This is the fourth of five articles that make up The Newcomer’s Guide to Category Design.
Part three walked you through a high-level overview of the category design process. If you’ve read that and are ready to take the first step, part four will lay out a plan for getting your team involved, especially your CEO and your leadership team.
If you’re interested in reading the entire series in PDF or ePub format, you can access the entire category design guide for free at Flag and Frontier.
Category design is a team effort. Not only does it affect nearly everyone in your company in one way or another, but pulling it off successfully also requires the support of every department.
“Category design will affect your job, whether you’re in customer success, sales development, product, HR, and so on,” Darin Dawson, BombBomb Co-Founder and President told me. “Take accounting, for example. Category design can impact billing, spend on marketing, expenses, and so on. Your accounting team will naturally ask questions like why are we doing this? What's this for? How much are we going to spend on this? Well, if you understand the “why” behind category design, those questions become easier to answer.”
Before you can get there, though your CEO, your executive team, and your department heads should be on board. But how do you go about that? We can break down the process into seven steps:
As you read through this process, keep in mind that this is a process that worked for our company. Your situation and your culture might be different, so feel free to adapt this accordingly.
Like any initiative, you have to start by figuring out who’s going to spearhead the category design exploration process. Whoever it is should have more than just a knowledge of category design and the desire to pursue it. They also need to have a solid relationship with the CEO and the leadership team. Category design will require their commitment, and this person needs to be in a position where they can make that ask. If this isn’t you, consider finding an ally who’s more suited to the task.
For me, I was all but mandated to explore category design as my role of VP Marketing Strategy. Looking at ideas like this is part of my job description. But I didn’t try to go it alone either. As someone very new to my company at the time, I also worked with my CMO, our President, and our CEO on discussing this with our leadership team. I also had dozens of conversations with people throughout the company early on, so I could better assess the culture, the state of the business today, and what our leadership desired for the future.
Remember this one thing first: your CEO has to be a core part of your category design efforts. I learned this early on, when Chris Orlob, Director of Sales at Gong, told me, “If you do not have your CEO directly involved in your category creation efforts, it’s probably going to fail.”
While category design involves a heck-of-a-lot of marketing, it’s ultimately a business strategy. It’s your CEO who leads the business (not your marketing team), so you cannot begin the process without her full support and involvement. Hear more on why the CEO needs to be involved in this interview with Chris.
Conor McCluskey, Co-Founder and CEO at BombBomb said: “Category design is a pivotal part of your plans for the future. It can’t be a side project. As CEO, you need to get into the details of this strategy and have an informed opinion of where you’re headed. That’s your job as a leader.”
But how do you begin this conversation with your CEO? Well, think of it more like a conversation, and less of something you need to “convince” them of. Ultimately, like any strategic decision, you’ll have better support long term if you help the CEO make the decision for themselves.
Here’s what Conor advises. “Everybody comes to the CEO with tons of ideas. So if you’re trying to get your own CEO to explore category design, don’t start by trying to provide the answer. Instead, ask questions. Questions like: what do you think the future of our company will look like, and how do you think about our strategy?
You may even find out that your CEO doesn’t have a desire to be a category leader, which will save you a bunch of wasted effort. But once you know how she thinks about those things, you’ll know how to frame the conversation around category design.”
These conversations led to a few conclusions. First, it was clear that our business had a strong desire to move into larger, more strategic accounts, and we had already made several investments to help us get there. Secondly, we saw that our emerging category was going to happen with or without us, and we needed to make a conscious choice of how we were going to participate in that. Finally, we realized that the tenure and experience of our team could provide us with some advantages that could help us emerge as the category leader.
We then used these conclusions as a lens for discussing category design. Instead of looking at category design in the abstract, we were able to talk about specific ways it could help us achieve goals we already had in place.
Remember, don’t expect your CEO to buy-in right away. Chances are, you needed some time to work through this yourself, and that will only be more true for your CEO. This was true for Conor, as he initially looked at category design as more of a marketing play. But as he read Play Bigger and had a chance to think through it, that changed.
“For me, the lightbulb that went off was when I realized that we were no longer the only company trying to make personal, one-to-one video a thing,” he shared. “Once I saw that the space had been validated by competitors, and that there’s a major market taking shape, I knew that we couldn’t afford to wait any longer on category design."
