Don’t Try To Create A Category

Avoid it, or know what you’re signing up for.

Mike Troiano
10 min readJul 28, 2016

“We have no competition. We’re creating a whole new category!”

I hear it spoken proudly by entrepreneurs all the time. My first thought is “You poor, naive bastard.” Creating a new category of enterprise technology — or consumer tech, for that matter — is brutally hard. It requires a mix of creativity, communications discipline, and sustained effort that’s unnatural, time-consuming, and expensive. There are big trade-offs along the way. Success is a rare exception to the rule of humiliation and failure. It’s like a land war in Asia.

I know. That’s what I said 4 years ago, when I started at a promising but still small company hoping to change the way global enterprises manage their data. Last week we pretty much checked the box on category creation for reason’s I’ll explain later, and I thought I’d take the opportunity to share a few highlights of what we learned along the way, and why I never want to do this again.

First some background. Actifio began in 2009 with an idea for a radically simple way to help enterprise customers take control of the data explosion that was crippling their businesses. Short version is our founders realized the cause of that explosion wasn’t the growth of primary “production data,” but all the separate systems making copies of that data — for backup, disaster recovery, dev, staging, the cloud, etc. etc. A siloed approach to secondary data had become a multiplier of primary data, creating a data monster that grew geometrically year-in and year-out.

There had to be a better way, and getting customers excited about it meant creating a new category.

You have to simplify your story, then tell it everywhere.

To get someone to think about any problem in a new way, you need to build a bridge from something they do understand to something they don’t. The more complicated the thing they don’t understand — this new thing you’re inventing — the longer and harder to build that bridge is going to be.

In 2011 I set to work simplifying our story. We coined the term “copy data”soon after, an idea people could grasp pretty easily. Here’s me then, explaining it on a white board in 2 minutes (video here):

Simplifying any complex / fundamentally new idea is hard in itself, but harder still is the inevitable resistance to that simplification you will need to overcome in your own company. Members of your engineering team will feel your marketing message lacks the “meat” of your product capabilities. Sales people who’ve grown up selling feeds and speeds in established categories will need to be converted, or weeded out whether they’re making their numbers or not. You’ll need the strong support of your entire team, and even then the struggle to remove technical details from most external communication will be constant, and sometimes exhausting.

You have to play the long game.

It’s not just your product detail that needs to be subordinated to your category narrative. By definition, the problem you’ve identified will not be one customers are out there looking to solve right now. And that makes marketing harder.

Category creation is in some ways the opposite of Inbound Marketing, once itself a new category but now a religion in the world of lead generation. If Inbound is about connecting your story to an online conversation already underway, category creation is trying to start a new conversation, across a big group of people already talking about something else. That’s hard to do. It sometimes feels like throwback marketing, the kind that manufactured self-serving new ideas like “the heartbreak of psoriasis” and a litany of quasi-medical ailments from “halitosis” to “restless leg syndrome.” The proliferation of those ideas was accelerated by the pervasive reach of television, though, a luxury few startups can afford even if it’s still possible in the time of HBO Go.

In our case, no one was out there cycling through keywords trying to solve their copy data problem. That made lead generation harder, and for a time we wavered in our resolve. We spent too much time and energy trying to more closely embrace the language customers use to describe the problems we solved… established market categories like “test data management,” and “backup modernization.” It just made us sound like everybody else.

Here again, it will take conviction and resolve for you not to drift into communication patterns that are more familiar to your customers today. And maintaining conviction to something customers don’t want is something only a fool does without reservations.

You need to help sales connect the story and the deal.

Good marketing is just the opening line of a go-to-market model that works. If you stop there, you’ll lose. Sales enablement is a critical part of the category creation process, specifically making sure the sales team can not only begin with a story that draws customers in, but master the discovery questions, product positioning, sales process, and qualification milestones that bridge the gap between the concept and quantifiable business outcomes for the customer.

Doing this will require an extended period of close collaboration and iterative refinement between marketing and sales. It will mean lots of trial and error in the field, a willingness to bubble up what’s working, and to acknowledge what isn’t. It will mean adding some friction to the sales process at the time you can least afford it, which is right up front in your sales campaign.

If the impact of your new category is big and variable from customer to customer, the questions you ask will be as important as the stories you tell. Spend time on the product marketing stuff, especially on the discovery questions that set the table for success, and set traps for your competition. Doing so will improve sales productivity, something you’ll need to focus more and more attention on as your business matures.

You have to pick your enemies, and your frenemies.

A few years into our campaign we noticed CommVault had started to adopt our messaging. I was more than a little pissed, if I’m honest, and fired off a blog post explaining exactly how what they were doing was different than what we were doing.

CommVault responded to the post (and were even asked about it on an investor call,) which has since been shared over 4,000 times. If you Google “CommVault vs. Actifio,” that’s what you’ll get in position one. Suck on that, CommVault.

