Category Creation: What I’ve Learned From Some of the Biggest Names in SaaS

Gil Allouche
Gil Allouche

I’ve had the opportunity to interview forward-thinking founders and business leaders on category creation. 

As an entrepreneur and founder of Metadata, I’m gaining invaluable insight with every recording. 

The first six months of our Category Creators podcast have helped to demystify what it means to actually be called a category creator, how to build a category, and all the missteps along the way.

With new founder friends, Friday afternoon drinks and many laughs, I’m learning as I go. 

Anytime you’re creating something that the market has never seen before, you need to define it and evangelize the category. That process will come with certain signals and triggers that you’re on the right path.

Here’s the top four lessons they all shared: 

Customers will often lead the way 

My guests have all had a resounding common theme—Great category creator companies always have their customers top of mind.

Mark Organ, creator of two new categories of marketing software as founder and CEO of Eloqua and Influitive, said it all revolves around getting close to your customer any way you can. 

The first job of the category creator is to market the category more than their own company. Often that starts with their customers being their crusaders.

Many of my guests didn’t even like the name of their category at first. They weren’t interested in acronyms. But their customers were first to call it that.

Biggest takeaway? Be more customer-driven.

Don’t get too attached to a word you happen to like. It’s often your customers who determine who you are and what the category is better than you can. 

“It’s all ego issues,” said David Cancel, founder of Drift. “It’s actually very simple. Find exactly how your customers express it, find some phrases, test those phrases, and those will probably be way better than your product marketing or your CEO’s way of describing it.”

Beyond validation, our guests work with their customers to standardize metrics and define processes.

Whether organically through ongoing customer engagement, or more formally through advisory committees, categories are not created in silos. They were listening 24/7. 

Don’t focus on the analyst hurdle—be innovative!

It’s vital to take something disruptive and get the Gartner and Forresters of the world to repeat that same narrative. With disruption comes negative attention, but it’s still beneficial for an analyst firm to help the broader market digest the idea.

Dee Anna McPherson, CMO of Invoca and influencer of the Enterprise Social Networking category, recalls one analyst calling them, “the smoke that creeps under the door and chokes you–the drug dealers of the software industry”. 

How did she respond? By getting a critical mass of customers calling Gartner analysts and lobbying as their voice.

If you want an analyst to create a wave in your space, one of the biggest factors is the inbound call volume they get from their paying customers.

Knowing that, she brought attention and attracted people to test out the software first.

This started a lot of buzz around them. Analysts can’t ignore their customers.

And because they were being inundated with calls from IT people asking about this new software, it got their attention and they finally came around to embracing the new category.  

Convincing analysts why the old way of doing things is not effective anymore can be a hard task, but building a customer community who champions what you offer is an innovative strategy.

You need competition

When you’re in the throes of creating a new category, competition helps legitimize the market you’re after.

My guests knew that in order for it to be a new category, their competitors needed to embrace it. They knew that the competition validates the presence of a category. 

Your marketplace will continue to evolve as competition forces differentiation. Instead of negatively treating it as direct competition, frame it as validation of the space. But be sure to highlight the key differences in your approach.

And don’t sweat the smaller competitors. Every market is sure to have a lion, a bunch of tigers, and a few house cats. Focus on the kings of the jungle you’re trying to disrupt. 

You will have a fail moments

The wisdom from failure is irreplaceable.

We learn so much about how to replicate success but it’s equally important to learn from failures when building a business let alone creating a new category.

My guests collectively seem to feel that failure was their biggest teacher. Sure, it’s soul-crushing at first, but they learned to forgive themselves, share their story, and be vulnerable.

Listeners benefit from these stories. They can connect at a human level because failure resonates with everyone.

The wiser you become from these missteps, you see it as a strength instead of shame.

Removing limiting beliefs is something most category creators are good at. They see what’s possible with experimentation and have the right conversations with the right people.

David Cancel addressed finding the things that no one else is willing to do through a culture of experimentation. “We just had this discipline over and over again of just experimenting, experimenting, experimenting,” he said. “Don’t ever do something that someone else is doing.”

These leaders have defied the status quo in creating something that didn’t exist. Their path of most resistance paid off and there’s much to be learned from their formative experiences.

Even when they don’t realize what they’re doing, we learn how these founders go out in the wild and figure it out. Uncovering these hidden absolute truths with tools and processes is the best kind of schooling. 

Grab a drink of choice, (as will we!) and join us for our latest episode!

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