“I’m an CMO and it’s 2018. Of course I’ve read Play Bigger. Duh. Do you think I live under a rock?” — Anonymous repeat CMO
Play Bigger hit the Sand Hill Road scene in a big way after its publication in 2016. Like Geoffrey Moore’s Crossing the Chasm some 25 years earlier, VCs fell in love with the book, and then pushed it down to the CEOs and CMOs of their portfolio companies. “Sell high” is the old sales rule, and the business of Silicon Valley marketing strategy books is no exception.
Why did VCs like the book? Because it’s ultimately about value creation which is, after all, exactly what VCs do. In extreme distillation, Play Bigger argues:
- Category kings (companies who typically define and then own categories in the minds of buyers) are worth a whole lot more than runner-ups.
- Therefore you should be a category king.
- You do that not by simply creating a category (which is kind of yesterday’s obsession), but by designing a great product, a great company, and a great category all the same time.
- So, off you go. Do that. See you at the next board meeting.
I find the book a tad simplistic and pop marketing-y (in the Ries & Trout sense) and more than a tad revisionist in telling stories I know first-hand which feel rather twisted to map to the narrative. Nevertheless, much as I’ve read a bunch of Ries & Trout books, I have read Play Bigger, twice, both because it’s a good marketing book, and because it’s de rigeur in Silicon Valley. If you’ve not read it, you should. You’ll be more interesting at cocktail parties.
As with any marketing book, there is no shortage of metaphors. Geoffrey Moore had D-Day, bowling alleys, and tornados. These guys run the whole “something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue” gamut with lightning strikes (old, fka blitzkreigs), pirates (new to me if not Steve Jobs), flywheels (borrowed from Jim Collins), and gravity (blue in sense of a relentless negative force as described in several cautionary tales).
While I consider Play Bigger a good book on category creation, even a modernized version of Inside the Tornado if I’m feeling generous, I must admit there’s one would-be major distinction that I just don’t get: category creation vs. category design, the latter somehow being not just about creating and dominating a category, but “designing” it — and not just a category, but a product, category, and company simultaneously. It strikes me as much ado about little (you need to build a company and a product to create and lead a category) and, skeptically, a seeming pretense for introducing the fashionable word, “design.”
After 30 years playing a part in creating, I mean designing, new categories — both ones that succeeded (e.g., relational database, business intelligence, cloud EPM, customer success management, data intelligence) and ones that didn’t (e.g., XML database, object database) — I firmly believe two things:
- The best way to create a category is to go sell some software. Early-stage startups excessively focused on category creation are trying to win the game by staring at the scoreboard.
- The best way to be a category king is to be the most aggressive company during the growth phase of the market. Do that by executing what I call the market leader play, the rough equivalent of Geoffrey Moore’s “just ship” during the tornado. Second prize really is a set of steak knives.
I have some secondary beliefs on category creation as well:
- Market forces create categories, not vendors. Vendors are simply in the right place (or pivot to it) at the right time which gives them the opportunity to become the category king. It’s more about exploiting opportunities than creating markets. Much as I love GainSight, for example, I believe their key accomplishment was not creating the customer success category, but outexecuting everyone else in exploiting the opportunity created by the emergence of the VP of Customer Success role. GainSight didn’t create the VP of Customer Success; they built the app to serve them and then aggressively dominated that market.
- Analysts name categories, not vendors. A lot of startups spend way too much time navel gazing about the name for their new category. Instead of trying to sell software to solve customer problems, they sit in conference rooms wordsmithing. Don’t do this. Get a good-enough name to answer the question “what is it?” and then go sell some. In the end, as a wise, old man once told me, analysts name categories, not vendors.
- Category names don’t matter that much. Lots of great companies were built on pretty terrible category names (e.g., ERP, HCM, EPM, BTO, NoSQL). I have trouble even telling you what category red-hot tech companies like Hashicorp and Confluent even compete in. Don’t obsess over the name. Yes, a bad name can hurt you (e.g., multi-dimensional database which set off IT threat radar vs. OLAP server, which didn’t). But it’s not really about the name. It’s about what you sell to whom to solve which problem. Again, think “good enough,” and then let a Gartner or IDC analyst decide the official category name later.
To hear an interesting conversation on category creation, listen to Thomas Otter, Stephanie McReynolds, and me discuss the topic for 60 minutes. Stephanie ran marketing at Alation, which successfully created (or should I say seized on the market-created opportunity to define and dominate) the data catalog category. (It’s all the more interesting because that category itself is now morphing into data intelligence.)
