Stripe’s Krithika Muthukumar on marketing whole new ideas

Main illustration: Birann Ailie

When a company is changing not only how we move money around the world, but also introducing entirely new ways of doing business, the marketing message needs to be carefully crafted so users can instantly appreciate the potential value of the brand new concept.

A key stage in the maturation of any startup is when the message behind the product becomes skillfully aligned with the marketing, to the point they are two sides of the same coin.

Few have more experience of this than Krithika Muthukumar, Product Marketing Manager at payments pioneer Stripe – from being the first marketing hire four years ago, she has helped grow the marketing team to a dozen and counting. In the process, she has overseen a cultural change in the way the marketing message is considered part of product development.

Krithika joined me on our podcast to discuss the importance of knowing your customers’ problems, beta market testing, how to market features to larger companies and much more.

If you enjoy the conversation, check out more episodes of our podcast. You can subscribe on iTunes or grab the RSS feed in your player of choice. Below is a lightly edited transcript of the conversation.
Short on time? Here are five key takeaways:

  1. The challenge of reaching a global audience.
  2. Baking the message into the product plans.
  3. Marketing is considered an extension of the product.
  4. Many of Stripe’s products are completely new to the market.
  5. Stripe will always aim to be the de facto choice for startups.

Adam Risman: Krithika, welcome to the show. To get started, can you walk us through the types of products you’ve marketed to date and what your role at Stripe is today?

Krithika Muthukumar: I started off my career as a front-end developer and made my way into marketing and was working on marketing for the Android platform and the Nexus devices, which are firmly in the consumer space. However, in my 20% time I was working on and all of our efforts for Android developers for the platform. At that time I had the chance to join Dropbox – I was the third person in marketing there and worked on consumer launches. We launched Dropbox for Business and we also worked on our developer platform and all our launches for the Dropbox platform.

When I joined Stripe about four years ago, I was actually the first person in marketing. My work spanned anything from positioning and branding to developer campaigns, product launches to writing copy. For three years, I was the only person in marketing at Stripe. So I’ve done everything from working with our sales teams to doing co-marketing with some of our largest partners and working on our community efforts for the different audiences that we serve. As of last year, we’ve started building up the team and now we have a small but mighty team of about 12 people here at Stripe.

Adam: You mentioned you were the first marketing hire at Stripe. I’m curious what type of expectations did they set you up for on day one? What were the first challenges they gave you?

Krithika: It was an exercise in prioritization and in many ways I had the leeway to set the priorities for the function. You have to make marketing work towards the business goals that you have. At Stripe, there has been three very distinct eras or epochs that I’ve been through. When I first joined Stripe it was literally just the homepage and documentation. I went on a support rotation and was speaking to customers for a couple of days and noticed that many of them had very similar questions – “Do you guys support subscription billing? Do you guys support paying out to people?” And, of course, we did but they had no reason to know.

The first bit for product marketing is always trying to make sure that you’re telling your customers the very basic things about your features and your functionality and your products, so that they can understand what it is that your product supports and can make a decision about whether to use your product or not. That was really the first thing that I did at Stripe.

The second thing was getting launches under control. We have a continuous deploy process so our engineers would launch things into production and into the hands of customers and would write up a blog post about it, if they remembered to. When I first got there we were establishing things like sending emails to our users, we were establishing new channels such as events or websites or landing pages to get the word out about a new feature or product and really connecting our users with the products as well.

Adam: What was it like establishing rapport with the product team? Were they skeptical about marketing or did they have eager ears?

I scheduled five or six coffee walks where I’d walk with the engineer towards the coffee shop.

Krithika: We actually didn’t have product managers for a long time at Stripe. For me, it was sitting down with engineers and trying to understand the work that they were doing and what we were trying to build for the users. What was the user-facing benefit we were trying to deliver through this product or feature?

It was pretty challenging to get meetings on the calendar at Stripe because it had a very anti-meeting culture back in the day. I think I had a couple of days where I scheduled five or six coffee walks where I’d walk with the engineer towards the coffee shop and on the way, just pepper them with questions about what they were working on, when things were launching and trying to put together some semblance of a product calendar or a launch calendar for what was coming up next.

Adam: So you said it’s a small and mighty team of 12 now. How’s your team structured today?

Krithika: Out of the 12 people, four of them work on product marketing, the rest are either working on growth marketing, things like paid ads or looking at our funnel, and we also have an events and field function who are creating events and in-person experiences for our users.