Making the call on category design needs to extend past the CEO. Sure, your CEO can put down a mandate, but you’ll be much better off in the long run if your leadership team is supportive before the decision is made.
“Don’t talk exclusively with your CEO and risk all your capital there,” Conor told me. “At the same time, you also need to build your case with the rest of your leadership team. Because typically, once you bring up category design, your CEO is going to talk to the other executives to hear their thoughts. You want them to have a chance to think through this so they support the discussion.”
Just like the conversation with your CEO, the worst thing you can do when approaching your leadership team is come in too hot, guns blazing, trying to convince everyone that category design is the way to go. Ideally, you want to let each person get there on their own. For now, focus on creating a situation in which your leadership team is open to and interested in the idea.
“You can’t just expect people to get on board immediately,” said Darin. “Instead, I started this process by having conversations and asking questions, helping our team see for themselves that we might need to look at things differently.”
Ask your leadership team some of the same questions you’ve presented to your CEO. For example, ask them if they feel like the existing business strategy has them on the right path. Or if they feel like the company has enough clarity on its direction, or if different teams are pulling in different directions. See if there is a desire to play at a bigger level that isn’t being served by the current way of doing business.
If you’re crushing your goals and achieving the right kind of growth, then perhaps you don’t need to take on such a dramatic initiative. But if your leadership feels like something is off, then it’s time to present category design as an option to explore. You don’t have to pitch it as the “right” solution yet, and in fact, you shouldn’t. Remember, you want to help your team come up with an answer on their own. However, what you can do is introduce category design as something worthy of discussion.
“I asked our whole executive team to read Play Bigger, which is really the definitive work on the topic,” Darin added. “And I suggested some podcasts on category design. Once they had a chance to digest that material, I started to ask questions like, “Do you think people actually understand the problem that we're solving? Do you think they know what we're trying to do? How is that hurting us? What’s the upside if we solve that?”
Darin continued, “Once our executive team was open to the idea, I asked for their questions so we could think through them together. I heard things like, ‘Isn’t this just for sales and marketing?’ and ‘How are we going to stay committed to this?’ And from those questions, we were able to make sure that everyone on the team was heard, which helped us secure buy-in.”
You may also find it helpful to explore how other companies have executed category design. Here’s where you can find more than a dozen interviews with other category designers.
Once you’ve established that your team is open to a new strategy, and given them some time to get acquainted with category design, it’s time to have an intentional discussion around it. Don’t putter around with the idea for too long; either make a formal decision to pursue it, or decide that it’s not for you and move on.
To help make this process feel a bit more formal, I gave a presentation to our leadership team that was designed to help us make the decision, and move on. It wasn’t a presentation just on category design as a general idea; much of it discussed how it related to our future. If you’re building such a presentation yourself, consider breaking it down into these four sections. If you’d like to see the one we used ourselves, please email me:
While all four of those points are important, it’s the second one that’s most critical. Category design might sound great in theory, but if you can’t demonstrate how it relates to your current situation and why it’s going to give you the best chances of success, this presentation won’t really matter.
That’s because category design doesn’t fall into the category of things you can experiment with and test out. It’s a commitment – one that you can’t easily reverse course on and that will require time and effort from everyone on your leadership team. Your team shouldn’t make the decision without carefully understanding why it’s necessary and what they are getting themselves into.
Here are a few other tips on making this presentation to your team:
Your next job is to create a team of people who can dedicate themselves to helping your company move forward on category design. You might assume that the category design discussion can simply be a part of your regular leadership meetings, but I don’t recommend it. Here are three reasons why.
The decision to pursue category design should happen at the executive level, but once that’s done, you must involve your team in the category design process. It’s a necessity.
Consider all the activities I outlined above: executing lightning strikes, creating content, reworking your messaging, and so on. Category design is too big for just a few people to pull off. Bring your team on board early on if you want to have their support later.
“I knew that category design would be a whole company initiative – something that would fundamentally change how everyone thought about the business,” Darin explained. “I also knew that if we were going to pull this off, we had to get commitment across the board. Your team might follow you initially, but if they’re not bought-in, they can be a drag on the whole program and you won’t see the success you’re looking for.”
Getting your team on board is also your obligation as a leader. Category design represents a major company strategy, and any good leader will help show their team a vision for the future and a plan for getting there. If presented in the right way, category design can help instill confidence and excitement for where you are headed.
