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31 / How To Get The Positioning Right

Hosted by Sean Flaherty & Paul Gebel



Headshot of April Dunford

April Dunford

Consultant, Author, Speaker

April Dunford is a consultant, author, speaker, and globally recognized expert in Positioning. She helps technology companies make complicated products easy for customers to understand and love. Previously, April has run marketing, product, and sales teams at a series of successful technology startups and has launched 16 products into market. She is also a board member, investor, and advisor to dozens of high-growth businesses and is the author of the best-selling book Obviously Awesome: How to Nail Product Positioning so Customers Get it, Buy it, Love it.

In tech, as in life, there’s more than one way to skin a cat. That might be one of the coolest aspects about building super-exciting software products. There’s any number of ways to get the job done. As product people, we lend our education, our experience, and our intuition to improving people’s lives. Our varied life circumstances inform both our efforts and the many potential means by which we pursue success. For April Dunford, who joins Sean and Paul in this episode of the Product Momentum Podcast, getting your product Positioning right is the straw that stirs the drink. “Positioning is foundational to everything that follows,” April confidently points out. “It essentially defines how your product is uniquely qualified to be a leader at something that a well-defined set of customers cares a lot about.”

April isn’t shy in proclaiming the mission-critical role that Positioning plays in product success. Nor is she bashful in calling out product-market fit as “a myth” (and making an interesting case in the process).

Listen in to catch thoughts from April Dunford on the following:

[02:20]  Product managers & product marketers. We’re sort of becoming hip. We’re cool now.

[04:27]  Positioning is foundational. In fact, it’s so foundational that we either think it’s already been done…or that we can’t do anything about it anyway.

[06:32]  Positioning. What it is; what it isn’t.

[09:16]  Good-fit customers. You want a pipeline of those.

[09:38]  Bad-fit customers. Cull the herd.

[13:13] Good fit means “good for the customer and good for the business.”

[13:50]  Segmentation. So much more than demographics and firmographics.

[15:51]  Actionable Customer Segmentation. Catch how April’s discovery process leads to actionable customer segmentation.

[19:45]  Product-market fit. “I do have a bit of hate on for product-market fit.”

[26:10]  Product-market fit part deux. “It’s baloney. It’s not a thing.”

[27:32]  Magic marketing moment. When everything feels easy. Like you’re running down hill.

[30:01]  (product + category) x Trend. Trends are accelerants to positioning. They make your stuff seem sexier.

[31:04]  Trends part deux. The trend answers the question, “Why now?”.

[32:49]  In competition with the status quo. Doing nothing is always an option for customers.

[34:00]  Positioning: investors vs. customers. Why the pitch is so different. (hint: it’s about value)

[36:39]  Innovation. There’s lots of ways to be innovative outside of the technology.

[38:23]  Acquisition features and retention features. One to set the hook, the other to make sure it stays there.

[43:23]  Positioning as a superpower. It can change the way both your team and the world think about the problems you solve, your technology, or even your entire market.

Sean [00:00:18] Hi, welcome to the Product Momentum Podcast, a podcast about how to use technology to solve challenging technology problems for your organization.

Paul [00:00:28] Hey, Sean, how’s it going today?

Sean [00:00:30] Good, Paul. Super excited for this one.

Paul [00:00:32] April is a legend in her space.

Sean [00:00:36] I think she owns the world positioning.

Paul [00:00:39] I think so, too. I think there’s not many people talking about it. I didn’t learn about it in the way that she means it, really, until I started preparing for this interview. I’d heard the word and it’s bounced around and assumed to be a certain thing by a bunch of people. And I’ll be the first to admit that I was one of those that were in the misconception camp, lumped it in with some things that it wasn’t.

Sean [00:01:00] She wrote the book Obviously Awesome. It’s all about product positioning. She’s got some great insights and feedback back for us. She links in our positioning relates to motivation. She talks about marketing pixie dust, which I loved that whole segment of the conversation.

Paul [00:01:13] Quote of the pod.

Sean [00:01:15] So if you got a little time on your hands this morning, this is a good one to buckle up and listen to.

Paul [00:01:19] I can’t wait for product people to listen to this. Let’s get after it.

Sean [00:01:22] All right. Let’s do it.

Paul [00:01:27] Well hello everybody, we’re super excited to be joined by April Dunford today. April is a positioning consultant, entrepreneur, board member, angel investor, and adviser. She’s built 25 years of expertise as an executive in a series of seven successful technology startups, three global tech giants. She’s launched 16 products as an executive, is a consultant, and she’s assisted on dozens more. She’s an international keynote speaker on the topics of positioning, market strategy, and new product introduction. Her goal is to help marketers, entrepreneurs, and sales teams do a better job of positioning innovative new products so that customers find them “obviously awesome.” April, welcome to the pod.

April [00:02:07] Hey, thanks for having me. It’s great to be here.

Paul [00:02:10] Excellent. What’s on your mind lately? How are you influencing the folks who are following you and have you found new and exciting in the product management community lately?

