Kevin Maney is one of the most interesting minds to listen to when it comes to category design. Not only is Kevin a co-author of Play Bigger, but he’s also a partner at Category Design Advisors, a bestselling author, and an award-winning columnist who’s been writing about technology for 30 years. Oh, and he moonlights with a New York City rock band called Total Blam Blam.
Kevin was kind enough to do an AMA with our category design community. You can watch the recap below, or scroll down to read some selected highlights.
Watch the Recording of Kevin’s Category Design AMA
Read the Highlights
The following material comes from snippets of Kevin’s interview that were edited for clarity.
How do you approach the process of writing a book about a category?
Writing a book to claim thought leadership in a new category is a great tactic. The challenge with writing a book is that it takes a long time, 12 to 18 months. And then it would be published six months or a year later. That might be too late. One of the ways around that is to start writing blog posts that start to add up to a book. The main thing is to write a thought leadership book that stakes out what this category should be like.
But there is no formula for this. If you look at a dozen different books, they all are put together in a dozen different ways.
As a reminder, though, category design is a multi-year process. It’s about winning the category over time, not just putting a stake in the ground and saying we’re first to market.
What’s the earliest that someone should look for help with category design strategy?
We have worked with companies at every stage you could think of, and the value of category design is different at each stage. We did a project for a pre-Series A company with just six employees, and it was extremely valuable for them. It helped them organize their thoughts about what they wanted to be, how to approach investors, and what kind of people to hire.
The most successful projects we’ve done have been after Series A or B. The company gets to a point where they want the success to add up to something bigger and establish itself as a leader in a particular market.
One of the beauties of this process is getting everybody to align around one eventuality. We also worked with a company that was 60 years old that was trying to reposition themselves because they felt like they were getting lost amid a landscape of competition.
Do you have a framework to work to name a new category?
The actual name of the category is one of the hardest things to get consensus around. We’ve also come to feel that it’s less important than the POV (point of view) itself. The POV is the story you tell yourselves as a company. It establishes a sense of who you are and where you’re going. The category name could refer to a dozen different things in that POV.
Just by writing the POV, an idea for a category name sometimes pops up. We’ll put that in the draft of the POV and present it back to the team. Sometimes that approach works because it gives the team context. But other times, the company loves the POV and hates the category name!
Everyone gets hung up on the category name. We find it to be the last thing we worry about and the least important, but it’s important when you’re done. When we’re struggling, we have everybody list five words related to the POV. Then we take the five words and rank them and put them into a word cloud. That helps us arrive at an answer everyone can live with.
What’s your advice on creating original research around the category problem?
We do original research on the back end of doing a POV. If you try to do it upfront, it’s hard because you don’t know what to research yet. When you do get into the research, though, you want to be stating what’s wrong with a particular industry or a particular problem. Describe it in matter-of-fact terms, there shouldn’t be any preachiness. Instead, call out the various factors that have led to this problem. I also want to point out that naming the villain can helps make the problem tangible in your research. We’ve had many clients who then refer to this name as a shorthand for the problem, which is brilliant.
What has changed in your views about category design since you wrote Play Bigger?
One of the things that’s in the book that bugs me is the concept that every company should do lightning strikes. It suggests that the only way to do those is to concentrate all your resources on one giant initiative. Having a big powerful rollout is great, but if that’s all you do, that’s not enough. Some companies have been very effective at what we call “rolling thunder” rather than a single lightning strike.
Another misconception from the book is that category design is heavily marketing-related. I have more CMOs calling us than CEOs. The reality is marketing is just one piece of the pie. We’ve got people that give the POV to job candidates, product marketers, and engineers.
What’s your advice on getting potential clients on board with category design?
It’s not about us convincing people to pursue category design, it’s about selecting the right companies to work with. We probably take on one project out of 20 companies that talk to us. The book pushes people to adopt category design thinking more than anything. I had a potential customer ask if we could send them a proposal. And I said, “No, buy the book. It’s 280 pages of a proposal.”
We select clients to work with by thinking like investors. I ask myself, would I invest in this company? And that’s usually the key differentiator. The CEO has to be behind it. If it’s too biased from a marketing perspective, sometimes the project doesn’t work. We also need to feel that it’s worth our time and money to get involved. If all I hear is a “Coke vs Pepsi” type of mentality, then we’re not interested. If we hear, “We created this new category called kombucha, and we’re gonna be on the shelf next to Coke and Pepsi,” that’s interesting.
How do you know if your category design efforts are going in the right direction?
We’ve never developed any kind of tool that can analyze a market and understand whether your category is actually happening. But I will point to a book by Paul Geroski called The Evolution of New Markets. The central thing in that book is a very elegant chart that shows how categories evolve. It’s pretty intuitive because if you can imagine that on day one of any category, there’s one company that’s inventing this thing in the space. The chart shows a curve that starts very slowly at first, but then quickly ramps up as companies enter the space.
Then, there comes this one moment in time when the dominant design appears and everybody believes that’s what the category looks like. Sometimes it’s a new arrival, like Apple and the iPhone, but many times it’s a company that’s been at it for years. So the thing is, you have to look for other companies jumping into the space, you have to press your category case or four, five, or six years to make sure that you are the dominant design at that moment in time. Because the minute that dominant design gets chosen by the buying public, the number of competitors in that space falls like a rock.
However, if revenue is just climbing incrementally, not exponentially, and nobody else seems to be coming into your category, those are all signs that the category isn’t what it should be, or that it needs more time to evolve. You could be way too early.
Can you create a new category within another category?
Every category somehow nests in another category. There are giant overarching categories like automobiles, and under automobiles, there are minivans and SUVs. Those are all categories in and of themselves. You can create a new category under another category, as long as it seems distinctive. If everybody can identify you as having created something that feels new and different. Different being the operative word. If you’re just saying that my dial turns to 11 and your dial turns to 10, you are not creating a category.