How to Be a Category Designer (When You Don’t Work For One)

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Every week or so I come across someone who loves the idea of category design but feels stuck because their current employer isn’t pursuing that strategy.

It’s a bummer because as exciting and challenging as the work of category design can be, this way of thinking about business isn’t on the radar of most execs. And it’s not a strategy that every company should pursue either (at least not in its purest form).

So what’s an aspiring category designer to do?

Unless you’re the CEO or someone the CEO comes to for guidance, you’re not in a strong position to put your company on the category design path anytime soon. I’ve been in that exact position. The good news is that there are plenty of things you do today to set yourself up to be a category designer tomorrow.

Here are seven suggestions to get you started.

Learn from Practicing Category Designers

Find others who occupy the kind of position you’d like to have, and ask them how they got there. Chances are, they were probably in your shoes once. And more often than not, I’ve found that people with more experience than me are happy to share some advice. Before I worked for a category designer myself, this is the exact thing I did when I ran the #categorycreation series on the B2B Growth Show podcast. Finding category designers isn’t that hard, either. Search for “category design” or “category creation” on LinkedIn. I’m also part of a Slack group for category designers; email me for a link to join.

Play Armchair Category Designer

Being interested in category design is one thing. If you want to work for a company that’s playing this game, though, you’ll want to demonstrate that you’ve immersed yourself in this way of thinking. Just like stock market investing clubs play with pretend money so they can learn the ropes, you can do the same with category design thinking. Pick a company that could be in a position to become a category king. What would you do to make that happen? Write down your strategy, start a blog to publish it, and come back later to see how things played out. It’s the next best thing to playing with live ammo.

Read, Read, (and Listen)

Good news – more resources coming out about category design all the time. Here’s where to begin:

Practice Category Design Thinking On a Smaller Scale

OK, so you’re not in a position to execute category design at the company strategy level. But that doesn’t mean you can’t practice category design thinking in other contexts. Remember, Play Bigger taught us that category design thinking is all about being different from other options, not better. Maybe you can use this approach to build a legendary marketing campaign. To launch a one-of-a-kind content series. To think differently about the way your hire, develop products, or lead your team. For inspiration on this, check out the Follow Your Different podcast. Practice being different in small ways, and being different in a big way won’t seem so daunting later on.

Talk With Your CEO or Leadership Team

You wouldn’t be reading this if you could snap your fingers and change company strategy. But that doesn’t mean you can’t have a conversation about category design with other leaders on your team. You might be surprised – perhaps your CEO is struggling from not having the right strategic framework in place. Category design might provide just the lens she needs. Even if your company decides not to pursue category design, presenting it as an option shows that you are curious and care about the company’s success. And that’s never a bad thing.

See If Category Designers Are Hiring (Using This Back Door Method)

Not every company pursuing category design puts a big sign on their front door advertising such. If they’re in the early stages of this strategy, they may be intentionally keeping things under wraps. However, there’s a back door to find this out. Category Design Advisors and the team at Play Bigger provide category design consulting for companies all over the country. And chances are, these clients are high-growth businesses that need talented people to help them win. Look, I’m not suggesting you hit these guys up out of the blue for intel on job postings. But I bet if you took the time to add some value and develop a relationship with these consultancies, you might be able to open a door or two.

Start Looking

If you badly want to work on category design, you really can’t do it properly unless you work for a CEO who’s genuinely interested in pursuing it. If you don’t see that happening at your current job, then go on the hunt. Use the advice that Christopher Lochhead gave me a few years ago. When you’re interviewing, ask if category design is something that the company is pursuing, or open to discussing. If the answer is no, then you know to keep looking.

Finding a company in pursuit of becoming a category king isn’t an easy thing. Be patient. And even if you can’t check this box next time you make a career move, continue to prepare yourself. When the time comes and you do meet a company that’s trying to do something legendary, they will be thrilled to find someone who’s already committed themselves to the category design way of thinking.

Good luck!

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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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