You can often get to a point where you’re assigned to a specific product area that you then start plowing your own furrow. We’re trying out a model where we do have product area leads, so there is someone who is embedded in the day-to-day work of the product teams and the engineering teams to understand what’s coming out. They are speaking with our users and our customers and really understanding the needs of our users and trying to figure out creative ways to connect the two.

But we also have what’s best explained as a sub-contracting model so that the rest of the team can also get exposure to projects in other product areas and try to understand how we can make that more exciting. We also have weekly brainstorm times across that product marketing team with one of our co-founders. We use our time to really look at other disciplines, other industries, things that are happening out in the wild.

Challenge of going global

Adam: So are you all here in San Francisco or spread out?

Krithika: Right now, we’re all in San Francisco but we’re looking to invest more in folks and more marketing hires in both Europe and in the Asia-Pacific region over the upcoming years. Stripe serves 25 countries locally and through Stripe Atlas, we’re really reaching a global audience. The thing about developer marketing, though, is that the products and APIs that we’re building are fairly universal. However, there are definitely regional specifications that we have to create because we work on payments products and we work on software that helps enable businesses that are working with very different regional climates or regional differences in how they do work, so we want to make sure that we’re reflecting that in our product. So there is more to come on the product marketing front to make it much more local to the users in different countries.

Adam: What types of collaboration methods or tools are you guys using with the product team?

Krithika: Stripe’s a very transparent company – we keep our calendars and ongoing stack ranks, or the prioritized list of the features of products that we’re working on, pretty open to the rest of the company. So the product marketing team, on a weekly basis, sits down with both the engineering teams and the product managers to try to figure out if anything’s changed. What’s the delta in launch dates, or when things are shipping, or if new features are being worked on?

All of this feeds into a central place that we maintain called the product calendar. Internally this is the resource for user-facing teams to figure out when things are coming out the door. The user-facing teams might range from sales to account management, from user operations to field engineering. And we want to make sure that everyone’s aligned to when things might impact their team. And those people are pulled in as needed to make sure that they can figure out all the implications for their specific teams when something goes to market.

Every six months we create some priority focus areas.

Adam: How early is your team involved? It’s not coming at the end of the shipping process by any means, but how early are you getting a seat at the table? Are you able to help influence what’s getting built at Stripe? What types of conversations are you having?

Krithika: I’ve worked on teams where the product is fully fledged and created before it’s thrown over the fence to marketing to get it out the door. That’s definitely not a model that I’ve found works well for technology companies. Stripe has recently adopted a half-yearly planning process. Every six months we create some priority focus areas and the output of that planning process is a user-facing release plan. Those user-facing release plans, or as we affectionately call them the URPs, are plans that are focused around what tangible benefits or changes are we going to create in a user’s business. It’s not that the marketing plan is tacked on at the end – the messaging or the positioning of what we want to get across is baked right into those plans so our team is very involved in that.

We’re also spending about 10 to 15% of our time actually speaking with users and on calls with users either through sales calls or through independent calls that we set up. Because it’s very hard for marketers to put themselves into the shoes of an entrepreneur because you’re not moonlighting and running a startup on the side, we want to make sure that we are speaking with users to build empathy as well as understand what their priorities are. And we help feed that back to the product teams as often as we can to help figure out what product development and changes we might make to the product to better meet those needs.

Adam: We do customer support days here at Intercom. I often learn more in those four hours where I’m working the inbox about the product and what our users’ needs are than I will the next four to five weeks.

Krithika: You also get to themes very, very quickly, more so than you would expect because people have very distinct needs and they’re running very distinct businesses. But the commonalities across them and the challenges that they face are striking.

The importance of product launches

Adam: You mentioned one of your big challenges when you first arrived at Stripe was to get a handle on launches. How do you go about handling prioritization for launches? Are there any guiding principles that you use?

Krithika: Like most companies we have a very loose tiering structure – tier one, tier two, tier three. Tier ones are the launches that will get press support, they’ll often get a landing page, full sales training, whatever we can do to really push that product. The tier two launches are often a blog post or a targeted email message or an email campaign to our users. It might also involve some sales training, it really depends.

I think the meta point is that we’re not trying to get too prescriptive about the menu of launch options that you get. Because we’re trying to be thoughtful and mindful that every launch or every feature has a specific audience in mind and has a specific business need it’s trying to fulfill so our marketing tries to stem from that. So we try to set the business goals and the objectives first and then build the right marketing campaigns around that to really meet those goals.

