Nothing has led me to read more business books than Co-founding Outseta. As a founder the need to “go deeper” and figure things out for yourself is very real—if you don’t do it, nobody else will!
While that’s the case, I tend to agree with the sentiment that most business books really just share an idea or two that you can take and apply to your own context and business. On top of that it seems like publishing a book is more en vogue than ever before—if you haven’t published a book yet what sort of self-professed guru are you? All of which is to say that I don’t feel compelled to write book reviews very often… but here I am doing just that!
April Dunford’s Obviously Awesome: How To Nail Product Positioning So Customers Get It, Buy It, Love It is a must read for any marketer or founder that’s struggling with product positioning. What I love about this book is that while the concept of positioning is frequently discussed in the marketing world, I agree with the author’s assessment that there’s a remarkable lack of resources out there that teach you how to actually do it. In a nutshell that’s what this book does—it’s a straightforward, no-nonsense, and highly tactical guide that any marketer or founder can use to sharpen their positioning.
Over the past few years as we’ve been building Outseta I’ve chatted with hundreds of founders that are bringing new products to market and consulted on growth strategy with many others. In both instances the ask that I hear most often is unequivocally “we need more leads.”
In my experience, probably half of the time that I hear “we need more leads” the company actually needs to do a better job of executing lead generation campaigns. The other half of the time I find that the company really needs to revisit their “positioning”—they’re simply pushing a message on the market that’s not resonating or showcasing their product in the best light possible. When companies sharpen their positioning, all of a sudden their existing lead generation channels start delivering a lot more leads (and sales) without any increase in spending.
As a result, a significant percentage of my consulting work has actually turned into positioning work. The process that I’ve typically used has been heavily influenced by David Skok and Mike Troiano’s article Clarity of Message: Why You Need A Great Message And How To Create It and has ultimately resulted in a positioning statement, a series of key messages, a value proposition, and a few other outputs. My process has been built on a lot of trial and error—the magic of Obviously Awesome is that it provides a step-by-step blueprint to tackle positioning that anybody can easily follow.
I’ll start by sharing my own summary of the book before offering a few minor criticisms on how this book could have been even more helpful to me as an early stage SaaS founder.
Here’s my summary of Dunford’s book—this is literally the lines of text that I highlighted as I made my way through the book. You should buy a copy yourself, but this will give you a good flavor of what you’re in for and can act as an abbreviated version for you or folks on your team.
“Positioning is the act of deliberately defining how you are the best at something that a defined market cares a lot about.” — April Dunford
Talk to people who would be great prospects for your offering. Show them the product and explain what it does. Now ask them how they would describe what you do.
Likewise, ask existing customers about your offering and see what they say. If you see a disconnect between how your happy customers think about your product and how prospects see it, you likely have a positioning problem.
Because these relationships flow from one to another, the order in which you define the components is very important (follow the order in which they are presented above).
Follow this process to define your product’s positioning.
“The most successful efforts in category creation do not result from company executives creating an acronym at an off-site. Rather they are discovered from deeply understanding a subset of customers.” — Mark Organ, Founder of Eloqua
This is simply a document or set of questions that you should complete as you begin the work of figuring out your positioning.
Once you finalize your positioning, putting your positioning into play typically starts with developing your sales story.
Ultimately I loved this book and found it extremely useful. However, there’s two specific instances where I felt like this book left me hanging a bit.
Dunford writes, “If you’re a start-up and don’t have super happy customers already, hold off on tightening up your positioning. Until you have more experience with real customers, it’s better to keep our minds open and our positioning loose, and see what happens.”
I understand this sentiment—it reminds me Alex Turnbull’s article Attention Start-ups: Stop Selling To Start-ups where he makes the point that companies should widen their net rather than focusing at an early stage on the markets that are most familiar to them. Keep your positioning loose and your targeting wide and you might be surprised to find who is actually getting the most value out of your product.
