acquisition and retention

Example Figma

Figma is a typical example of a hyper-growth start with a product-led approach adding sales teams in the second phase. Word-of-mouth plays an important role for Figma, first among designers, then other target groups such as product and marketing folks. A key element is the excellent experience Figma creates with the product–a prerequisite for product-led growth. This is made possible in part by a browser-first approach, in which files are migrated and stored in the cloud (see Kevin Kwok’s article for more).

Figma quickly realized that it needed enterprise sales teams to grow in the enterprise space with buyer committees and IT RFPs. Inbound levers are present in any product-led model because products never “sell themselves” 100%.

Example HubSpot

HubSpot’s primary lead source has been in inbound marketing from the beginning. Driven by content strategy and thought leadership in inbound marketing. Over time, HubSpot then introduced Enterprise Sales Teams to grow within existing accounts and increase Average Customer Value. The availability of HubSpot as a freemium download brings the product-led approach into play. HubSpot uses all three lanes of the GTM highway depending on the target audience and product component.

Our own learnings from changing lanes in the Go-to-Market

We started two years ago to give one of our two enterprise software products a lane change. Yes, we thought it would be as easy as Tesla Autopilot, but then realized we hadn’t loaded the program for it. Our product is a remote support tool that uses augmented reality to help companies simplify service. Our initial target group was large manufacturers with their own service departments, meanwhile also medium-sized businesses.

The primary approach was marketing-led supported by an enterprise sales team. At that time, potential customers had to request product demos through a sales manager. Customer Success supported making the software available. The advantage for our sales team was to have many touch points with customers who benefit from the sales guidance. Especially for the users in companies who wanted to test the new technology (AR needed explanation at that time), it was a pain and took time.

How we added Product-led elements to our Marketing-led / Sales-assisted approach

So we wanted to introduce elements from the product-led approach. Our goal was to provide faster access to the product, get more users for feedback, give our sales teams better-qualified leads, and create a better product experience overall.

The biggest challenge was that our product was not ready for a PLG approach. Our product team simplified the account handling so that admins could easily invite their own teams for testing. We introduced a Guest Access, which allows participation in calls without registration, but at the same time can be managed in the portal. The complete roll-out process was trimmed to less than 30 minutes.

If you come from the enterprise and sales-led sector, you have to take a critical look at the product experience and onboarding. We took a hard look at the impact, the resources we need in the teams and what we need to do differently in marketing, sales, and customer success (processes, landing pages, internal training).

Our customers benefit from all 3 lanes on the GTM Highway

We are not 100% there yet. But it was worth it to involve a PLG mindset and combine the disciplines marketing-led, product-led and sales-led. We are now marketing-led and sales-assisted/product-assisted. The results for our customers are faster access to the product and a significantly improved product experience with reduced friction in the buying and onboarding process. Our company and teams benefit from a growing number of qualified leads, higher conversion in the pipeline, fewer resources in the roll-out process, and a reduced number of service tickets. My highlight is that we are more open to discuss new models across all teams since we have mastered this challenge together. One sign for this is that we were the first AR company that made pricing available on the website.

Which is the right GTM lane and how to change

Let’s have a quick look at where the different approaches make sense from a product and buying complexity perspective. I like to use Christoph Janz’s categories for building a business. Basically, it describes how you choose your strategy based on the annual account revenue.

  • 1,000 “elephants,” or enterprise customers who can each pay $100,000 or more per year
  • 10,000 “deer,” or medium-sized companies that each pay $10k or more per year
  • 100,000 “rabbits,” or small businesses that each pay $1k or more per year
  • One million “mice,” or consumers who each pay $100 or more per year
  • Ten million “flies,” or active users you can monetize $10 or more per year each

At the high end of the scale with ARPA over 100K and complex buying processes with various stakeholders involved, sales-led is the right model. Self-serve products with an ARPA below 1K per year benefit from a product-led approach. And now the question about Marketing-led? I see Marketing-led on the one hand as successful in the range between 2K and 30K, on the other hand as an important ingredient fuel Sales and Product-led strategies.

The best mix of marketing, product and sales-led components depends on:

  • Target market: channel preference, industry, enterprise vs. SMB
  • Buying process: sales cycles and frequency, number of stakeholders involved.
  • Product experience: complexity to test, friction in the onboarding, user adoption.

Impact on product and organization

After selecting the GTM lanes, I want to show a few areas where the changes can be felt. If you pay attention to this and play through it for your company and product, you will be prepared.

  • Market & Target Audience: In addition to the ARPA, the target group has a great influence on the model. Enterprise buyers are active on other channels than product users in small companies. The payment method or purchasing process also play a role. The sales team can play the role of guide and interface here.
  • Product Experience & Readiness: Your product must match the GTM approach, and deliver a 10x product experience. Complex enterprise software cannot be easily brought to market via product-led. Often there are no demos available for download or the use case needs a qualification in advance. Sales calls can also be a blessing for users and buyers if they reduce friction. Users in small teams, on the other hand, are bothered by sales calls and want to test tools directly.
  • On-boarding & Deployment: Onboarding is both an opportunity and a risk. This is where it is often decided whether the product will be used instead of the existing solution. In automated onboarding processes, the a-ha moment (user realized value) must be very fast and clear. More complex products need more support and sometimes special training and workshops. Marketing and customer success can link story and experience during onboarding and act as a guide. Superhuman is a good example of a marketing-led approach that uses product and sales as assistance in acquisition and retention.
  • Monetization Model: A shift from sales-led to product-led triggers discussions about the monetization model. The topic of freemium comes up very quickly, which is seen critically especially in the enterprise sector (without reason if you ask me). What plans are offered for different users, how much is going to the website, what impact does it have on sales commissions?
  • Sales Cycles: Product-led has shorter sales cycles on average due to price/budget. Another reason is that users are specifically looking for tools to improve their results, while IT or other departments have a different interest. With the shift to sales-led, the expectation must be clear which brings longer sales cycles, but higher ARPA and longer contract terms.
  • Team Roles & Experience: Whether marketing, sales or customer success, the existing team has experience in a specific area. Changing GTM tracks and using multiple ones requires expertise in the different areas. Teams may need a different setup. Marketing and product grow strong together in Product-led (as they should in Marketing-led), Sales-led typical Account-based Marketing programs require marketers to think like BDRs or account managers.

So the question is not which GTM lanes are the right ones, but when it makes sense to switch to another lane and how many drivers I have on which lanes to create the best experience for buyer and user. It is not either-or, it is the right use of the three lanes to create a 10x product experience in the go-to-market process.

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Dirk Schart is CMO of the No. 1 Enterprise AR startup RE’FLEKT. He is a brand and growth leader and focuses on B2B software and SaaS models —from zero to hero. Dirk is the former Director of SaaS Products at HyperloopTT, and helped scale SkyWork from 30 to 200+ in less than 18 months. He mentors startups at the German Accelerator in Silicon Valley. Dirk is the author of “Augmented and Mixed Reality for Marketing” and spends his free time as Heavy Metal Rockstar 🎸