Adam: On those bigger launches, I’ve seen you talk about how on occasion you will write some spec blog posts, your version of how Amazon writes a hypothetical press release before they ever start coding anything to make sure that the story and the user need is baked into the process. Talk to me a little bit about that.

Krithika: The spec blog post is kind of interesting. It comes from a very similar place to how Amazon writes these press releases because it gives you a north star on the message or the user-facing change that you’re trying to get across, and it aligns different teams to that same goal and to the same objective.

One of Stripe’s operating principles is to put users first. These blog posts are what we call the stem cell line of messaging. This is the messaging that serves as the starting point for many other user-facing collateral. That stem cell line might get translated into a blog post, into a website, into sales narratives or sales demos, but it comes from that same source of truth. That’s really helped us make sure that we’re consistent across the many different channels that we employ and also helps teams make sure all the work that they’re doing is laddering up to the user-facing change or the user-facing messaging that we want to get across.

The other thing is, especially when you’re doing B2B marketing, you don’t have to rely on just one sort of launch moment or one big major event that you do to get across a new product or feature. You can set up a narrative that you’re building on over time. So, for example, one of the themes that we might want to get across in a particular quarter or a particular month might be around security. So we might actually have a series of blog posts around security or features around security but they all add up to that same message to our users that we want to get across.

Marketing is the first experience a user might have with our product.

Adam: Another thing I know that you do at Stripe is you beta test marketing, which I think is really interesting. What are the types of things that you’re looking for there and how are you going about doing this?

Krithika: We really think about our marketing as an extension of our product. It’s the first experience a user might have with our product or messaging so we really treat it carefully. Just as much as we beta test our products, we also want to make sure that the marketing is meeting the goals and objectives of what we’re trying to get across. It really doesn’t have to be an onerous program or a long-winded exercise, it just has to be someone who hasn’t been living and breathing the marketing copy for the past couple of months. Anyone outside of your company can work just fine.

It’s really great if it’s someone who is an entrepreneur or a leader at a company who you’re aiming the product at. In the email we lay out what it is that we’re trying to test with this beta, and ask whether the marketing make sense. What is the value that you see from this product once you read through the page? Would you recommend this product to a friend? Would you recommend that your own company adopts this product? That’s it. It can usually be done over email or even be a Facebook Messenger or a text message. And if this is someone that you have a relationship with, often you get very candid feedback and it’s very qualitative. You get the candid feedback very quickly and that helps you either just validate that the page is doing what it’s doing or you go back and figure out how you can change it to make sure that the message is getting across clearly.

Adam: On the flip side of the beta equation, is your team able to work with the product team to help decide who should actually be beta testing the product? Because I imagine that’s where a lot of your case studies and collateral come from that help equip sales teams and customer support down the line.

Krithika: I don’t think we try to meddle too much because I think a particular product might be tested for meeting a particular use case or in a particular region. So the PMs and our team, actually does end up setting the goals for the beta together. However, when beta testing the marketing, it just might be a different decision maker from a person who’s actually using the product, so we want to be mindful of that.

New to market products

Adam: When you’ve got the full launch, what types of things, other than case studies, are you equipping your sales and support team with? What have you found to be really effective there for empowering those folks?

Krithika: Many of Stripe’s products are things that are completely new to the market. Sales teams are usually equipped with competitive battle cards like how do you compare X to Y or how do you compare X solution to Y’s features. One of the challenges we faced is that when we’re creating new categories, things like Sigma, a tool for using SQL to search through your payments data just doesn’t exist in the world. So it’s about creating a narrative or an urgency for a company to adopt a feature or a product that they might not even have been thinking about as a need for their company. It’s not a solution that they’re going out to search for, so it’s about introducing the category, introducing the value and then trying to showcase some success stories. That’s about the best that we can do when you’re first entering a market.

I think the one thing that I really try to be mindful of, is to not launch and forget. Often marketing can jump from launch to launch and then of trickles out or dies. What we aim to do is to make sure that we are keeping track of the product’s metrics, keeping track of engagement, adoption, usage and influencing those numbers over time. We aim to bake into our processes ways that we can continue to put the product out there, continue to iterate on the messaging. Our end goal is to layer in more stats, more hard numbers, more ways to quantify the ROI that will actually be even more compelling to future prospects and users.

