Seed-Stage Positioning: Lock and Load

With angel and seed money flowing, and a great environment for company creation, I’ve been talking to a lot of seed-stage and pre-seed stage startups of late.  They often ask me about positioning.  Listening to myself talk, I realized that I didn’t really sound like me, and it made me wonder why.

What I Normally Sound Like on Positioning
When people ask me about positioning and messaging, I usually sound like this:

  • As Fausto Coppi said about cycling, positioning is suffering.  The marketer who suffers the most wins.
  • When challenging a marketer in a positioning meeting, the ideal response to every question is: “yes, we thought of that and ruled it out for these reasons.”  You should never be able to come up with something they haven’t thought about already.  Deeply.
  • Positioning is a labor of love.  You need to examine and re-examine all the messages and how they fit together over and over again [1].
  • Slapdash and positioning don’t belong on the same page, let alone the same paragraph or the same sentence.
  • Get Shit Done is the watchword in marketing, today.  There’s no room for perfectionism, except for one thing:  positioning.

In short, I feel about positioning the way David Ogilvy felt about copywriting.

What I Sound Like Talking to Seed-Stage Startups
Lately, in talking with seed-stage startups, however, I’ve heard myself sounding like this:

  • Perfect is the enemy of good.
  • Put in enough thought and build enough consensus that you can execute without wanting to change it every day — but no more than that.
  • Stop worrying about category creation, and worry about proving product-market fit [2].
  • Analysts name categories, not vendors.  Guiding them to the right name is a problem we’ll hopefully get to have in 2-4 years.
  • Just be clear.  The emphasis needs to be 100% on clarity:  make it clear, make it simple, and don’t let confusion interfere.

Think hard but don’t agonize.  Then lock and load.  Debate it, decide it, train the team on it, and then go execute.  Don’t entertain revisiting the positioning unless you get material new information.  Think:  “I’ll write everyone’s concerns down in a Google Doc that we can revisit in two to four quarters — right now we’re in execution mode.” [3]

Why The Difference?
The positioning challenge is fundamentally different between a seed-stage and a larger company.  Managing this difference can be particularly hard for a larger-company director of product marketing who’s just joined their first seed- or early-stage startup.

At a larger company, the product marketer typically works in an existing category and needs to clearly message what their offering does and how it is different from the competition. That often involves amplification of subtle differences in an effort first to position yourself as different and then as better.  You’re trying to differentiate in a market where, to most buyers, everyone sounds the same.  You’re in a why buy mine situation, in a hot and growing market, fighting for share, and in that situation you literally cannot spend enough time and energy getting the optimal answer to the question:  why buy mine?  Anything less than perfect isn’t good enough.

At a seed-stage company you’re trying to see if anyone wants to buy what you’ve built.  Your founder saw a problem and built a solution to it.  But few people, if any, have actually bought it.  You don’t know if they will.  The number one thing your next-round investors will be looking for is how many people didYou’re selling to technology enthusiasts who want to try it because they try everything or, better yet, visionaries who are more than able to map the potential benefits of the product to their business — provided, of course, they understand what the product is.  So your job is simple:  explain what the product is in the clearest simplest, shortest form possible [4].  Anything more than that is wasted effort, better spent on engaging with more people instead of further honing the message.

When seed-stage companies get confused about this, here’s what I think is happening:

  • Perfectionism is winning over pragmatism.  Believe me, I get the desire to want to make it perfect, but in reality you’re just navel gazing.
  • It’s a form of avoidance.  It’s scary that people might fully understand what you built and then say, “no thanks, I don’t need that.”  But that’s precisely what you need to find out.  Relish these conversations, even if reveal that you built the wrong light bulb.  If that’s true, you’ll find out eventually anyway.  Why not fail fast?
  • It’s a failure to understand marketing.  Founders sometimes think that marketing is supposed to dress up their practical but mundane idea so that people will buy it.  That’s wrong.  All that fancy dress-up just interferes with what you should be doing:  finding the right people to hear your idea and clearly telling them what it is. [5] [6]
  • Large-company people not adapting to required small-company practices.

In short, while at larger companies positioning is indeed suffering, at seed-stage companies, positioning is the quick search for simple clarity.

Get it.  Then lock and load.

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[1] Certainly in your own mind, but also with other people and groups:  customers, prospects, sales, product, engineering … and via market research.

[2] Resisting the temptation to expound on category creation, let me say that the podcast episode linked with Stephanie McReynolds on category creation was, I believe, outstanding.  Listen to it for a great discussion on the topic.

[3] But we’re not going to spend hours every week — often just arguing with ourselves — wondering if we’re describing it optimally.

[4] One great way to do that is often via an origin story:  explaining why the founder built it.

[5] Companies often put more energy into what they want to say than who they want to say it to, and that’s a mistake.  Pitching an innovation idea to a conservative buyer might result in rejection, but not because the idea is bad but because the buyer is risk averse. In Geoffrey Moore terms, you want to find visionaries — people who understand technology and can envision how a given technology might solve a range of business problems.

[6] Don’t worry, if you’re talking to the right person (see prior endnote) with a good idea, they’ll tell you the business benefits.  Later in market evolution you’ll need to explain business benefits to people.  But early on, when you’re selling to visionaries, they’ll tell you.

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