The Six Ps of lean product—and how to implement them effectively

Kim Caldbeck, operating advisor at Bessemer, distills her favorite business playbook when leading global marketing teams, including the five basic steps she’d repeat again after 5x-ing revenue at Coursera.

When you think about generating leads, what comes to mind? Running ads? Producing thought leadership content? SEO?

For Kim Caldbeck, erstwhile CMO at Coursera, it starts much earlier. “When you think about generating leads, the first thing you want to do is have a validated product-market fit,” she says. “Otherwise, you're going to be bringing in a bunch of leads that aren't actually your ideal customer profile.”

To ensure she has a strong product marketing foundation in place, she uses an approach, called The Six Ps, which she draws from Dan Olsen’s Lean Product Playbook — with her own unique spin she’s developed throughout her decade of marketing leadership.

The Ps stand for the persona, problem, proposition, positioning, product, and promotion strategy—the essential building blocks you need in order to effectively market your product. “What I love about it as a tool is that it can be applied to all kinds of use cases,” she says. “At Coursera we were running several exercises a quarter and I still use it in my consulting practice with founders today.”

The Ps stand for the persona, problem, proposition, positioning, product, and promotion strategy.

It works like this: You gather your stakeholders, ask them to make hypotheses about these six areas, find at least ten representative customers to test them out with, and see if you can validate your assumptions while iterating as you go. With that research, you can get an initial read on whether a given product strategy is worth pursuing or not.

And while you might see these product marketing building blocks as something that primarily early-stage companies need to define, Kim recommends revisiting them frequently, even as an established brand. In fact, the Six Ps is a standard practice any sized team should undergo before investing in developing a new feature or product or when questioning why something is no longer working.

Here’s how you can replicate Kim’s approach and try it out for yourself.

1. Choose your experiments

Like any good science project, Kim’s approach starts with asking questions. “First identify the core business questions you’re trying to answer,” she says. These can run the gamut from:

  • Who are our first customers going to be?
  • How do we position ourselves to our audience?
  • Why is our retention rate falling?
  • What should our expansion strategy be?
  • Should we enter a new market?
  • How should we position our new product or feature?
  • How should we bundle or price our products?

“At Coursera, we would pick the top three to six initiatives—big investments which were essential to get right for the business overall,” says Kim. If you’re a smaller company or just learning this process, you don’t need to pick quite so many. Instead, ask yourself: What are the one or two most important problems to solve for your business?

“These questions are an effective tool to get to the bottom of things,” says Kim. “It gives you the chance to get your approach right instead of guessing and then finding out it didn't work right,” says Kim.

2. Assemble the right team

Once you have your problem(s) defined, it’s time to gather the team. But who to include? “In terms of who’s involved, I think it depends on the stage,” says Kim. “The textbook way to do it is to put together a product manager, a product marketing person, and a salesperson.” This can be useful because you’re getting a holistic view from the different teams that serve your customer, who might all have differing perspectives.

“At Coursera, the product team would run the exercise and there would be an exec team sponsor who rode along with that sprint team and helped them through the process,” says Kim. That way, they could ensure they were aligned in terms of both strategy and execution.

But what if you don’t have a product team yet? “If you’re an earlier-stage company and you don't have those job functions, you might do it with your first product hire, or business development representative or a COO — those types of positions who are just starting to figure out the market before you have other types of roles hired.” Likely, that means founders or other senior leaders.

3. Document your hypotheses

Next, gather everyone in one room and document your hypotheses for each of The Six Ps. “Just writing it down is actually a really useful tool to see whether people are aligned,” says Kim. “It forces you to say: ‘Who is the persona we think we're selling to? What problem do they have? What is our proposition to them? What is our positioning to them? What are the products that we're going to be offering and what do we think the promotion strategy should be?’” See if you can get everyone to agree on a single hypothesis for each.

Ideally, you want to make this process as easy as possible for yourself to replicate so you can try it with many different types of questions. “At Coursera we turned it all into a template,” says Kim. “So I have ‘a product market fit’ sprint template, a Six Ps hypothesis template, and then a pitch and discussion guide—which is the template that you then turn into the slides you would use in a conversation, and then the discussion guide that goes with that.” This format works great in a B2B setting. For a B2C audience, you likely need to start with some interviews and surveys.

The Six Ps hypothesis template

The overall question / business problem we’re trying to solve is:  


The P Question  Hypothesis Consider this
Persona Who are you marketing to? Our ICP is ________ Industry, company size, employee headcount, annual revenue, geography, budget, tech stack, pain points, and any other criteria you think are important. Aim for the fewest number of observable criteria in priority order. You are trying to get to a place where if someone meets all of these criteria, they are going to buy your product 80% of the time.
Problem  Why does your persona need your product? (What are their unmet needs?) The problem we solve for our ICP is ________ This has to be a deep and priority pain point for someone to cause them to take action—not just anything that could be painful. If your audience has invested time and energy into relieving it before your product, that’s a good sign. Aim for a short list of prioritized pain points.
Proposition What is your value proposition, in one succinct sentence? We solve _____[problem] for ______ [persona] by _______ [action your product does] How is your product going to solve the pain points of your persona? This is also an important chance to check whether this is a persona and problem that represent a large and growing market.
Product What is the minimum viable product (MVP) you need to meet your audience’s needs? What features are essential? To become essential to our audience, we absolutely need to have _______ [key features] This should relate directly to your audience’s unmet needs and your competitive advantage. What are the features essential to solving the pain vs. the features that could be delighters for your persona?
Positioning How do you position your product against competitors? What category are you in? While our competitors offer _______ [solution that’s flawed in some important way], we offer ________ [solution that makes up for this flaw] How does your audience talk about your competitors? What category or space are you in and why should your persona select you relative to those alternatives whether it’s a competitor or doing nothing? Are they annoyed by the things you think they’d be annoyed by?
Promotion strategy What’s the most effective way of reaching our audience? The best way to reach our audience is through________ Think through how you are going to scale customers longer term. How will your product be used and purchased? How can you uniquely go to market based on your value proposition to create a go-to-market advantage that has favorable unit economics?