More recently, EMC made a big copy data announcement as well. Their stature was such that — rather than treat it as directly competitive — we promoted it as validation of the space, pointing out the important differences between our approach (which serves the customer) and theirs (which serves EMC.) It’s worth noting I didn’t come up with this strategy, but did have the good sense to steal it from the best.

As for smaller competitors, which will inevitably get funded as your category gains traction, don’t fret too much about them. As wbenson put it, “Every market has a gorilla, a few chimps, and a bunch of monkeys.”

The competitive bottom line is this: Focus on the gorillas in the markets you’re displacing, not on the monkeys trying to do what you have a big head start doing. Decide which to embrace and which to call bullshit on, and do so without being squeamish about who it’s going to piss off.

You have to identify influencers, and engage them individually.

There are lots of influencers in the enterprise tech space… no shortage of prominent tech bloggers, high-Klout Twitter accounts and niche podcasts. Having the support of these people is useful and important in any category, and there’s a cottage industry of very good tools, media platforms, and consultants to help you identify, monitor, engage, persuade, and (eventually) amplify these people.

In the beginning we produced content and sent it to them en masse. It was a fart in a hurricane. Eventually we figured out we needed to treat these people like actual people, and engage them one-on-one with substantive information aligned to their individual interests and proclivities. Influencer outreach doesn’t “scale” in the sense that you can’t automate the activity of engaging large numbers of individuals with influence. It’s all about building relationships with the right people, and that boils down to focus on the people who both matter and care.

To create a category, you need to look beyond these folks to the professional analyst firms that even today sit atop the influence pyramid. I know it’s unfashionable to say, but the plain truth is that to penetrate big accounts and get traction in the marketplace of ideas, you need to get the big analyst firms — especially Gartner, IDC, and 451 Group in our market— into the canoe.

The bad news is this costs a fortune, and (especially in Gartner’s case,) a massive investment of man-time kissing rings up and down the analyst hierarchy within each of the established categories they’ve organized their business around. Gartner is actually structured in such a way as to resist category-crossing technologies and (some might say) innovation. As I was told on more than one occasion, “Our job is to respond to what clients are asking for, not to tell them what they should be.” Be forewarned.

The good news (if there is some) is that there is no shortage of smart people at these firms and — because of their orientation — they spend a lot of time talking to customers to understand what they want now. My strategy of late with these folks has been to go in humble, listen as much as I talk, and learn from how they react in ways that shape our messaging and (sometimes) even our product.

All of which brings us to what happened last week.

After 7 years of helping hundreds of big, global customers move toward a hybrid cloud delivery model while becoming more agile and resilient, last week Gartner finally recognized the power of CDM and the business outcomes it delivers. Their most recent “Innovation Insight,” Copy Data Management Accelerates Bimodal IT is their first report to define how organizations are deploying copy data management solutions to realize the business benefits our customers already know all too well.

It sucked. But we did it.

In retrospect the tipping point wasn’t us convincing Gartner to get onboard, it was our customers doing it for us. As much as our relationship with Gartner frustrated me at times, I respect their model, and their independence. As they told me from the beginning… their role is not to shape what customers want, but to reflect it.

You need to deliver for your customers.

That’s what you’re really signing up for if you decide to create a category. In the final analysis, your big idea for a new category isn’t worth all the trouble for customers to grasp, embrace, and deploy it if it doesn’t deliver big enough business results to be worth the trouble.

We knew a unified approach to copy data management would have a big impact on our customers business, but it still took us years to prove that it did… especially among the big global customers that drive the enterprise market. In the end we had to make big investments in analytical tools and capabilities, eventually creating our own in-house consulting firm, Blackthorne Consulting. We had to make parallel and even larger investments in an internal Customer Success team to make sure we delivered on our promises of business value, and to figure out what went wrong when we didn’t.

When you decide to create a category, your job as a marketer isn’t just to lay claim to compelling business results… it’s to encourage them by shaping the sales motion, product experience, and supporting services around a strong, simple value proposition; then to amplify the success of the customers you have to get more of the customers you want.

You can’t create a category. Only your customers can.

They’re the ones who talk to each other, and to the influencers, and to the analysts. Their requirements cast light on the opportunity, draw capital to the technology, and — in the end — create the competition that is the “reward” for success. Delivering for them takes a lot more than marketing… a lot more buy-in, a lot more focus, a lot more capital, and a lot more time.

This week our founder Ash Ashutosh shared the Gartner report at a company meeting, where he thanked Marketing, Sales, and Customer Success for their support. He then thanked the engineering and product teams, and had the company’s founding team of engineers all stand up for an extended round of applause. He congratulated us all on achieving an important milestone, and made sure everyone was focused on where we needed to focus next.

Then he went back to his office and sent a note to every one of our customers, letting them know about the Gartner report, and thanking them for making it happen.

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Mike Troiano

Storyteller. Consiglieri. Lyrical gangsta. Partner, G20 Ventures, thoughts here are my own.