When I co-founded a SaaS startup back in 2013, I wish I had known about category design. But back then, it wasn’t on my radar. The seminal book on the topic, Play Bigger, wouldn’t be written for another three years. But if I understood category design at the time, I think we could have taken the business even further (a story I’ll share in another post).
Category design is a business and marketing strategy for competing on your terms, not those of an existing category. It’s the strategy companies like Salesforce, Drift, and Hubspot have used to create and dominate new markets.
While new categories have always been cropping up, B2B companies are only recently starting to explore “category design” as a formal, intentional process.
15 Takeaways from 15 Category Design Thinkers
After my company was acquired, I made it my mission to learn everything I could about category design.
Along the way, I’ve interviewed every accomplished and aspiring category designer I could meet through podcasting. After dozens of conversations, I thought that now would be a good time to share what they’ve taught me.
Below, you’ll find fifteen takeaways from some of the best category design thinkers. Each has something unique to share, and I hope that their advice better prepares you for your category design journey.
Christopher Lochhead: Category Designers Must Prosecute the Magic Triangle
Any discussion on category design needs to begin with Christopher Lochhead, aka the Godfather of Category Design. As one of the co-authors of Play Bigger and as a multi-time category designer himself, Christopher has created the blueprint that many consider gospel.
While I could write dozens of posts about everything I’ve learned from Christopher, one of my favorite concepts is what he calls the “magic triangle.” To become a category king, you must design your company, your product, and your category in concert with each other. Try to pull off category design without these three foundations in place, and you’re likely to fail.
Check out my interview with Christopher Lochhead here.
Sangram Vajre: Build A Community to Evangelize Your Category
Sangram started building an ABM community before Terminus even had a product to launch. They also invited competitors to co-sponsor their events, all in the spirit of making “account-based marketing” as big as possible.
Sangram’s community-building efforts have paid off big-time. Terminus has been recognized as a G2 Leader for six consecutive quarters, and “account-based marketing” is one of the hottest topics in B2B right now.
Listen to my interview with Sangram here.
Mike Volpe: Every Company Has Two Choices About Category
Hubspot is best known for designing and dominating the “inbound marketing” category.
According to Mike Volpe, their founding CMO, every company has two choices. You can either carve out a niche in an existing category, or you can design a new one. I love how simple that logic is. Mike did the latter with Hubspot, now he’s successfully persuing the former with Lola.com.
Find my interview with Mike here.
Kipp Bodnar: Mission and Vision Drive Category
Kipp has the difficult job of following in Mike Volpe’s footsteps. As the current Hubspot CMO (who was also an early employee) Kipp reminded me that category design isn’t just something you can isolate to the marketing department. Instead, it informs and is influenced by your company’s mission and vision. The two are inseparable.
Kipp shared a ton of practical advice in our interview, which you can find here.
Chris Orlob: Category Design Must Involve Your CEO
Gong.io leads the “conversation intelligence” category – software that analyzes interactions with your prospects and customers across multiple channels. Chris Orlob is now Sales Director at Gong, and he spent three years as the Sr. Director, Product Marketing.
While a lot of Gong.io’s success has to do with the great content Chris and his team have created, Chris was quick to point out that having Gong’s CEO participate in the category design process was critical. Chris believes that a category design initiative done without the CEO’s close involvement is doomed for failure. I agree.
Find my interview with Chris Orlob here.
Jeff Benanto: You Can Build a New Category While Competing in an Old One
Everbridge is a publicly-traded SaaS company that built its business in the “Mass Notification” category. But as its products evolved, they eventually outgrew that space.
Jeff Benanto is Director of Customer Marketing/Advocacy and Corporate Communications. He shared that while Everbridge continues to compete in this legacy category, they are also in the process of building a new one, called “Critical Event Management”.
The lesson? Category design doesn’t require your entire company to change direction. If you do it right, you can still enjoy your position in an existing space while also carving out a new market.
Listen to my interview with Jeff here.
David Cancel: Category Designers Need Great Brands
Drift is one of the fastest-growing startups of all time. And as CEO, David Cancel made an intentional effort to apply category design thinking early on.
David pointed out that B2B marketing today is much different than that past. Companies used to be able to compete on their technology alone, and later on their go-to-market prowess. But today, David believes that B2B companies have to compete on brand, too.
While branding and category design are not the same thing, category-defining companies certainly need strong brands to back them up. Drift has done both well.
Find my interview with David Cancel here.
Dave Gerhardt: Integrate Your Category and Your Culture
As Drift’s VP Marketing, Dave Gerhardt has a ton of experience building Drift’s “conversational marketing” category from the ground up. That process has taught him that having your entire team on board with the thinking behind your new category is key.
