Category Design Isn’t An All-or-Nothing Strategy (A Case Study on Quantic)

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Sometimes you’ll hear people describe category design as an “all or nothing” strategy. In this view, there are only two possibilities.

One, your business has created an entirely new and separate category – one with clean lines of demarcation from existing categories. Or two, you’re simply competing for market share in an established space – one where there’s already a category king.

Reality isn’t that tidy, though.

In practice, the lines between new and existing categories can be a bit blurry. What’s important, though, is not whether category design leads you to a New Official Category. What matters is how category design thinking can lead to access to new audiences and a stronger strategic narrative.

Quantic (a relative newcomer to the MBA space) is a good example of this. Technically speaking, they compete in an existing category (the MBA degree). But in practice, they’re using several principles from category design to establish a new space that they can own and dominate – one that’s outside the domain of traditional programs.

In this post, I’m going to explore how Quantic does this.

What is Quantic?

At its core, Quantic is an accredited, online MBA program. But their mission points at something a bit more ambitious. Their stated goal is “…to democratize elite business education.” As part of the plan, they’ve structured their MBA program differently from traditional offerings in several ways. Let’s explore those now.

By the way, I’m not counting “online” as a differentiator, because at this point, there are enough online MBA programs already to where that doesn’t really count as being novel. Here are some of the meaningful differentiators I found:

“Test to Teach” not “Teach to Test”

Ever hear your teacher say “Pay attention! This material will be on the test.” In a traditional approach, teaching can be oriented toward helping students succeed on exams. Quantic takes a different approach they call “test to teach.” Instead of waiting until some major milestone for evaluating a student’s knowledge, online courses constantly test students as they learn. Interactions happen every 8 seconds, on average. Quantic claims that this approach improves both retention and efficacy.

Modern Curriculum

Next, let’s talk curriculum. Yes, a Quantic MBA will cover all the classics, like Accounting, Finance, Marketing, Leadership, and Corporate Governance. But the courses offered also include more modern material, like Blockchain, Customer Discovery, Venture Capital, E-Commerce, A/B Testing, Digital Marketing, and Decentralized Applications. In short, this isn’t your father’s MBA.

Unlimited Access

In a typical MBA program, a student will pick a single concentration and take the requisite courses. Other concentrations can’t really be pursued. School policy or one’s schedule only allows for so many courses. Quantic doesn’t have any such limits. While you’re required to study three concentrations, you’re allowed to take courses for all eleven that are offered. Furthermore, as Quantic adds new courses, you can continue to stay up-to-date, since all course material is available perpetually after graduation.

Learn Anywhere

Finally, Quantic offers its courses through its mobile app. It’s the same type of interactive, test-to-teach material found in the web-based course itself. This may not sound like a huge deal, but the fact that you can knock out some coursework while say, waiting for a doctor’s appointment (and without having to lug around a laptop or textbooks), is truly a different way of earning a degree.

Cost of Tuition

A Quantic MBA costs just $9600. If you’ve ever priced MBA programs, you already know that this is orders of magnitude less. For reference, The University of Colorado charges at least 5x that, more if you don’t live in-state.

These are just a few areas in which the Quantic MBA program is different from traditional offerings. A closer look at their website will reveal further detail. But at this point, you might be thinking, “Isn’t Quantic just a niche offering within the ‘MBA’ category?” Below I’ll describe why I don’t think that’s the case.

Niches Are Better Options; New Categories Are Different

A niche positioning strategy attempts to meet the needs of a very specific audience better than the “standard” offering in that category. Here are a few examples to paint the picture:

  • Logitech is the “standard” for webcams; the Razer Kiyo is aimed specifically at gamers who want to live stream
  • The Ford F-150 is the best-selling pickup truck; the Ford F-150 Raptor is for off-road enthusiasts
  • Franchises like Planet Fitness and Lifetime Fitness are typical gym offerings; Nerd Fitness is for, well, “nerds” who value community support and need help getting started
  • The University of Colorado is the go-to college for the state’s residents; The Colorado School of Mines is for top-tier engineering prospects

In short, niche positioning is all about having the “best” product for a particular audience.

Category design thinking, however, is about providing value differently. Here’s how I see this in the MBA space.

With a Traditional MBA, Value Comes from Recognition

Students in traditional MBA programs typically enroll because they’re seeking a specific career outcome, like a promotion or job opportunity. The outcome can happen because someone in a position to hire those students recognizes the value of the degree itself. Well, to put a finer point on it, they recognize the credibility of the institution that granted the degree.