Since we’re talking about the marketing strategy game, I want to introduce another book, less popular in Silicon Valley but one that nevertheless deserves your attention: Playing to Win. This book was written not by Silicon Valley denizens turned consultants, but by the CEO of Proctor & Gamble and his presumably favorite strategy advisor. It’s a very different book that comes from a very different place, but it’s right up there with Blue Ocean Strategy, Inside the Tornado, and Good Strategy, Bad Strategy on my list of top strategy books.
- Consumer packaged goods (CPG) is the major league of marketing. If they can differentiate rice, yogurt, or face cream, then we should be able to differentiate our significantly more complex and inherently differentiated products. We have lots to learn from them.
- I love the emphasis on winning. In reality, we’re not trying to create a category. We’re trying to win one, whether we happened to create it or not. Strategy should inherently be about winning. Strategy, as Roger Burgelman says, is the plan to win. Let’s not dance around that.
- I love the Olay story, which opens the book and alone is worth the price of the book. Take an aging asset with the wrong product at the wrong price point in the wrong channel and, instead of just throwing it away, build something amazing from it. I love it. Goosebumps.
- It’s practical and applied. Instead of burying you in metaphors, it asks you to answer five simple questions. No pirates, no oceans, no tornados, no thunderstorms, no gorillas, no kings, no beaches.
Those five questions:
- What is your winning aspiration? The purpose of your enterprise, its motivating aspiration.
- Where will you play? A playing field where you can achieve that aspiration.
- How will you win? The way you will win on the chosen playing field.
- What capabilities must be in place? The set and configuration of capabilities required to win in the chosen way.
- What management systems are required? The systems and measures that enable the capabilities and support
Much as I love metaphors, I’d bury them all in the backyard in exchange for good answers to those five questions. Strategy is not complex, but it is hard. You need to make clear choices, which business people generally resist. It’s far easier to fence sit, see both sides of the issue, and keep options open (which my old friend Larry used to call the MBA credo). That’s why most strategy isn’t.
Strategy is about answering those questions in a way that is self-consistent, consistent with the goals of the parent organization (if you’re a brand or general manager in a multi-product company), and with the core capabilities of the overall organization.
In our view, Olay succeeded because it had an integrated set of five strategic choices that fit beautifully with the choices of the corporate parent. Because the choices were well integrated and reinforced category-, sector-, and company-level choices, succeeding at the Olay brand level actually helped deliver on the strategies above it.
I won’t summarize the entire book, but just cherrypick several points from it:
- As with Burgelman, playing to win requires you to define winning for your organization in your context. How can we make the plan to win if we don’t agree on what winning is? (How many startups desperately need to have the “what is winning” conversation?)
- Playing to win vs. playing to play. Which are you doing? A lot of people are doing the latter.
- Do think about competition. Silicon Valley today is overloaded with revisionist history: “all we ever focused on was our customers” or “we always focused only on our vision, our north star.” Ignoring competition is the luxury of retired executives on Montana ranches. Winning definitionally means beating the competition. You shouldn’t be obsessed with the competition, but you can’t ignore them either.
- While they don’t quite say it, deciding where you play is arguably even more important than deciding what you sell. Most startups spend most of their energy on what (i.e., product), not where (i.e., segment). “Choosing where to play is also about choosing where not to play,” which for many is a far more difficult decision.
- The story of Impress, a great technology, a product that consumers loved, but where P&G found no way to win in the market (and ultimately created a successful joint venture with Clorox instead), should be required reading for all tech marketers. A great product isn’t enough. You need to find a way to win the market, too.
- The P&G baby diapers saga sounds similar to what would have happened had Oracle backed XQuery or when IBM originally backed SQL — self-imposed disruptions that allowed competitors entry to the market. IBM accidentally created Oracle in the process. Oracle was too smart to repeat the mistake. Tech strategic choices often have their consumer analogs and they’re sometimes easier to analyze in that more distant light.
- The stories of consumer research reveal a depth of desired customer understanding that we generally lack in tech. We need to spend more time in customers’ houses, watching them shave, before we build them a razor. Asking them about shaving is not enough.
- I want to hug the person who described the P&G strategy process as, “corporate theater at its best.” Too much strategy is exactly that.
Overall, it’s a well-written, well-structured book. Almost all of it applies directly to tech, with the exception of the brand/parent-company intersection discussions which only start to become applicable when you launch your second product, usually in the $100M to $300M ARR range. If you don’t have time for the whole book, the do’s and don’ts at the end of each chapter work as great summaries.