April [00:02:20] Haha, I’m influencing people all the time? Uh… New and exciting in product management? I don’t know. You know, lately, I’ve been having an interesting time hanging out with the product marketers. I think there’s an interesting thing happening right now. I think product management is sort of becoming hip. Do you find this? Like, it’s cool now.

Paul [00:02:42] It’s coming into its own, for sure.

April [00:02:44] And so the more people are thinking about product and doing stuff around product, the more I’m hearing product marketing as a thing, which warms my heart because I think of myself as a product marketer. You know, that’s kind of where I got my start. And so for the longest time, you know, I didn’t feel like there was kind of a community around product marketing there. You know, there were product market marketers, but they were all kind of spread out all over the place. But, yeah, lately I’m hearing a lot about product marketing. So that’s kinda neat.

Paul [00:03:15] Excellent. You know, one thing that I noticed in the very early on in your book, I’ve watched many, many Mind the Product keynotes and several of your own keynotes.

April [00:03:25] Just for the record, I’ve never spoken at Mind the Product, and if you’re out there, Mind the Product, why? Why don’t you ask me? You should.

Paul [00:03:32] Excellent point. Sounds like something we need to fix.

Sean [00:03:35] Shameless self-promotion, that’s good.

April [00:03:39] It’s on my list. At some point, I’m gonna have to make the case. I’m going to have to find these people and pitch them. Say look, “you should [inaudible], why, why not me?”

Paul [00:03:48] I did want to ask you, after having watched all those keynotes and read your book. I found one sentence stick out in my mind that I wanted to dig in on. You asked rhetorically whether the world needs another product positioning book. And I don’t see this topic talked about very frequently in the circles that I travel.

April [00:04:08] Right?

Paul [00:04:08] And that might speak to the circles that I travel in more than anything else, but…

April [00:04:12] No, it’s true. It’s a weird, esoteric topic for sure.

Paul [00:04:17] Well, help us understand, as a product manager or product owner. We’re embedded in agile and scrum and UX day-to-day. How do you get somebody immersed in product positioning?

April [00:04:27] Well, so here’s the thing about positioning. It is so foundational, particularly on the marketing and sales side. We can’t do anything without positioning as an input. So it is like one of the few things that is like super, super foundational. But it’s almost so foundational that, you know, we either think it’s been done already or we think, you know, things like market category, like that, you know, we’re just in the market category we’re in. Like, how could we be anything else? And so people aren’t actively out there trying to do positioning, at least a lot of folks in marketing and product, because they think it’s either already been done or there’s nothing I can do to it anyway, like it’s all kind of default, and nothing could be further from the truth. And so you see it more on the startup side, because, in tech startups, in particular, bad positioning is a root cause of a lot of startup failure. And a lot of really successful startups have an interesting story where at some point something clicked. They did a repositioning and that’s when things started to take off. But even there, like, they’re not actually conscious of that thing they were doing when they were monkeying around with, “what are we and who do we sell to and why do they love us?” They’re not even necessarily conscious that the word you put on that is positioning.

April [00:05:56] So when I started talking about positioning, nobody wanted to hear about it. Like it was kinda like, “wait, what, we know how to do this.” And so I had to spend a lot of time kind of, you know, taking people along this journey where I’d be like, “Hey, so, you know, this concept of positioning is not new, right?” And everyone was like, “right, right. We’re know how to do this, right?” Well, actually, no, we don’t.

Sean [00:06:22] I guess.

Paul [00:06:24] One of the things that you talked about in one of your talks recently was, it’s almost easier to talk about what is positioning by…

April [00:06:29] …By telling you what it isn’t.

Paul [00:06:31] What isn’t positioning?

April [00:06:32] Yeah, so here’s the thing. Like, it’s super misunderstood, positioning. Like, so misunderstood that even if I were to take, you know, a dozen vice presidents of marketing and put them in a room together and say define positioning, we would get a dozen really different definitions. So most of the time people will tell me, “well I know what positioning is, it’s messaging. It’s just messaging.” And I’m like, “no, no, actually, messaging comes from positioning. Like, you need to add positioning first.” And they’ll say, “oh, it’s just like a tag line.” No. How do you write a tagline if you don’t know positioning? The one that really bugs me is when people talk about, cause again I get this all the time, where they’ll say, “oh, yeah, yeah, like brand positioning.” And I’m like, “no, actually, there is branding, there is positioning, and those two things are completely separate.” And I would argue, how do I know how to brand something if I don’t understand the positioning?

April [00:07:26] So that’s how foundational this stuff is. Positioning essentially defines how your product is uniquely qualified to be a leader at something that a well-defined set of customers cares a lot about. It encompasses, what’s the market category that we intend to dominate? What’s our customer segmentation or who are we trying to sell to? What’s the value proposition we’ve got to sell to those folks, versus who, like who exactly is my competition? So that’s a lot of pieces to come together. But I need to figure those out first before I can do messaging before I know what my branding can be before I can write a tag line. All that stuff comes after we figured out the positioning.