At BombBomb, we started this process through the “Friday Update” videos that Darin sends to the entire company each week. “Once I have my teams bought in at the leadership level, I expect them to carry that message to their teams and help them understand it. I also send a video to the entire company every Friday about what we’re working on,” said Darin. “Category design became one of the pieces I started to communicate in those updates. I try to be very upfront about the fact that this is going to affect their job, and it’s something they need to pay attention to.
HubSpot is another great example of a company that cares about “internal evangelism”. “If you’re going to create a category that’s going to last years and years, you need a catalyzing event that allows everybody in your company to understand what the story is,” Kipp Bodnar, the current CMO and an early employee, said in this interview.
“You need to have this source of truth that people can look to. For HubSpot, that was Brian and Dharmesh publishing the Inbound Marketing book. Then it was the creation of partnerships with some other folks for the Inbound event which we still host every fall here in Boston. Then, I think it’s the job of everybody in the company to say, ‘Hey, this is our mission.’”
Keep in mind that you’ll probably get mixed feedback from your team at first. “Some people have been excited. Some people have pushed back. Some have said that we’ve always been doing this already,” said Conor. “That just reiterates the importance of the CEO continuing to push the momentum. I have to remind our team that this is what we are doing, we are saying yes to certain things and no to other things, and I have to continually bring our team back into alignment. That’s just part of being a leader.”
If you do encounter people on your team who are having a hard time getting behind category design, you’ll want to address that situation right away. Not only will it be harder for your team to execute category design if someone isn’t on board, but it may also be a sign that there’s a more fundamental issue that the employee needs help with.
“If someone remains skeptical or is just having a hard time getting behind this, I would be more inquisitive and curious about how things are going for them,” said Darin. “There has to be something beneath the surface, and you want to make sure you address the root issue.”
You’ll also want to consider how you can make category design a process that your team feels a sense of ownership of. It’s not about your task force simply handing down the direction from on high. For example, think about the process you might use to develop your category story.
“It’s important not to just share your Point of View, but inspire people to think of it as their Point of View too,” says Anna Schena. “For us, we had several people tell 'our story' in their own words, and why it meant so much to them, and it accelerated buy-in exponentially faster than if we had just myself or leadership evangelize it.”
Furthermore, fostering a culture of category-design throughout your company will help you improve your thinking. If your team understands the process and where you are trying to head, they’ll be more likely to come up with questions that need to be addressed and ideas you hadn’t considered. If you constrain the category design process to a select few, you’ll only limit yourself.
That’s why BombBomb's CEO has continued to stay involved, even as we’ve stepped into the trenches of building our category. Conor said, “Staying involved in the execution of this has been awesome because it puts me right in the midst of what our frontline people are hearing and thinking about. For instance, we recently went through a category design discussion with our customer success team, and I was able to hear their feedback directly. That gave me a new perspective on things.”
At BombBomb, once we shared our initial category design plans with the team, we also challenged them to be a part of the process. Not only did we offer to buy everyone a copy of Play Bigger, we also asked them to engage and share what they are learning and thinking about. Creating this feedback loop is so important because it helps everyone feel part of the journey.
In addition, creating channels for your team to provide feedback helps you see which departments are already on board and which may require some more attention. “I spend a lot of time thinking about areas of the business where I need to get more buy-in,” said Darin. “If I can see that one department isn’t reading the book, asking questions, or showing engagement, then I might need to help them along.
Figuring out when to keep things to your task force and when to share with the company will take some time. But I’d recommend erring on the side of sharing too much. This is a big journey you’re going on together, and having your team feel like they are part of it can go a long way to make this strategy a successful one.
Consider how Sarah Elkins, VP Marketing at Tasktop, looks at this. “The internal launch needed to also include a more detailed roll-out plan both internally and externally,” she told me. “We created separate plans for GTM teams and internal teams (engineering, finance, etc.). The GTM teams needed much more details on personas we were targeting, messaging, etc. Just communicating the POV would have left too many questions unanswered about how to use it in real life.”
Once your team is up to speed on where you are headed, you’ve already done a lot of work, but you’re just at the beginning. Now the real work begins. “As leaders, once we launch something, we have to keep reinforcing it, keep telling our team why,” Darin told me. “If you don’t, you can lose commitment. People will have questions along the way, and you need to stay responsive to that and really try to lead by example.