4. Get direct customer feedback

Then, it’s time to put your hypothesis to the test. Enlist 10 to 20 customers and prospects who can give you insight on the MVP of your product.

If you are a B2B company, put your hypotheses and a short three to five slide pitch deck you can share in hybrid pitch/research calls with your target personas. These calls are set up to get feedback from your ideal customer profile with a brief pitch included. You can iterate as you go and at the end of your conversation, you should be asking the direct question of how interested they are in purchasing and aiming for them to say I’d love to continue the conversation. (Don’t make the mistake of thinking of this as only research — your goal should be for these calls to turn into real deals.) This is where you can get the most important and direct feedback once someone is actually considering whether to move forward purchasing your product at a certain price.

If you are a B2C company, this likely involves consumer surveys, interviews or focus groups, and MVP A/B tests where possible.

Once you have a few prospects who are interested in purchasing, think about how to turn these into pilot partners you can iterate with and who will become your first case studies. “Ideally I'd like to get two to five of these customers and actually have them start to use the product,” says Kim. “Ask them if they’re willing to share data and iterate with you, so you can see what ROI you're ultimately driving for their company.” (These also make for great customer case studies later on.)

It’s best practice to reward these customers for their participation. “You might want to offer them a special promotion or discount as a thank you for the extra insight they’re providing you,” says Kim. It’ll more than pay for itself.

5. Review what you’ve learned

Finally, at the end of the six weeks (or whatever length of time you’ve chosen for your experiment), assemble your data and present your findings. How well did your Six Ps hypotheses stack up with reality?

Kim says there are pretty much three ways this can go

  • Full steam ahead: “We have high confidence that our assumptions about the Six Ps are correct and we’re ready to launch. It’s time to make a go-to-market plan and recruit our pilot partners.”
  • More research needed: “We have learned a lot. We're not there yet, but we think there’s something there and we need to reshape our Six Ps hypotheses and do another sprint.”
  • Let it go: “We’ve learned through this process that this opportunity isn't worth the resources required to build it out.”

Deciding not to pursue an opportunity isn’t a failure. “In this stage, you might think, okay, the goal is to build something and launch it—in reality, sometimes success is realizing it's not worth it.” Whether you choose to move forward or abandon an opportunity, you’ve won because you’ve decided to spend resources only on the initiatives that are most worth your time.

Hypothetical case study: Aligning with the right ICP

MedLure is a SaaS platform that serves a highly specialized market: the medical and healthcare industry. The platform aids in test prep for those who are entering higher education or applying for medical school.

MedLure’s B2C platform sees high adoption and retention rates among 18 to 40 year olds, who self-identify as aspiring nurses, paramedics, physician assistants, and doctors. Since its B2C platform is successful, MedLearn aims to move up market.

The typical “shift to the enterprise” path often looks like repackaging or building altered versions of the current set of solutions for a new adjacent audience, and then reimagining pricing to improve gross margins.

In the case of MedLure, the company hypothesizes that selling its solutions into universities could widen their customer base, increase their account contract value, and help drive revenue at faster rates.

However, what MedLure finds out during its research into its new persona and problem is that the higher education market is incredibly fragmented, insular, has restrictive budgets, and quite political. Plus, university faculty might not be incentivized to promote external resources when they are often evaluated based on their own research and books.

By further investigating the persona and problem of this potential market, MedLure discovers the conditions are not optimal for selling.

This leads it to look toward an alternative adjacent market — residency teaching hospitals, clinics, and paramedic schools.

In this new sprint, MedLure learns that this new ICP wants to see better and efficient training of their care providers, improved service, and stronger reputations within the medical community. With aligned incentives, MedLure is able to personalize their solutions, creating more turnkey programming for their partner schools.

Never waste an insight—how to benefit from every Six P sprint

“The power of these Six P sprints is that they do one of two things—validate a hypothesis and provide deeper conviction for your team as you build and launch in the right direction or illuminate new findings that help you pivot or refine your next steps,” says Kim.

“Figuring out the optimal go-to-market strategy could take one sprint or up to 10 product-market fit sprints—especially when a SaaS business starts to wrap its arms around a larger strategic project, such as reevaluating B2B SaaS pricing, or addressing an adjacent market.

“Every sprint is worth the effort,” says Kim. “By following the Six Ps, you gain more clarity and address the inevitable obstacles unique to your vertical that you’ll eventually have to clear to be successful in your go-to-market ambitions.”

Three common obstacles to address include

  • Perception issues: Do you really understand the problem your audience has? And can your business actually help—or are you forcing a round peg into a square hole? By getting clarity on your audience’s pain, you can be more exact in your solution, packaging, pricing, and messaging.
  • Product, pricing, packaging issues: Depending on the unique market, you may be selling a product that is too complicated or too expensive for your new ICP to reasonably adopt and pay for. In this case, reevaluating the offering to be more turnkey or lower cost could open up a broader market.
  • Misaligned incentives: Understanding how your audience can benefit from your services and the motives behind why they’d partner with your business unveils a new persona’s willingness to pay (WTP).

The value of the Six Ps process goes beyond just being a time and energy saver, says Kim. For early-stage startups, it gets teams focused on discovering the true value they offer to customers. This looks like understanding the explicit problems their customers face, which can go on to inform the pricing models they set, their forward-looking product roadmap, and the foundation for their marketing strategy.