Sean [00:08:12] So if I could reframe what I’m hearing from you when we think about a product’s vision, it should really start with a good understanding of who we’re serving and what problems we’re solving for them, and that serves as the foundation for positioning.

April [00:08:27] Yeah, you know, it’s funny, like when you think about positioning, this idea of what’s the problem that we solve, these aren’t actually all that foundational, weirdly enough. And the product managers get all bent out of shape when I say that. They’re like, “no, we need to start with the problem.” And I’m like, “OK, well, how do you know what the problem is?” And they’re like, “well, we ask customers and they’ll tell us.” I’m like, “oh…” The customers don’t always know. So when you think about positioning, what customers do know is they know how life is better after your thing is on the scene.

Sean [00:09:08] Oh, I love that.

April [00:09:09] Right. They know that.

Sean [00:09:10] Abraham Maslow said it’s a rare and difficult psychological achievement to know what you want.

April [00:09:16] This is it, right. Customers should be able to just tell us, right? And the answer is no. No, they can’t. It’s interesting, in my methodology for doing positioning, the starting point is to understand that in your existing customer set right now, you’ve got, quote-unquote, good-fit customers, and bad fit customers. So if I was to just take a survey of all my customers, regardless of whether or not they were actually a good fit for my product, but, you know, they bought from me, so I’m going to treat them all the same…and just did a survey and said, “Hey, what problem are we solving?” Or, even if I were to ask about competitors, right, “who’s my competitor?” You will get a really random assortment of responses and they will all be different. They will all be different. So in my methodology for doing positioning, what I ended up doing is basically saying, look, the only people you care about are those good fit people because you’re trying to position to get a pipeline full of those. And every company has bad fit customers that, yeah, you sold them. Yeah, you managed to take their money, but you kind of wish you didn’t. They want you to be something you’re not. They are asking you for features you’re never going to build. They’re super unhappy. They’re looking for an excuse to turn on you and they probably will once they find something better. Like, y’all got to separate those ones out.

April [00:10:44] Then I’ve got just the good fit ones, like the ones that intuitively understood what you are, the ones that bought really quickly, the ones that didn’t try to jam you on the price. The ones that just renew all the time. They tell their friends. With those people, if you go to them, even those will have a hard time telling you what the problem is. But what they can tell you is, if you didn’t exist, what would they do? They understand that. And so if you say, “look if we didn’t exist…” Like let’s say, you know, “coronavirus is going around and it went around the office. We don’t exist anymore and you’ve got to do what you do without us.” Even if they can’t solve the problem, they can tell you that. And that is a very good starting point for positioning because that gives you competitive alternatives. Once I understand the competitive alternatives, then I can say, “OK, what do I have that that doesn’t have? What features and capabilities do I have that the competitive alternatives do not?” And then once I have that, then I can say, “OK, well, how do those features translate to value for customers?” That gets me to a differentiated value. And then I can say, “well, if this is my differentiated value, what are the characteristics of a customer that makes them really, really, really care a lot about that value?” That gets to me to customer segmentation. And then lastly, I got market category, which is, you know, if I’m trying to put my product in a context where that value makes sense to those people, what is the best context to wrap around it? And that’s the best market for me to position in.

Sean [00:12:19] So, quote from your book: “your target market is the customers who buy quickly, rarely ask for discounts, and tell their friends about your offerings.” In our world, we call those advocates. Like, these are the people that are willing to invest in the future of your product.

April [00:12:33] Sometimes.

Sean [00:12:34] Well, they’re also going to be the first ones to raise their hand because they want to beta test the new features.

April [00:12:38] Right. Right.

Sean [00:12:39] They’ll give you the authentic feedback, right. They’ll tell you the truth.

April [00:12:43] Well, I think your good fit customers definitely include advocates, but they can be a very good fit customer that just doesn’t advocate.

Sean [00:12:51] For sure.

April [00:12:52] It’s possible. But, yeah, definitely in general, your advocates are good fit customers. The only time where they’re not is, sometimes you have these very, very enthusiastic customers that, you’ll starve to death if you just sold to them because they don’t actually have any budget or money and…

Sean [00:13:13] I love that.

April [00:13:13] You know. So you have to kind of factor in the needs of the business and, you know, where you got to be. Good fit means it’s good fit for everybody, not just for them. Good fit for you, too.

Sean [00:13:26] Good fit the business.

April [00:13:27] Good fit for the business.

Sean [00:13:28] As well as good fit for them. Excellent.

April [00:13:30] Now, again, like sometimes you have these people that are super enthusiastic. But it’s like, “you know what? I’m sorry, but I must fire you because you cost too much money.”

Sean [00:13:40] I think what we’re talking about really is segmentation. And you say in the book that segmentation is often misunderstood in the product world.

April [00:13:50] Yeah.

Sean [00:13:50] So what I feel like you’re saying is that powerful segmentation comes from identifying those characteristics of your product or service that inspire people.

