In this series, I’ve been discussing some of the differentiation factors you can use to build unique value into your product while you’re planning your go-to-market strategy. Some of the factors I’ve discussed are not as strong as others. Using ‘your people’ as the primary differentiator for your product is like building your office on a bed of sand; shaky at best and will undoubtedly topple when pressure is applied. But if your people represent the sand of unique value, then granite is what you should really be building your foundation on. If true, long-lasting unique value is what you’re looking for, something that can’t be easily duplicated by your competitors, then shift your focus to subject matter expertise and best practices in your industry. The most powerful arrow in your go-to-market quiver should be diving deep into thought leadership and finding a way to use your subject matter expertise to bake best-practices directly into your product.
There are countless examples of this is the SaaS world but one of my favorites is Hubspot. Brian Halligan and Dharmesh Shah first published their foundational text, Inbound Marketing, in 2009 and exposed the world to a totally new style of marketing. Rather than focusing on the dos and don’t of inbound marketing, I’d rather focus on how they used that concept to build one of the strongest SaaS platforms I’ve had the pleasure of using. Hubspot, the platform, is unique in a way most companies don’t get to experience. Due to their location they were able to take uber-smart engineers from MIT and mix them with amazing creatives. The product that resulted was truly ground-breaking.
Baked-In Best Practices
At the time, what separated Hubspot from many email marketing platforms was their approach to best-practices and the development of content and their platform. Not only did the marketing team have great ideas but it was integrating those ideas with their engineering team that truly made a difference in their clients’ businesses. Mashing together both marketers and engineers from their local feeder school MIT, Hubspot’s team was able to hypothesize the best way to use content to generate inbound leads. Then they used some very smart engineers to build and test those hypothesis. The result was the formulation of a scientific-based approach to content marketing that combined the best worlds of engineering and marketing. Not only had this not been done before (in part because inbound marketing had not yet been codified), it definitely hadn’t been done with such precision and process.
This endeavor led Hubspot to become one of the premier thought leadership providers for inbound marketing. It also drove the features they built into their platform. In the beginning Brian Halligan told the Harvard Business Review they built almost any good idea they could think into their product. But not long after, if features didn’t align with the inbound methodology then they focusing on, they left them out or they were deprioritized. Everything from website development, landing pages, content creation, calls to action, conversion forms, etc. were all baked perfectly into a platform that supported the methodology and was proven by actionable data. A very powerful combination to be sure.
All the while, Hubspot was a content marketing machine. They were creating incredible thought leadership content throughout their own journey and freely sharing most of it with their clients and the community at large. This only helped strengthen their expert status but it also set them apart from many other email marketing platforms that were pitching their wares through the lens of traditional email marketing methodology; spray and pray. As a result, Hubspot built a huge entry barrier on any competitor interested in joining the inbound arena. Staking their claim through thought leadership and a platform that perfectly supported their winning tactics, no one could come close to competing with them at the time. Granted, that was nearly 10 years ago and many competitors have caught up—but not without Hubspot showing incredible growth and market penetration.
Are You Already An Expert?
One of my favorite authors is Malcom Gladwell and in his book Outliers he proposes, “the 10,000 hour rule is a definite key in success.” If you haven’t read the book you should. But in the meantime, what he’s saying is that to be an expert at something you have to consistently do that thing for at least 10,000 hours. So…I’d like you to ask yourself, “what have I done for 10,000 hours,” because that’s a great place to start codifying the best practices you want to build into your product.
Depending on your personality type and the way your brain processes information, it may not be in your nature to think about what you do, how you do it, and turn that into a standardized and systematic process. This is pretty common—not everyone’s brain organizes information into neat little buckets. But if you’re going to build best practices into your product you need to document what those are. Two great ways to do this are writing them down on notecards or sharing your stories with a friend or colleague who’s brain might work different than yours.
Card sorting is a great exercise we’ve used for years in the website design world and it works great for this process as well. A tool I used to develop the mind map for the SaaS Field Manual is Mindomo. If you’re a little OCD or enjoy organizing then this tool will be right up your alley. Otherwise, grab a stack of 3×5 notecards and site down with a marker and your bulletin board.
If you just can’t wrap your brain around organizing all that content then find a friend that can. Keep an eye out for friends that incessantly use their calendar, organize their music collection into intricate playlists, or have lots of file folders organized nearly on top of a clean desk These are the people whose brains naturally categorize information. Buy them dinner or sit down over tea or scotch and start telling your story. These talented over-organizers will find clues and connection points between your stories and they’ll help you organize your best-practices.
But I’m Not An Expert Yet!
What happens if you have a great idea but it’s within an industry you have no experience? You wouldn’t even know where to begin with best-practices much less 10,000 hours of experience. This is a tricky situation and one I’d caution you from delving too far into without more research. With little to no experience you have to be careful creating a product that might not be used or goes against already established industry best practices. Imagine releasing a new accounting system that goes against best practices in that industry. Your idea might be amazing but trying to roll a boulder up hill is tiring and often smashes the one doing all the pushing.
Once you’ve determined you have a good idea and that it hasn’t already been done then by all means go for it. But if you’re not an expert in the software you’d like to build then it’s 100% your job to either become an expert or hire one. The first place to start finding experts is in your own back yard. Search your social networks for people in the field. Go to conferences and start reading blogs. Once you find the smartest thought leaders and consultants in the field then reach out to them. Be honest, tell them what you’re doing, and see if they’ll help. Take a tape recorder or sign up for an inexpensive web/phone conferencing solution and record every conversation you can.
You should interview as many people as you can but after two or three interviews you should begin to see commonality between these conversations. These commonalities are best practices in disguise. Start figuring out how to design these little gems into your product. Not only will your customers love you for making their life easier but you can also capitalize on the thought leadership you’ll be creating while blogging all your research and experience.
Best Practices Don’t Exist
There’s also a chance your idea is creating a new category or addressing a concept that doesn’t yet exist. The creators of Instagram and Snapchat had no idea what they were creating before they started (aside from creating an app to safely share hookup pics). There were no best practices because the category didn’t exist yet. This is where Hubspot found themselves and this situation is a perfect opportunity to put a stake in the ground and become the expert.
In this use case, my suggestion would be to build data and metrics into your platform from the very beginning. If you start with analytics and data built into your product, once you have a few users on the platform, you can start diving into the data and coming up with some of your own conclusions. If you’re not a numbers person, reach out to the statistics department of a local college and see if one of their class capstone projects can helping you analyze data.
Creating a new software product is hard. It takes an enormous amount of time, effort and money. There’s also a lot of things to make your product stand-out among your competitors. Some are stronger than others but the strongest and most long-lasting factors when creating your unique value proposition is to build best practices directly into your product. If you’re not already an expert in your product’s industry then it’s your responsibility to become one; either on your own or with the help of consultants or experts in the field. Building uniqueness into your product from the start will save you a lot of that time, effort, and money when you’re ready to go to market.