At Drift, “conversational marketing” is a core part of the business. Everyone from the sales team to the CFO can speak about it in a meaningful way. Drift didn’t deploy some formal process to inform everyone what conversational marketing is; it’s a concept that developed and continues to grow as part of the company culture.
Find my interview with Dave Gerhardt here.
Bill Macaitis: You’re Never “Done” With Category Design
Salesforce may be the best example of B2B category design, and few people can teach us as much about category design as Bill Macaitis, the company’s former SVP of Marketing.
Bill pointed out that category design isn’t an exercise you do for a year or two and then forget. If you are going to truly design and dominate a new category, then you have to regularly come up with new ways of defending that position over the long term. Salesforce has faced dozens of cloud-based CRM competitors, but because Bill and his team were so dedicated to owning the category, they still dominate decades later.
Listen to my interview with Bill here.
Anna Schena: Use Logic and Emotion to Evangelize Your Team
To pull that off, she advises that you appeal to people on your team on both a logical and an emotional level. In other words, it’s not enough to simply lay out the business case. You have to listen to everyone’s fears, concerns, and questions, then help them get excited about the new direction.
Listen to my interview with Anna here.
Cassidy Shield: Spend Time With Your Team First
What’s interesting about Narrative Science is that they aren’t a startup that’s trying to establish its footing. They’re nearly a decade old. With so much at stake, Narrative Science can’t afford to get things wrong.
That’s what makes Cassidy’s job such a challenge. As CMO, he was responsible for selling the concept of category design to the company’s leadership team. Because Cassidy was thoughtful, patient, and collaborative throughout the process, he got massive buy-in.
If you’re considering category design yourself, don’t rush into the process. Make sure you give your team (especially your leadership) time to think through things. That’s the best way to lock-in their long-term support.
Listen to my interview with Cassidy here.
James Carbary: Evangelize Your Category By Writing a Book
Coming up with a category name is just the beginning. Most of the work comes from evangelizing your category with customers, partners, and yes, competitors. That’s never an easy task.
While there’s more than one way to go about it, James Carbary recommends writing a book. Even though it’s a major undertaking, for James, the high ROI is worth it. There’s simply no better way to share your vision and build authority for your company.
James’s book is called Content-Based Networking: How to Instantly Connect With Anyone You Want to Know and it’s expected to come out in early 2020.
Stu Heinecke: Your Category Can’t Exist Without a Name
In case you haven’t heard of Stu Heinecke, he’s a Wall Street Journal cartoonist and a Hall of Fame-nominated marketer. He’s also developed a new tactic to get meetings with just about anyone. It’s an approach called “Contact Marketing.”
Stu didn’t have to coin the term. He could have just told people that he uses personalized cartoons to initiate conversations. But by giving this new technique a name, Stu allowed “contact marketing” to become a concept that’s bigger than himself. And that’s what ultimately defines a new category.
Listen to my interview with Stu here.
Like James, Stu also wrote a book about his category, called How To Get A Meeting with Anyone: The Untapped Selling Power of Contact Marketing.
Heidi Jannenga: New Categories Are Right In Front of You
Heidi didn’t start her career as a SaaS entrepreneur. As a Doctor of Physical Therapy, Heidi began (and continues to work) as a physical therapist. But that didn’t stop her from building a category-defining company. It was her experience as a PT that helped her see the need for a new category of software in her field.
Heidi took that idea and turned it into a $100MM SaaS company called WebPT. If you’re in the early stages of building a company, Heidi’s story is a great example of looking for growth in the right places.
Listen to my interview with Heidi here.
Andy Raskin: Category Creators Need Strategic Stories
Category design isn’t just about coming up with a name for something new. It’s about evangelizing a new point of view about the world and using that story to foster demand for your solution.
No one understands that better than Andy Raskin, a marketing consultant who helps CEOs and their leadership teams develop “strategic stories” about their companies. For Andy, a story works best when it can paint a picture of a massive change that’s already happening in the world. It should then position your company as the agent that will help people benefit from that change.
If you haven’t read Andy’s post “The Greatest Sales Deck I’ve Ever Seen,” take a look now.
Listen to my interview with Andy here.
If you’ve just started to look into category design, you’ve might think that the process is a bit daunting. It is. No one does it perfectly, either. Nearly everyone I’ve spoken with about category design would have done at least a few things differently
There is good news, though.
Every category designer I’ve met with has been glad that they pursued that path. It’s not the right choice for every company (or even most of them). But for those businesses that are designing something truly different, it’s a strategy that can have a huge payoff. And as more and more companies successfully design new categories themselves, there will be even more examples and blueprints for you to follow.
There are still dozens (hundreds?) of category-design thinkers I plan to talk to, so consider this “part one” of a series that will likely continue for a long time.
If you’re interested in talking about category design yourself, I’d love to hear from you. Send me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org.