April [00:13:59] Well, that’s it. And inspire what kind of people? Is the thing, right. So we do such a bad job of segmentation in general. And I blame consumer marketing. Like, that’s what I blame. I blame marketing school for this because I didn’t originally go to marketing school like I have a degree in engineering, but later I took a bunch of classes in marketing school and all the examples and case studies and everything that I learned in marketing school was very consumer packaged goods oriented. And therefore, when they talked about segmentation, it was always this really broad brush kind of, you know, demographic stuff, you know, like males between the age of 20 and 30 that live with their mother. You know, like, things like this, and you know, how much money they made and where they live.

April [00:14:51] And you know, what I always found was that, in B2B, I was selling technology to businesses, people would have a tendency to try to do the same thing with businesses. So they would use firmographic information instead of demographic. So they’d be like more than a thousand employees in North America, blah blah blah. But as the vice president of marketing, that wasn’t enough for me to build campaigns because generally firmographic information just doesn’t go far enough to be a really actionable segmentation. And by actionable, I mean, I could build a list and I could do a very targeted campaign just at those folks. Like if you were to come to me and say, “April, build me a campaign to go get Fortune 500 companies,” I’d say, “I have no frickin idea how to do that because those companies have absolutely nothing in common except their size.”.

Sean [00:15:51] Right.

April [00:15:51] Now, I worked for a company once where the guy told me that the target market was Fortune 1000 companies. And we did this very specific software for business analysts. And I said, “well, wait, do all Fortune 1000 companies have business analysts?” Like business analysts being somebody who’s project managing an internal software development project. I’m like, “what if I’m a mining company? Surely I don’t make software.” Then the guy says, “Oh, no, no, yeah, we take those ones out, like natural resources, whatever, we take those ones out, not those.” And I’m like, “well, OK, so hang on. What about if my business is software like I’m IBM, I’m in a Fortune 1000, but like I never heard you guys. So you sell to them?” “No. If your business is software, you do something different. So they don’t have business analysts. So, no, we don’t sell to them.” And I’m like, “okay, well, let’s say I’m smaller than Fortune 1000, say I’m Fortune 2000 but I do a ton of software and I got lots of business analysts. Would you sell them?” And the CEO goes, “yeah, yeah, we’d probably sell to them.” I’m like, “OK, so just admit it, company size has nothing to do with your segmentation, like absolutely nothing.”

April [00:17:01] And what’s crazy is, when we did the analysis, so we went in, we looked at the really good fit customers and then we interviewed them and we were trying to find out, what do the good fit customers have in common? And it was true that they fell within a range in terms of size, but the thing that was really indicative of being a good fit was, we consistently heard this over and over again is they said, “you know, you guys really help us build software if we have distributed development teams.” “Oh,” I said, “why do you have distributed development teams?” And it was 50/50. They either had distributed development teams because they had acquired companies that came with dev teams and that’s why they were distributed because they got multiple offices. They got built through acquisition, or they had distributed development teams because they had outsourced a bunch of development offshore. So, now you come to me and you say, “April, build me a campaign, not for Fortune 1000 companies, build me a campaign for people that do a lot of offshoring.” Oh, I can sell the heck out of that. I can build you beautiful campaigns for that. Do you know there is a magazine, at least there was back then, called offshorers weekly and you could buy a full-page ad for five thousand bucks and I generated hundreds of thousands of revenue with just that thing? Why? Because it’s highly targeted. Because I really understand who my segment is. But you tell me, “go build something for Fortune 1000 companies,” I’m like, “I don’t even know how I would start that.”.

Sean [00:18:40] Love it.

April [00:18:42] So that’s the thing. Segmentation has to be specific enough that I can actually go do something with it. If it’s not specific enough for me to go do something with, then it’s just, you know, we’re just talking. Uh, Fortune 1000 companies, it’s useful to anybody inside the organization.

Paul [00:18:58] I want to pivot slightly because I think we’re on to a tangent that I’ve been curious about since we chatted in our call earlier before the recording. And you had mentioned something that I thought was so cool and controversial that I wanted to ask you about it here. And I think you said, and correct me if I’m misquoting you, I think you said that product-market fit is a myth.

April [00:19:19] Yeah, it’s not a thing. It’s just not a thing.

Paul [00:19:21] So there are a lot of people who might disagree with you. And I think that, you know, there is an industry around finding product-market fit and segmentation using those practices. Why is it that you said what you said? And if you could elaborate on, you know, how we interact with people and how they think, what’s going on with that?

Sean [00:19:39] I think her actual words, Paul, at least in the note that I saw, was that she’s ready to rage on PMF.