If your team needs help understanding how and why category design might apply to your specific situation, consider the following two approaches.
According to Daniel, “The strategic imperative is an approach for when you have something different. So different, in fact, that it's hurting you in the marketplace because of how difficult it is to make direct comparisons against competitors.” In other words, if the only way in which your company is going to stand a chance at winning deals is to break free of existing categories, then not pursuing category design is going to cause a lot of pain.
This is exactly why we chose category design at BombBomb. As you may or may not know, we help business people build and foster relationships through the use of personal, one-to-one video. Instead of having to rely on typed-out text or scheduling a Zoom call, we allow you to get “face-to-face” by sending video messages in virtually any channel.
While this is a growing category, it doesn’t have a name yet. Historically, we and our competitors have been placed in the “video hosting” and “other video software” categories on G2. Unlike most companies, trying to carve out a niche in an existing category would only create confusion and serve to penalize us.
In other words, we have a strategic imperative to design this category. We are already in the best position to emerge as its leader. Our team has sent over half a million one-to-one videos, and we understand the challenges our customers face in using video better than anyone else. That’s why the onus is on us to drive the market forward and give ourselves the best chance of becoming the long-term category king.
Anna Schena and the team at Narrative Science chose category design for similar reasons. “For us, the choice to create a category was around technology innovation within the larger data and analytics space,” she explained. “We built products that have new technology that no one has seen before, and it didn’t fit into any neat ‘boxes’ of analytics software that people buy today. So we decided to define our own category.”
The tactical weapon approach allows you to build a new category position by creating contrast with an existing one. “Sometimes it's easier to firebomb an existing category than dominate it,” said Daniel. “If there is some common element shared by all of the main players in an existing category, find a way to position that as a weakness rendering the entire category obsolete. The category design process becomes about determining its replacement.”
Drift is one example of this approach done well. Early on, Drift was just another player in the live chat category – a market that soon became crowded and commoditized. Drift needed to stand out from these competitors, but it couldn’t just do that by trying to convince the market it had a “better” product than everyone else.
Instead, Drift chose to develop a new category by creating a contrast with website forms and marketing automation software. By claiming that requiring customers to fill out forms was an outdated way of interacting with customers, Drift drove awareness and demand for the new category it was creating, called conversational marketing. This new category is all about immediate interactions with customers, mainly through the use of intelligent chatbots.
Whether you align more with the strategic imperative or the tactical weapon approach, category design shouldn’t be a decision you make capriciously. It needs to pursued because there is a specific business outcome that you could not achieve by competing in an existing category.
It goes without saying that category design helps your marketing and sales teams win. But the reason it’s called a business strategy is that it helps nearly every department succeed.
Here are a few examples:
There are only a handful of B2B SaaS companies that have legitimately created new categories. And none of them, at least to my knowledge, followed the exact steps of another company. They had to chart their own course. And they had to make up a lot of things as they went along.
You should use this reference as a guide, but don’t follow it blindly. Every situation is different, and what worked for one company might be a disaster for your own. Look for inspiration both within B2B SaaS and in places even outside of the business world. Most of all, don’t be afraid to experiment – nothing legendary was done by merely repeating the actions of others.
Earlier we mentioned how having an “official” category name on-site like G2 isn’t a requirement for category design. But that doesn’t mean you should overlook a resource like this. In fact, one the of reasons we worked with G2 on this series together is that they play such an important role in helping buyers understand the differences between related products.
Category design will fail if you don’t first get your CEO and executive team on board. You’ll be more successful with that if you begin by asking questions and inviting discussion. Once you’ve made the decision to pursue category design, you need to share those plans with your entire team.
Create a feedback loop to make sure you’re hearing from employees and involving them in the process. Finally, category design helps more than just sales and marketing; it can help every department in your company by providing clarity on the company’s goals and the path to get there.
John Rougeux is VP of Marketing Strategy at BombBomb, where he’s leading the company’s efforts to build the Human-Centered Communication software category. He’s the owner of Flag and Frontier, a marketing consultancy and resource hub dedicated to helping executives pursue category design. He also hosts the #categorycreation series on the B2B Growth Show.
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