In The Loop
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Mar 2, 2021 • 12 minutes read

How to position your startup: A peek into our process and advice from positioning expert Hema Padhu

Bozena Pieniazek is the Director of Marketing at Maze. In this article, she shares how we defined Maze’s positioning with the help of positioning expert.

When I first joined Maze in early 2020, we were getting ready to launch a new solution, Maze Discovery, that would enable users to run tests without importing a prototype. This was a big change in our company direction. Until then, Maze had found product-market fit as a prototype testing tool for product design teams.

With the launch on the horizon, we started to have conversations about our positioning and quickly realized that things were no longer so clear. Amazings were describing Maze, from our product to our value proposition, in a slightly different way. This was when we decided to invest in defining our positioning.

Marketing without positioning is like driving without a map. Positioning is your true north and it should guide all strategic decisions that a startup makes—be it marketing, pricing, product, or sales.

Hema Padhu

This article provides a step-by-step overview of how we defined our positioning and insights from positioning expert Hema Padhu.

So, what exactly is positioning and why does it matter?

According to Hema, “Positioning, as Al Ries said thirty-something years ago, is a battle for the mind of the consumer. Once an end-user assigns a certain place in her mind for your product, it’s very hard to shift that perception. And as marketers, we know that perception is reality. When it comes to SaaS, a customer has so many growing choices. Most of us switch between six to twelve browser windows in a given day to accomplish our work. And one of those browser windows has to be your software. So positioning your product, its benefits, and how it’s different from all those other players in your category is pretty critical.”

Positioning is the act of deliberately defining how you are the best at something that a defined market cares a lot about.

April Dunford

Defining your product positioning is a cross-departmental exercise where you develop a deep understanding of your target market, analyze the competitive landscape, and assess your product or service’s unique value proposition. These elements help you define how to position yourself in the market—and ultimately, are the building blocks to successful growth.

It’s often seen as a marketing activity but, in reality, positioning impacts every department in an organization from marketing and sales to product development. It guides the product strategy, giving the team a clear understanding of who they are building for and what product differentiators to double-down on. It also provides marketing and sales with a clear foundation to build a go-to-market strategy.

In short, it’s a key element for every organization’s success. And if done well, it pays off. Take Drift, HubSpot, Slack, and MailChimp for example. They are all clear category leaders, and this is not by chance. More on category building later.

How we defined our positioning: a step-by-step overview

Like many early-stage startups, we have a never-ending list of priorities ranging from launching new features, kick-starting long-term acquisition initiatives, and driving short-term growth—all while building the right foundations. With this in mind, we decided to bring Hema on board to work with our leadership team.

We decided to bring Hema on board not only because she came highly recommended but also because we knew that having someone external would bring a new perspective to the team and also free up time for us to focus on short-term initiatives.

Jonathan Widawski, CEO and co-founder

We embarked on a two-month-long journey to define our positioning. Here’s a simplified overview of the process we went through and that you can follow when working on your product positioning.

Step 1: Forming our positioning team

To get started, we decided on our positioning team. We wanted to make sure key stakeholders were part of the process and had input into the final outcome. With this in mind, we formed a team consisting of Jonathan, CEO and co-founder, Thomas, CTO and co-founder, Arjen, Head of Product, and Bozena, Director of Marketing.

Each team, from sales to marketing to customer success, can bring a unique point of view relative to how customers perceive and experience the product.

April Dunford

We kicked things off by reviewing what product positioning is, what it’s not, and why it’s important. Setting the initial context for the team was critical to ensure everyone was aligned on the key purpose of this exercise. Finally, we agreed on the overall process, from key milestones to the weekly feedback sessions.

The first session was eye-opening. I learned that positioning is not just about you and what you want to build but also about where you stand in the market and how you communicate this.

Thomas Mary, CTO and co-founder

Step 2: Speaking to our power users

We kicked things off by speaking to some of our power users. Our Customer Success team helped shortlist users from different user segments, including different personas and company sizes and we did in-depth interviews of customers in our Customer Advisory Board (CAB).

Your best-fit customers hold the key to understanding what your product is.

April Dunford

Here are a few examples of questions we asked:

  • Can you briefly describe the scope of your responsibilities at <Company>?
  • How did you hear about Maze?
  • What problem is Maze solving for you?
  • If you were to describe Maze to someone who has never heard of it, how would you describe it?
  • If Maze were no longer available to you, what would you replace it with?
  • Please complete this sentence for me. Without Maze, I would find it very difficult to __.
  • Do you think there are other solutions that solve the same problem?

Through the interviews, we were able to get a good understanding of what our users value most and least, how they use the product, why they chose Maze over alternatives, what their buying process looked like, and most importantly what problem Maze solves for them.

The customer interviews validated hypotheses we had. In my opinion, it was interesting to see how different people were using the same language we were to describe Maze. This helped a lot in shaping our positioning.

Jonathan Widawski, CEO and co-founder

Step 3: Establishing our unique differentiators

Next, we started to dig deeper into the value we provide our users.

As a first step, we mapped out Maze’s key value elements—the things that our users value the most as well as how our product functionalities enable these. To ensure we captured all relevant values, we not only assessed “visible” values but also ones that might not be as obvious at first glance—the things that are under the hood but keep the engine going. We agreed on six essential values that we felt confident in. These values are the key reasons why users choose Maze over other solutions and ultimately form the foundation for our positioning and messaging.

Next, we wanted to understand where Maze would excel. We mapped out the product development workflow, from ideation to production, and assessed where our competitors were strongest, and where we excelled. This gave us a good overview of how we fit into the ecosystem and workflow of our users.