April [00:19:45] I do, I do have a bit of a hate-on for product-market fit as a concept. So here’s the thing. Product-market fit, unsurprisingly, was a concept developed by venture capitalists. And when you have discussions about product-market fit, the people who really, really are into it as a concept are venture capitalists. Now, I think I know why. First of all, it’s worse than positioning. If you say define what product-market fit is, no one can agree. Like, I actually took a survey on Twitter once: define product-market fit for me. I got like a hundred different answers. No one’s in agreement. You know, it’s like something to do with you reach this magical moment where, you know, your product is a really good fit for someone. They say market, but they’re not even really talking about the market. And then when I say, “well, how do you know if you’ve got it?” And then a lot of people say, it’s one of those things that you know it when you have it. I’m like, “OK, great, how do you know when you have it?” “Oh, no one knows how to do that either.” Like, there is no metric. So I got to think, we’re not in agreement on what it is. But I’m gonna know it when I got it, but there’s no way to measure it.

April [00:20:58] And then the next thing people will tell you is, “you could lose it. And then you lose it. So it’s ephemeral because things change and stuff. And so then you can lose it.” And I’m like, OK. So I think, like, how is this you use a useful concept for anyone? Like, should I be striving to get it? And how do I strive to get it if I don’t know how to measure if I’m getting closer. So there’s all this stuff. Now, here’s what people are in agreement on, they’re in agreement on what happens after product-market fit because I asked this question on Twitter, I said, “define product-market fit.” I got a million different answers. And then I said, “what do you do after product-market fit?” and something like eighty-seven percent of the thousand responses I got were the same. And they basically said, product-market fit, once you know, you got it, you can put your foot on the gas in terms of growing your business because you’ve got this fit thing figured out and you’re done thrashing around and pivoting or whatever. And now you get to this product-market fit stage and that’s when you’re gonna go hire a bunch of salespeople. Just pour gas on the fire. That’s what everyone says. Pouring gas on the fire. “Great,” I said. Now, here’s my problem with it. I’m the person like I’m the vice president of marketing. You’re going to come to me and say, “vice president of marketing, we got product-market fit, gas on the fire. Let’s do it! Crank up those marketing campaigns and like, let’s just go grow like crazy!” And you know what’s the first thing I’m gonna ask you?

Paul [00:22:35] What?

April [00:22:36] I’m gonna say, product-market fit, what market? Do we know what market? Let’s define our customer segmentation. Do we actually have a customer segmentation? Because I cannot put my foot on the gas if I don’t know who I’m trying to sell to. And, 9 times out of 10, companies that come to me and tell me they have product-market fit can not give me an actionable segmentation. If you can’t give me an actual segmentation, we cannot scale in marketing. We just can’t. I don’t know it until I’ve figured that out. So, here I am, product-market fit: is it a useful thing? I can’t see any use in it. No one knows what it is. They don’t know how to define it. They don’t know how to measure it. They don’t know if they’ve got it or they don’t have it, and even if you do have it, who the heck cares? Because it can’t do anything with it half the time anyway.

April [00:23:34] “So why are there people on the Internet that love this thing so much?” I say to myself. So I go on the Internet and I say, controversially, apparently, on Twitter, “I don’t think product-market fit’s a thing. I don’t even think it’s a useful concept for startups.” And everyone agrees with me except who?

Paul [00:23:56] VCs.

April [00:23:56] Your capitalists.

Paul [00:23:57] Interesting.

April [00:23:58] Now, venture capitalists don’t have any answers. They can’t tell me what it is. They can’t tell me how to get it. They can’t tell me how you know you got it. They can’t tell me any of the answers. But you know what? I get it. I know why they want it to be a thing even though it isn’t. They wanted to be a thing because product-market fit represents the perfect moment for you to invest in my company. That’s what it represents. It is the pot of gold at the end of the frickin rainbow. That’s why investors want it to be a thing. But you know what? I want leprechauns to be a thing. That doesn’t mean they actually exist. That’s the same thing with the product-market fit. It ain’t a thing. Then people say, “well what would you do instead? There must be a thing.” And I’m like, “actionable customer segmentation.”.

April [00:24:46] Actual customer segmentation is what you want. If you know enough about your product and the customers that it fits with that you can give me an actual customer segmentation, now I can put my foot on the gas. An actual customer segmentation, I can go figure that out. Like I just told you how I figured it out for that one company, right. We figured out who the best-fit customers were, we went and interviewed them, we looked for the pattern. Once we found the pattern, then we just smashed the hell out of it. We’re like, “OK, I’m going after outsourcers. I can go do that. Oh, I’m going after people who do a lot of acquisitions. You know, people do a lot of acquisitions, they all have lawyers, or a particular kind of lawyers, M&A lawyers. I can go find them and I can get all their clients. It’s easy. I know how to do this.” But if you can’t give me that, then it doesn’t matter whether you say you got product-market fit or not. We’re not putting our foot on the gas anywhere because we don’t know. That’s my rant.

Sean [00:25:42] That’s a good one. That should drive some more controversy for you. We’ll have fun with that one.

April [00:25:46] I know, I should shut up about it. But, you know, the only people I’ve seen that aren’t VCs that are keen on it is because they’re raising money from VCs and they have to say that they believe in it because the guys on the other side of the table believe in it and they like it to be a thing so they could walk in and say, “we’ve got it, therefore, you should write us a check.”