For example, an MBA from a place Harvard or Wharton will greatly improve your odds of landing a lucrative job as an investment banker. The same degree from your local community college will not. This is why some people gladly pay $100,000+ (and take 2 years off from work) for such a top-tier MBA program. I’m not criticizing this path, but if you’re simply taking an MBA for the knowledge alone, then there are less expensive ways to accomplish that. This brings us to the Quantic MBA.

A Quantic MBA Provides Value Through Structure

Based on what I’ve gathered, it seems like the typical Quantic student isn’t after that same investment banking career as their Harvard counterpart. To put a finer point on it, what I mean is that they probably aren’t expecting the MBA to get them there alone. 

So what are these students seeking, then? After reading student reviews (like this one) and even talking to the admissions staff myself, I think that answer is pretty simple: knowledge. Quantic students are more likely to place primary emphasis on the knowledge they will gain from the program. For some students, the alternative to Quantic may not even be another MBA program, but a rigorous self-study plan. The structure and reinforcement that the Quantic program provides are worth $9600 alone.

These two goals aren’t mutually exclusive. I’m sure Harvard MBAs value the knowledge they gain, and Quantic MBAs have career aspirations, too. But the primary motivators are different.

You can see this in the way Quantic has structured its program with such a heavy focus on access to learning. If claimed to have the “best” MBA and attempted to compete on prestige, brand recognition, and notable alumni, then it wouldn’t get very far. Instead, this “structured learning” focus puts it in a different territory than traditional MBA programs.

There are two takeaways I want to reiterate here:

  1. Quantic’s application of category design thinking has provided it access to a new audience: students who would otherwise pursue a self-study program to improve their understanding of business concepts.
  2. Take a look at how other MBA programs market themselves, you’ll see a lot of claims on why their program is “best”. Quantic doesn’t fall into this trap. By emphasizing why its program is “different” (and not better) than traditional MBA programs, it’s created a strategic narrative that’s unique and compelling.

What Could Quantic Do Better?

While Quantic is applying many aspects of category design well, there are still some areas where they could improve. Here are three recommendations I have:

Beat the Category Name Drum

A strong category design strategy needs a good category name to capture its essence. Every once in a while, you’ll see Quantic refer to itself as the “Modern MBA”, but I don’t see the term used that much on their website. That’s a shame because I think this term captures what they do really well (“What, aren’t other MBAs modern?”).

By building out this idea more comprehensively, and by talking about it more often, Quantic could turn the idea of a “Modern MBA” into a term that any number of forward-schools could adopt. This would help legitimize their approach and create more demand for this type of offering. And with Quantic leading such narrative, it could position them well to be seen as the category kind of the “Modern MBA.”

Build the Modern MBA Ecosystem

If Quantic was really focused on addressing the needs of “learners”, then why not build a community of like-minded organizations who could help further this goal? Organizations like Reforge, IDEO, Y Combinator, and the Product Marketing Alliance already think along similar lines and could help amplify the Quantic. Such partner organizations could even offer discounts to their respective programs, provide networking opportunities, and share access to courses.

Sell the Problem Better

Quantic does a reasonable job of playing up the benefits of its program. But it doesn’t do nearly enough to address the problems its program addresses. For Quantic, these are two-fold. For one, a traditional MBA program is overkill if you’re mainly after business knowledge itself. If that’s your orientation, there’s no need to spend six figures, take a couple of years off work, and drive to campus to attend lectures. Quantic could play this up further, highlighting both the direct cost of such an expensive degree and the opportunity cost of missing out on work experience. The data already supports why this approach isn’t always a home run; Quantic just needs to tell this story themselves.

Secondly, for those students for whom Quantic is an alternative to self-study, they could make a stronger case for why this path can be so difficult.

It’s Always Valuable to Think Like a Category Designer

What’s exciting about category design is that even when you don’t execute every single play from blueprints laid out in books like Play Bigger, this way of thinking can still lead to a highly differentiated business. Quantic still has some work to do to move it from a category design practitioner to a category king, but the steps it’s made so far are promising. Hopefully, this post has encouraged you to think more broadly about how you can apply category design thinking in your own work. If you have a similar example that’s worth looking at, I’d love to hear about it.

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About the Author

John Rougeux

John Rougeux has helped multiple technology companies through the category design process. Connect with him on LinkedIn.

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John Rougeux is VP Marketing Strategy at BombBomb. Connect with John on LinkedIn.

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