While I appreciate that you don’t yet know who your best customers might be, I find that this advice isn’t terribly helpful. You need to think about positioning to some extent even as an early stage start-up, and I can’t imagine that loose positioning—we offer a product that’s CRMish—could possibly be helpful.
My own take is that you need to start with an educated guess with regards to your unique attributes, who cares about them most, and the market category you think you can most effectively position your product in. From there you should plan on running experiments to test the effectiveness of your positioning, moving rapidly to test new positioning if it doesn’t seem to resonate. In other words, systematically test new and different positioning until you find a position that seems to resonate rather than over-generalizing your product.
I didn’t read this book under the context that we have a positioning problem at Outseta—if anything, I’ve gotten feedback that prospects “get it” pretty quickly when looking at our website. What I have heard is that most prospects either consider us a “CRM” or look at us as an “Authentication and subscription management solution.” I think both categorizations make sense, but all things considered our positioning has been best articulated by this image.
This image has articulated Outseta’s positioning better than anything else to date.
Obviously Awesome is an incredible resource if you’re marketing a CRM, or an email marketing tool, or blueberry muffins. But when I turned this book towards our own business it wasn’t particularly helpful in helping me think about Outseta’s positioning—as all all-in-one platform solution, I was still left scratching my head a bit. Let’s talk through that.
First, I need to decide on how to position in a given market. Again the choices are:
Given that Outseta plays in a number of very mature and competitive markets—CRM, subscription billing, customer messaging, and help desk—I can easily rule out head to head positioning. We’re not going to win outright if we take on Salesforce. Or Intercom. You get the idea.
I initially thought about creating a new category—there really isn’t another product out there that offers the scope of capabilities that Outseta does to early stage SaaS businesses. But while our platform is unique in that sense, each of our key capabilities is already well understood as CRM, or email marketing, or subscription management, for example. Slapping a new label on these features in the vain of “creating a category” just doesn’t feel authentic to me.
That leaves us with big fish, small pond positioning—I can get behind that. We need to choose a market or category and fight for the subsegment of customers at the lower end of that market that’s typically defined as makers, indie hackers, or bootstrapped SaaS companies. Game plan!
But choosing the market category—and all the assumptions regarding features, pricing, and competitive offerings that comes with it—proves to be really challenging. Are we primarily a CRM? A subscription management platform? A customer messaging platform? A help desk?
The reality for us is that we offer the basic features and capabilities expected of software products in three or four preexisting and well understood software categories. In a lot of ways I don’t think it makes much of sense for us to have to choose to align ourselves with just a single one of these categories.
The fact of the matter is whichever of those existing markets we choose, our product is not going to be the most compelling when evaluated against the criteria that products in that chosen market are measured against. Outseta’s value comes from the breadth of the features we offer across the different categories of software that all early stage SaaS businesses need.
If we have to align ourselves with a pre-existing category, I’d choose either “CRM” or “subscription management.” But those markets themselves are pretty different—are we competing with Hubspot CRM, Pipedrive, and Copper or are we competing with Chargebee, Recurly, and Chargify? That’s a big decision with lots of trickle down consequences.
My gut tells me that at our core we’re primarily a subscription management platform, because our customers find us early on to help them manage subscriptions—the contact management and CRM aspects of the product come into play at a later stage. The alternative solution we hear a lot about at an early stage is companies building their own subscription management logic and other required scaffolding on top of Stripe.
But beyond just subscription “management,” I think our positioning likely needs to be something closer to a subscription “growth” platform. We’re not just managing subscriptions, but actively providing a series of tools to help you grow and support your subscriber base that the other subscription management platforms simply don’t offer. I’m not sold on that yet, but it’s the way I’m leaning.
These challenges or criticisms are fairly unique to our context and product, but in the vain leaving a balanced review they were the shortcomings of Obviously Awesome for me specifically. April Dunford’s book is gem—if you’re working on your positioning, it’s the best place yet that I’ve found to start.
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