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The Fast Company Executive Board is a private, fee-based network of influential leaders, experts, executives, and entrepreneurs who share their insights with our audience.

What I learned from building a tech category for the third time

Strategy and fierce dedication pay off in the end.

What I learned from building a tech category for the third time
[Photo Source: bnenin/Adobe Stock]

I founded one of the world’s first tech marketing companies, helping 600 startups with all things growth; I cofounded a child safety startup, where we protected kids from bullying and shaming on social networks; and I’m now focused on a new startup, which is known as the world’s first “sales experience” platform.

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Over the years, I’ve learned a lot about building a new category. Here’s what you need to know.

THE DIVE IS WORTH IT

As the late Steve Jobs famously said, “Some people say, ‘Give the customers what they want,’ but that’s not my approach. Our job is to figure out what they’re going to want before they do.… People don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”

Despite what the naysayers may say, there is still plenty of room for original ideas. The Harvard Business Review analyzed Fortune’s lists of the 100 fastest-growing U.S. companies from 2009 to 2011. It found that companies that were instrumental in creating their categories accounted for 53% of incremental revenue growth and 74% of incremental market capitalization growth.

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In the case of startups that are creating categories, the value of dominating a market while scaling can result in operational benefits ranging from greater access to funding to more resources that can help attract top talent.

It all starts with strategy.

FIRST, VALIDATE

Before going all in, you have to take part in good old-fashioned research. Make sure there are little to no competitors (especially direct competitors) in your space with your idea. While looking into search volume and conducting searches, you can get a sense of whether the category is already “out there” by checking whether reporters are already covering the space.

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You’ll know you’re on the right track if most people won’t immediately “get it” when you describe your vision (because there isn’t anything like it in existence).

In our current startup, we saw zero competition for anything related to “sales experience” or “product demo experience,” so we decided to invent it from scratch.

ENSURE YOUR SOLUTION ACTUALLY SOLVES A BIG PROBLEM

Your product has to solve something big enough to justify being its own product category.

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In the case of Keurig, it is an alternative to the messy communal office coffee pot. Uber introduced the world to the concept of ridesharing. Gainsight coined “customer success” because companies didn’t adapt well to the new age of customer demands. HubSpot came up with the “inbound marketing” methodology as a way for businesses to get more leads and traffic simply by using smart content strategies.

Your solution must be fine-tuned to the point of being qualified to join these ranks.

CONSIDER TIMING WHILE SETTING THE GROUNDWORK

Timing is everything, and in this case, it is one of the biggest deciding factors as to whether you qualify to be considered the category pioneer.

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In some instances, it can happen if you’re the first to market the solution altogether. It can also happen when other products in the space have failed to brand themselves. In either scenario, it is important to market the solution as distinct and differentiated from anything else that has ever come before.

If your competitors suddenly start copying everything you do, you’re on the right track. That means you are pioneering the vertical.

MARKET TO GAIN INTEREST AND WIN HEARTS

Designing a category requires navigating a complex puzzle of different marketing channels. There’s a lot to consider, such as the social presence, the tone of voice, the blog, guest appearances, and more. So where do you start?

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The answer, according to Simon Sinek, is to “start with why.” Ensure that communications, first and foremost, communicate why your business exists, followed by how your business is going to fulfill its core beliefs, and then what your company is doing to fulfill that belief.

Most businesses make the mistake of starting with the what, followed by the how, and leave it at that.

For example, Warby Parker sells eyewear that is designed in-house. It was founded as “an alternative to the overpriced and bland eyewear available today.” Its mission statement and messaging repeatedly indicate that it envisions a world where everyone can see clearly, stylishly, and at affordable prices, because stylish eyewear shouldn’t have to cost an arm and a leg.

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Focusing on the “why” can help draw a list of interested potential customers to your startup. Those eager early adopters can help you test the waters.

SHARE KNOWLEDGE

Creating a new category gives you a head start in becoming a thought leader in the space. Educate your target audience with knowledge and actionable insights they can’t get anywhere else, and be consistent in dishing out content.

Market pioneers don’t hide their journey, knowledge, and success; they talk about it proudly. If you’re doing your job right, this will encourage many other ambassadors to talk about it on your behalf—organically.

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Of course, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to building new categories in tech, because the tech industry itself has hundreds of branches that stem out of it. One thing is certain: Creating a new product category is a long and sometimes winding road. But as with any other part of the entrepreneurial journey, strategy and fierce dedication pay off in the end.


CEO at Walnut and “Tech Marketer to Watch” by Forbes. Startup mentor in the world’s top accelerators.
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