Sean [00:26:09] There you go. That’s their incentive.

April [00:26:10] But no, it’s baloney. It’s baloney. It’s not a thing.

Sean [00:26:12] There’s always an incentive, right?

April [00:26:14] Yeah.

Paul [00:26:15] Follow the money.

Sean [00:26:16] All right, little sidestep, I want to talk about motivation. So one of the things that we’ve found is the importance of motivation, like on the team, in terms of building great software products. Like you have to have a motivated team that’s thinking about the end result. And I believe that great positioning is a part of that and I wanna hear what your thoughts are on that.

April [00:26:37] Well, I think the teams that are seeing success get motivated and I’ve seen what it feels like when your positioning is mushy. On the marketing side, it’s like a boat anchor. It doesn’t matter how excellent your execution is, you’re limited by this crummy positioning. It’s like, garbage in, garbage out. Like, if all my inputs are kind of mushy and bad, you know, there’s only so much marketing pixie dust I can sprinkle on that to make it go better. And so, in my teams, I found that once we got real sharpness around the positioning, then everything just felt easy. It was like running downhill all of a sudden. Whereas, when things were mushy, it was kind of like wind in our face and we’re just like, “why is everything so hard?”.

April [00:27:32] But you get this magic moment where you’re like, “OK, we know exactly who we’re going after. We know exactly what our value proposition is. We know exactly what our turf is. We know where we can win and where we can’t. And that’s where all the good marketing happens. And it looks like magic from the outside. It feels like magic on the inside. So I don’t know about team motivation, but I know that when the positioning gets really sharp, then all of a sudden everyone on the team is full of great ideas about how we’re gonna go and drive a bunch of business and that is a very cool thing and everybody wants to be in the middle of that.

Sean [00:28:12] That’s where I was going with this. When you have clarity around who you’re serving and you can see the people that you’re serving being inspired, that just leads to creativity, motivation, innovation.

April [00:28:22] Yeah. Success begets success, right.

Paul [00:28:26] Virtuous cycle.

April [00:28:26] Like you start doing some stuff and it starts firing, like oooo, that’s what we’re all in it for.

Sean [00:28:33] Cool. Quote of the day, by the way, may be the marketing pixie dust reference. I love that.

April [00:28:36] Yeah, that’s what everybody wants, magic. They’re like, “just wave your marketing magic wand at this crumbing thing, would you? “Hack me some growth, growth hacker.” “Yeah, sure.”

Paul [00:28:53] I am learning so much just from talking to you these past couple of minutes. I have one more curveball for you, though. And I wanted to pick your brain on an article or a talk I’d seen recently. D’Arcy Coolican had a talk called Product Zeitgeist Fit.

April [00:29:06] Yeah. Yeah.

Paul [00:29:07] I thought you might have an opinion about this.

April [00:29:08] I didn’t watch the talk, but I read the article, yeah.

Paul [00:29:12] So the gist of it, for people who aren’t familiar, you know, with products like Bitcoin in the early days, it’s had a vague value proposition, but crypto and privacy were in the air, or Impossible Meat. You know, there’s this idea that sustainability is great, even though it doesn’t taste very good and it’s not particularly healthy, it has this accidental grace of being in the right time, even though it’s not a particularly good or easy-to-understand product. Is there such a thing as accidentally succeeding at positioning?

April [00:29:45] Well, yeah, for sure there is. Like there are lots of examples of companies that did a very good job of positioning without being super deliberate about it but they managed to get it done anyway. So that absolutely happens. Here’s the thing, like I do believe in trends. When I read that article, I was a bit like, “I’m not sure about the definition of zeitgeist, but I do believe in trends and I do believe in the ability to surf along with a trend and have that make your stuff seem sexier, which makes it easier to get press, which puts you top of mind with buyers. And it can become an accelerant to good positioning. It’s not positioning in its own. Like, you’re still going to have to position in a market category in order that people understand what you’re all about. But if you can loop in a trend and get at this sort of intersection of, “here’s my product, here’s the category, and here’s a relevant trend,” then there is some fire magic that happens when you get all those things working together.

April [00:31:04] You know, and there’s plenty of examples of companies that, you know, we would call boring that aren’t surfing a trend and it’s totally possible to make all kinds of money without the trendiness in there. I’ve worked for a bunch of them. I spent years selling database software and there is nothing trendy about it, but we still made tons of money. But if you can loop this trend thing in, then, you know, not only are you doing a good job of answering the question, what are we? Why should you care? But the trend answers the question, why now? Right, why should you worry about this right now? And I think, in B2B in particular, urgency is a hard thing to manufacture. I’ve put together a talk that I’m giving in a couple of weeks about competition and one of the stats that I read was, on average, across businesses where there are salespeople, 20 percent of deals are lost to no-decision. And that means, you made the shortlist, you went all the way through, they selected you, and then they just decided status quo was good enough. So this idea of, how do we create urgency in an account to get something done now versus putting it off for a year or two years is a big deal. And looping in a trend or being able to explain why this is important right now and why, you know, the value of being early on this thing and doing it now versus later, I think is hugely valuable, particularly in B2B, which is where I spend all my time.