The one thing that Stripe always keeps in mind is that we work in a very cohort-based industry. One launch is not going to reach all of your potential users because new users are always going to have the need for accepting payments or doing data analysis or fighting fraud, whatever it might be across our platform, so we keep that in mind. We’re always thinking about how to engineer our marketing so we’re reaching those cohorts over time.

Adam: One really interesting challenge you’ve had at Stripe that I was excited to ask you about is that your core audience has, for a long time, been smaller companies and startups. What are the considerations your team has had to make for marketing features towards bigger companies without alienating those people that have found success with your product for so long?

Krithika: Ah, yes, jumping the shark. There are two principles that really sets Stripe apart here. The first is, oftentimes a company might start out for startups and then make a shift into the enterprise. For Stripe, one of the things that is really telling is that startups will always be a core part of our business. It’s almost like working at a VC firm because you invest in a bunch of different startups and a few of them grow up to be really big. Similarly, with Stripe, we’re trying to reach new startups, we’re always trying to be the de facto choice for startups because some of them will grow to be much bigger over time.

Even with our pricing model, we’re really incentivized and aligned to growing startups and growing businesses over time. When we think about that cohort-based approach, our marketing ends up becoming really interesting. In some ways, it’s not transactional, it’s much more of a long-term partnership. The parallel that I draw is how a university such as Harvard might run a campaign today, but they’re trying to reach middle schoolers who might apply to college years from now. Similarly, when we do marketing, a developer might not need payments today, they might not need payments six months from now, but at another startup or another company that they go off to join or to found, they’re going to need payments at some point in their life cycle, and we want to be top of mind then.

Being developer friendly is something that works to our benefit.

The second thing that I’ll notice is that many of the bigger companies are often trying to operate like startups. They are trying to be more nimble, trying to get products to market quickly, so we try to tap into that. Being really good for startups is a boon for Stripe because larger companies are attracted to the startup mentality and the startup way of moving.

It’s a really hard problem. You don’t want to end up with a website where it’s “developers, click here” and “accountants, click here”. It just doesn’t speak to the intelligence of your audience. But I think the one thing that is really important is that there is something for everyone. You can have a layered approach and that’s how we think about it.

The one other thing that I would mention is that for larger decision-makers who aren’t developers, a critical part of their business is [determining] where can they deploy developer resources to. So being developer friendly is something that works to our benefit because for them, developer friendliness means they need to deploy or assign maybe just one developer to their payment solution, they don’t need to assign a whole team of developers working on a payment solution.

Appealing to startups

Adam: A lot of our readers are in a very early stage startup and maybe marketing isn’t their full-time job, but they’re having to do it. Considering their limited time and resources, what are some things they can be doing right away, smaller things, to help showcase the value that their product brings to users?

Krithika: I don’t want to be super prescriptive because every business is different, but for Stripe, one of those early priorities was to just fill all of the voids of content. Write up content for many different use cases and again, being very user-centric about it. If you’re a decision maker trying to pick between two different solutions, you want to hear the pros and cons of each and be able to make that decision yourself. I think people get too tied up in thinking it has to be this beautiful landing page or it needs to be this beautiful micro-site experience or it needs to be the most polished two-minute video that we could ever create. I think being sort of scrappy is probably a better approach when you’re first starting out.

Be more directive about what are the gaps in the user-facing narrative.

Some of our best marketing to date has been written by Cristina Cordova, our head of partnerships, and the channel for that content is just an answer on Quora. So don’t shy away from the things that seem super easy because they’re still the places where people are trying to find the content and if it’s helpful and if it’s useful, that content will still take you quite far.

I think after that, it’s about layering in and scaling that approach. So, for example, a very high bandwidth conversation you might have with someone in a room, in person, you want to try to figure out what are ways that we can make that more self-serve. What are ways that we can scale that up so that more people can have that similar sort of interaction without your head of sales or your co-founders having to go into a room, physically, to be able to get that message across?

Then finally, I think, you start to get much more intentional about your marketing. There are some companies out there that announce products two, three years before they might ever materialize. You don’t have to go that far, but to be more directive about what are the gaps in the user-facing narrative. What are the gaps in the user experience with your product and how can you fill those? I think marketing plays a huge role in trying to suss that out, trying to understand what the user needs are. Trying to understand how they’re trying to make that decision around payments or whatever your software might be and then finding that back into product development and how you tell your story.

Adam: So speaking of content, where can our listeners go to learn more from your team at Stripe and keep up with what’s going on there?

Krithika: Everything our team produces makes its way onto or Stripe’s blog so feel free to check us out there.