Part 2 – Positioning for Startups

This is a four-part series on how early stage B2B software companies should approach product marketing. Part 1 is about the role of product marketing at the early stage, Part 2 describes a positioning framework I like to use, Part 3 describes my favorite formats for documenting positioning and Part 4 is a summary and commentary on the most effective frameworks I know for pricing and packaging. 

I’ve found this framework incredibly useful for running a positioning exercise over the years. It’s inspired by April Dunford’s approach (highly recommend her book) and Clay Christensen’s jobs to be done framework (first described in the Innovator’s Solution).

Step 1 Start with the ‘jobs to be done’

What: Define the ‘jobs’ your product can be ‘hired’ to perform

Why: As Peter Drucker once said, customers don’t buy products or features, they buy benefits. Jobs-to-be-done helps you look at your product from your customers perspective, making it easier to separate the benefits from the features. 

Example:

Take Cloudflare’s home page for example. They don’t mention a single product or feature, instead focusing on the benefits their target customers most care about — security, reliability, privacy and speed.

BenefitExample products or features
SecurityDDoS Protection, SSL/TLS
ReliabilityCDN, Load Balancing
SpeedSSL/TLS
PrivacyCDN, DDoS Protection

Which customer jobs could have led them to identify these core benefits? Having not worked at Cloudflare, I can only speculate, but I imagine they could be something along the lines of:

  1. I want to protect my internet assets from bad actors.
  2. I want my web applications to deliver the best performance regardless of where my users are located. 
  3. I want user data to stay private and encrypted when it moves between my servers and user applications.
  4. My applications should be able to handle drastic changes in traffic without changes in performance.

As an early stage company, you probably only have one or two products. The benefits you identify will be more granular than Cloudflare. This typically makes it harder to separate them from your features.    

Step 2 Segment your TAM

What: Segment customers in your TAM using obvious and visible characteristics.

Why: For segmentation to be effective, it needs to be based on obvious and visible characteristics for a number of reasons –

  • They drive alignment across the team by helping engineering, sales and product unambiguously define different customer types in their TAM. There’s very little room for confusion when you use characteristics like ‘JavaScript developer’, ‘sales manager, ‘SDR’, ‘lead generation software provider’, ‘BPO’ etc. 
  • Clearly defined and labeled customer segments make demand generation and prospecting easier down the line. 
  • They make it easier to categorize customer feedback. 
  • They also make it easier to identify and evaluate competitors.
  • Finally, they help you see which features are most used by customers with different characteristics, a critical input for packaging.   

Let your understanding of the value provided by your product guide identifying these characteristics. They can be external — company size, number of seats, title or role or related to the product — usage or time to deploy the solution. 

Example:

Gong.io does a fantastic job of segmenting their TAM using company roles and responsibilities.The product records sales conversations and uses AI to transcribe and analyze calls to derive insights that can improve sales performance. Insights include topics discussed, objections, competitors mentioned, spotting red flags and identifying opportunities for coaching.

They’ve adopted a broader position to start — ‘Revenue Intelligence’ vs ‘Sales Intelligence’, so that they can sell directly to the top decision maker on the sales side, whether that’s the CRO, COO or another executive title. It also positions them as a strategic investment as opposed to yet another sales acceleration tool.

But they’ve also done a great job targeting all of the other roles that could either be influencers or decision makers in buying the product with positioning that speaks specifically to their ‘jobs to be done’.

Step 3 Map jobs to be done to benefits

What: Map the ‘jobs’ each segment cares about to the benefits delivered by your product or feature.

Why: Each customer segment does not care about all the benefits you have to offer. Mapping helps you identify which products or features, and therefore benefits you highlight when positioning your product to a particular customer segment. 

Example 

Gong again does a great job here. They recognize that their product is valuable to any role responsible for sales performance like sales leaders, frontline sales managers, sales enablement managers and account executives. 

Each role needs Gong for a different set of jobs:

RoleJobs-to-be-done
Sales Leader I need my sales team to be closing deals using a consistent and predictable process.
Sales ManagerI need all my reps to perform like my best reps.
Sales EnablementI need new sales reps to become productive as fast as possible and onboarded sales reps to continue hitting their goals.
Account ExecutiveI need to consistently meet or exceed my quota.

Each role as a result cares about different benefits:

RoleBenefits
Sales Leader Ensure reps are adhering to the pitch and best practicesAbility to quantify and benchmark rep performanceMeasure and monitor sales process performance
Sales ManagerEfficient call coachingIdentify best practices and areas of improvementShare best practices within the team
Sales EnablementIdentify areas of improvementMonitor training adoption in the fieldIdentify new competitors and objections
Account ExecutiveClose more deals faster

You can see this reflected in dedicated web pages for each role:

Step 4 Analyze competitive alternatives

What: Analyze alternatives available to each customer segment for these jobs

Why: You can’t identify and articulate benefits in a vacuum. They need to be positioned against alternatives already available to the customer. Also remember that doing nothing, or using Excel or Email, or building from scratch in-house (in the case of API infrastructure) can always be an alternative. Knowing your strengths and weaknesses relative to alternatives helps you identify which benefits to emphasize in your positioning,  which ones to downplay, and also helps with objection handling in sales conversations.  

Example

I personally love this marketing tactic from Segment – https://segment.com/crm-is-not-enough/

Having created the CDP category and become the leading company in the space, they’re explicitly contrasting CDPs (and by extension Segment) against CRMs by focusing on the relative advantages that matter to their target customers — companies looking to build better customer experiences. 

Their positioning focuses on:

  • Eliminating data lock-in through open APIs and frameworks.
  • Flexibility to use the tech stack of your choice when building customer experiences (cough force.com cough).
  • Removing inter-departmental silos to place the customer first.

Note another advantage of this approach. CRMs are much older than CDPs. Segment’s target customers are extremely familiar with CRMs. Explicitly positioning against CRMs gives their target customers a reference point, making it easier to understand the benefits of Segment.

Step 5 Articulate your value

What: Articulate the value your product provides relative to the alternatives in a way most likely to resonate with each segment.  

Why: This is where you bring your positioning home. Having identified the jobs to be done, benefits, customer segments and competitive alternatives, it’s much easier to articulate the value of your offering.  

Communicating the value of your offering to a target customer to get them to buy it at a target price.

Example

Let’s look at Segment again. They have identified three customer segments for their platform – Engineering, Product and Marketing and have dedicated web pages articulating the value most relevant to each one.

Customer segmentValue
EngineeringData standardizationEase of integrationEase of compliance
MarketingPersonalizationOptimizing product communicationsPredictive conversion modeling
ProductSingle view of your customersIntegrate with the best analytics, testing and data toolsCross-team collaboration on analytics

Once you’ve articulated the value of your offering, it’s critical to write it down for the rest of your company. It’s also important to treat it as a living document — your positioning is guaranteed to change over the lifetime of your company. A living document forces you to track changes systematically and provides a record of key positioning decisions. In Part 3, I’ll discuss some of my favorite formats for documenting positioning.