Paul [00:32:41] Great answer. Those are great thoughts.

Sean [00:32:42] You are speaking to the choir on that one. If I could figure out how to manufacturer some more urgency in my world, wow.

April [00:32:49] So two data points on this that I found this week because I’m putting together this talk. Like one was this, you know, 20 percent of deals lost to no deals. The other one was a stat, it was a survey done of salespeople and they asked the salespeople, what are your customers’ biggest problems? And their top problem was essentially getting company buy-in to do something different. And then the second top problem was essentially figuring out the landscape of competitors, like what should we pick? Which is also a positioning thing. And then the third top problem was getting people to give up the status quo, which was kind of the same as the first top problems. I was like, “oh my God, this is really bad.” So, you know, we think we’re competing with all the competitors in our market, but we are just as much competing against the status quo, and why not just keep doing the things the way we’re doing right now?

Sean [00:33:46] Yeah. I have another question for you that came up from reading the book. I’d love for you to talk about the difference because I think this is salient to our audience, the difference between positioning your product for customers versus positioning for investors.

April [00:34:00] No. Yeah. Yeah. These are really different. So you got to think about your audiences, right. The investors are trying to figure out whether or not you’re a good investment. Which means, am I going to get a good return from you? So they kind of want to know, you know, how are you going to be a billion-dollar business, like where are you gonna be in 10 years and how are you going to grow really big, you know, over the course of our investment? So they’re interested in these kinds of longer horizon things and a little bit on how you’re gonna get there. But mainly, you know, what does that look like in 10 years and tell us a story about that.

April [00:34:40] Whereas customers are super short-sighted. They’re like, “I give you money in exchange for something you’re gonna do for me right now.” They kinda don’t care that much about where you’re gonna be in 10 years. Like, they want you to be alive. They hope you’re not going to be out of business. And a lot of times, the vision that you sell to a V.C. or an investor is actually kind of a negative story for customers or at least sounds scary for customers. Like, you know, we’re often talking about, “oh, we’re going to completely disrupt this space and all the incumbent guys are gone and we’re just going to replace all this stuff in a customer’s stack” and you can’t sell a customer that right away, right. If you come in in your little startup and you’re like, “yeah, just rip out all that stuff you spent millions of bucks and you know, we’ll just replace that.” It’s often too disruptive. Like, we love disruption on the investor side. But, you know, disruption doesn’t sound so good on the customer side generally, right. Innovation sounds good, but disruption…

April [00:35:47] So often your pitch is very, very different. And I’ve worked at companies where, you know, we’d pitch this longer-term thing that says, you know, eventually, we’re going to be the infrastructure for a big retailer or a big bank and we’d be painting that picture, but what we’d be telling the retailer is, “look, it’s just a little thing like it just sits alongside everything else you’ve got and it just works and look, here’s the value it’s going to do and then, you know, once we’re in there, we’re going to start talking to you about other stuff we could do.” But we just need to get in. So often, the pitches are completely different because the, you know, different audiences with different ideas about value.

Sean [00:36:31] So you mentioned the word innovation. And one of the things we like to ask is how you define it. So how do you define innovation?

April [00:36:39] Aw geez, I don’t know. I don’t know. How do I define innovation? Like, there’s a lot of different ways to be innovative. I’ll tell you that. I’m kind of sidestepping your question.

Sean [00:36:38] That’s okay.

April [00:36:49] In the companies that I’ve worked at, you know, there’s been a lot of technical innovation because it’s always been tech companies. But I think there’s lots of ways to be innovative outside of the technology. I think you can have super innovative business models. I think you can have lots of innovation in how a technology interacts with all the other technology around it. I think sometimes things that look innovative are actually not as innovative as just simplicity. And, you know, when things get really complicated, it makes it hard for people to use. And so, you know, sometimes you have things that are, you know, they’re innovative in their elegance. I like products like that. You know, so innovation, I don’t know. It takes a lot of different forms and mainly it’s just about having a different point of view on, you know, the problem and how it should get solved and kind of how the world works. Like, the best startups that I’ve worked with have had a very distinct point of view on a market and the product and the business model and everything else sort of fell out of that distinct point of view on the market. But it was the point of view on the market that was really innovative, right. It was the way of looking at the space that was actually really different.

Paul [00:38:06] Hmm.

Sean [00:38:07] Cool. This is from your book: for identifying your product’s unique attributes, you suggest concentrating on those things that impact consideration versus retention.

April [00:38:17] Oh yeah.

Sean [00:38:17] And I thought your argument was really powerful and I want to make sure it gets shared in this forum with our audience.