Finally, we wanted to understand what values our users have in common. We created the following five categories based on characteristics that we knew were relevant to our power users:

  • Customer obsessed culture (high, low)
  • Product complexity (high, low)
  • Team size (>50, >5)
  • Release cycle (rapid, infrequent)
  • Data-driven (highly, not very)

Based on this, we were able to spot commonalities between the customers where adoption was the highest. This meant we were able to better understand how our values fit with our users’ internal company values.

Step 4: Analyzing the competitive landscape

Now that we had insight into what problem Maze was solving for our users, we wanted to get a better understanding of how others were addressing this particular problem in the market. To do this, we analyzed key players to understand their product offering, positioning, messaging, target audience, and pricing.

In addition, we reviewed industry reports, such as the 2019 UX Design Tools Survey and UserInterviews’ UX Research Tools Map to help us understand the wider market better.

After analyzing the market, the key takeaways were that the majority of teams rely on qualitative in-person research, video recordings, or post-development analytics. With this in mind, we could now explore what truly made Maze unique and how we could best position ourselves to win.

Positioning is about making a choice. So don’t try to be everything. Resist the temptation to list everything your product does. What does it do 10x better than anything else out there? Hone in on that.

Hema Padhu

Now, it was our turn to make a choice—we had to decide what we wanted to focus on. We had to bet on the one thing that we believed Maze was 10x better at than any other solution out there. To do this, we divided our value elements into three categories: must-haves, nice-to-haves, and unique hooks. We refined this list over and over, frequently asking ourselves whether this was truly unique. In the end, we were able to identify what we believe makes Maze unique: enabling anyone to test and learn rapidly.

Step 5: Creating our positioning statement

Last but not least, we created our positioning statement. There are many different positioning statement templates but we used this one:

For (target audience) that need to (need or opportunity), (name of company) is a (product/app/category) that enables (statement of key benefit) unlike (your competitive alternatives) (has these drawbacks) (name of company) (statement of primary differentiation).

After a few revisions, we ended up with a statement that we felt really confident about. Having our positioning statement written down has been really useful as anyone across the company can easily refer back to it when needed and ensure we’re staying true to our positioning.

Positioning gave us a North Star to follow. It helps us inform decisions company-wide— from what we build to how we communicate it. It was very important for us to align as we all had a slightly different interpretation of where the North is.

Thomas Mary, CTO and co-founder

Now that we have our positioning defined, the hard work begins. We’ve used our positioning to guide our product strategy, define our go-to-market plans, as well as shape our new brand. We still have a lot of work ahead of us but we feel confident in the foundations we have built.

Identify the one thing you can promise and deliver on over and over again, no matter what.

Hema Padhu

According to Jonathan, Maze’s CEO and co-founder, “Broadening our aperture from user research to empowering anyone to test and learn rapidly means that we now need to deliver on our vision. For example, we’re thinking of ways to make contacting and managing testers an easier, faster process. We’re also thinking about making the building experience faster and easier for everyone with curated expert templates. Finally, a big focus in 2021 will be to make Maze a fully collaborative platform, from creation to analytics.”

“Your positioning will fail if your brand doesn’t deliver on its promise. If you call yourself a Conversational Marketing Platform and don’t offer multiple ways to communicate and connect with your customers or capture customer journeys and use that data intelligently, then you are not delivering on your promise. It’s an empty promise, and your customers will see through it. Identify the one thing you can promise and deliver on over and over again, no matter what,” says Hema.

How to effectively position your product: 4 pieces of advice from Hema

To wrap up, we asked Hema to share common mistakes she sees startups make when thinking about positioning and how to avoid them. Here’s what she said:

1. Don’t position yourself too late

Too many startups, in their desire to deepen product-market-fit, double down on a particular audience segment or a specific functionality of the product and sell into it. This can be a case of missing the forest for the trees. Your audience may box you into a category even if the startup’s vision is broader and bigger. And you can’t blame the audience! You never told them clearly, and in a compelling way, why your vision matters and how your vision of the world and, by extension your product, is fundamentally different than all those other alternatives out there. As the authors of Play Bigger warn, “Position or be positioned.”

2. Solve a meaningful problem

Sometimes, founders can be too focused on creating a category rather than making sure they are solving a meaningful problem for someone. You can’t create a category if you can’t convince your end users that you’re solving a significant pain for them that they’d be willing to pay for someday, and you’re doing it in a totally unique and different way than your competitors. This is why having some proof of product-market fit is important before focusing on positioning your product.

3. Make a choice

Effective product positioning is about choice. You decide to be something specific for a target customer or a group of people, which means you are also making a choice not to be a whole bunch of other things to those people. This is when I get into a “hard choices” discussion with founders. My favorite quote is, “You can’t be all things to everyone, but you can be something great for someone.” That, to me, is the essence of positioning. It sounds simple but navigating those choices critically and finding that space where your vision isn’t so broad that it’s not believable, yet not so narrow that it isn’t inspiring or compelling, that’s where the hard work needs to happen.

4. Be strategic about building a product category

We live in a winner-takes-all world. So creating a category and dominating it like so many successful startups like HubSpot, Salesforce, or Slack have done has enormous advantages. And while category creation is a very strategic, thoughtful, and deliberate process, these companies created categories because their founders saw the world in a way most others didn’t. They looked at the status quo and said, “Wait, why are we doing it this way? There’s got to be a better way.” So that is the first step: do you see the world differently? And second, are there others who can embrace this new way of doing things? Typically, these early adopters are your evangelists and are critical for your success.

There is also absolutely nothing wrong with entering a category that hasn’t been innovated in decades and transforming it. Look at Mailchimp. Look at Typeform. Email and surveys existed before these companies came into being.

Hema Padhu helps early-stage startups with their positioning, brand, and GTM strategy. You can reach her at hema@padhugroup.com.

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