April [00:38:23] Yeah, it’s an interesting thing and it’s one of these things that I end up having to explain to folks on the development side. You know, if you’re working with developers, sometimes they get all bummed out. They work on a feature or they work on some capability and it was really, really hard to build and, you know, took a lot of hours. And then you go to do the release and they’re like, “why didn’t you mention that thing in the press release? And you’re like, “uh…” And then I have to explain the difference between what we call acquisition features and retention features. So there are some features that you have in your product that I just can’t use in a sales pitch. It doesn’t actually get you over the line to buy something. But, once you’re in the product and you experience it, then it keeps you there. And so they’re important features; I just can’t necessarily sell them upfront. So they end up being things like, you know, a lot of the stuff we do around user experience and customer experience in a product needs to be experienced before you actually get the value. And I can say, “oh, it’s a beautiful experience,” but, you know, everybody says they have a beautiful experience. And, you know, it’s one of these things that until you’ve been using it all the time, you don’t actually get it.

April [00:39:44] The other one I get a lot with startups is they’ll say, “you know what, one of our unique capabilities is customer service, like, we just love our customers to death and we’re really responsive in support and we never let a customer down,” and all that kind of stuff. And again, it’s really hard to sell that. That is a retention feature, not an acquisition feature, because even companies with truly horrible customer support say their customer support is great. Like, I’ve literally never worked at a company that thought they had bad customer support. Everybody thought their support was great. So you can say it’s really good and I can say, “oh, we’re just going to love you to death” and whatever, whatever, but it’s subjective. And if everyone else is saying it, how do I prove that mine’s better than anybody else’s? You know, maybe you get some customers quotes and stuff, but it’s really a retention feature, not an acquisition feature. And so it’s kind of important to understand the difference between the two because you don’t have that much time and space to talk about every single thing that you do. And so if you’ve got things that are retention, you don’t talk about them in your marketing material when I’m trying to just get you into the pipeline. You know, but it doesn’t mean those things aren’t important. They’re super important. They’re a big reason why people stick with the product, but they’re not necessarily why you picked the product in the first place.

Paul [00:41:11] Hm. April, it has been a pleasure talking to someone who is just so masterful in her field.

April [00:41:18] Aw, thanks.

Paul [00:41:18] I can’t tell you how much I’ve learned in the past hour or so.

April [00:41:20] You won’t be thanking me when all the V.C.s are sending you hate mail.

Paul [00:41:25] Ok, I’ll forward those to you.

April [00:41:26] Not about that product-market fit thing, man.

Paul [00:41:30] Before we let you go, we do have one quirky little question that we like to ask everybody before we wrap up and it’s, besides your own, obviously, what book would you recommend to somebody who is looking to learn something or get inspired?

April [00:41:45] Aw gee… I just finished that negotiation book called Never Split the Difference.

Sean [00:41:51] Yeah, great book.

Paul [00:41:52] OK.

April [00:41:52] Chris Voss is the guy’s [author’s] name. I just finished that one, so it’s kind of in my mind right now.

Paul [00:41:58] OK.

April [00:41:58] And I thought that was good. Negotiation skills are a thing that everybody needs, right. So it must be fun to write a book like that that everybody needs instead of like, I wrote this weird little niche thing that only twelve people in the world actually care about. But in reading his book I thought it was really neat. The other thing about it is that there’s a moment in there where he talks about, he’s like a hostage negotiator, right, so he’s talking about your negotiating with the hostage-taker, and he talks about there being this moment where you’re trying to basically talk about your point of view on the situation and get the hostage-taker to see it like you. And you know you’ve done it when the hostage-taker says you’re right. And interestingly, we have a similar thing in marketing where there’s a part in a good sales pitch where you basically outline: this is my point of view on a market, and if you’re doing it well, it’s the moment where the customer’s viewpoint shifts. They see your point of view on the market and agree with it. You lay it out and what you’re trying to get is for the customer to go, “yeah, you’re right.” It’s the same thing. I really like that book because I was like, oh, this is just like a good sales pitch.

Paul [00:43:18] Product positioning is hostage negotiation.

Sean [00:43:23] There you go. All right, well, to sum it up in a few words here: positioning can be a secret superpower that can change the way both your team and the world think about the problems you solve, your technology, or even your entire market. And I think your work in this field has been fantastic. It’s been a great addition to the field. And we are honored that you came to join us today on the podcast and look forward to doing some more things with you in the future.

April [00:43:48] Oh, awesome. Well, thanks so much for having me. This has been great.

Paul [00:43:51] Thanks so much, April. Bye.

April [00:43:53] Thanks. Bye.

Paul [00:43:57] Well, that’s it for today. In line with their goals of transparency in listening, we really want to hear from you. Sean and I are committed to reading every piece of feedback that we get, so please leave a comment or reading wherever you’re listening to this podcast. Not only does it help us continue to improve, but it also helps the show climb up the rankings so that we can help other listeners move, touch and inspire the world, just like you’re doing. Thanks, everyone. We’ll see you next episode.

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