What I Learned About Category Creation as an Early Box Employee [VIDEO]

I’m of the belief that career success is driven ultimately from one part skill, a few parts hustle, and a bit of providence — call it luck, divine intervention, stars aligning, whatever…

For me, that providence came in the form of an entry level job right out of college at a file sharing startup in Palo Alto back in 2009. I wouldn’t know it at the time, but that same startup — with twenty-something co-workers sleeping in conference rooms, grilling bacon on a George Foreman grill in the mornings — would go on to help usher in one of the biggest transformations of the modern business in cloud computing.

I had the good fortune to grow up (professionally) in enterprise software a time when the subscription business model was still crossing the chasm for most businesses, and Box.net was on the short list of companies evangelizing this new way of working to the entire world.

This past February, I was able to reflect on my time at Box on stage at SaaStr Annual 2016, the largest non-vendor conference in the world for the global SaaS community. The conference itself is a must-attend for literally anyone working at or building a SaaS company — guaranteed you’ll leave with a renewed focus. The title of our session was called Running the Box Playbook: Even Better The Second Time and I was joined on stage by Menaka Shroff, Head of Marketing at Betterworks and a fellow early employee at Box.

Check out the recording below as Menaka and I walk through five key takeaways from our time at Box and how we are applying each learning in building new categories at Betterworks and Gainsight respectively. We may or may not have had a special guest join us on stage from the audience…

Pretty cool, right? I especially enjoyed the exchange with Aaron on how industry incumbents can either be a set of processes or technologies. Aaron (who for those that don’t know is the co-founder and CEO of Box) would go on to say the following statement which inspired this post:

“You need to find a demographic and a customer that no other software company is paying attention to in a modern way, and help them realize their ultimate ambition. Your software comes way down the road — your job is to make them be heroes. Make them feel like they are transforming their business in the role that they have, internalizing that there is a company out there that cares about me, cares about my role.

Find a vector that you can own — the key is it has to be ownable. It’s not a product message, it’s a community message, an industry message.”

That’s the spirit of what we’re doing at Gainsight and what we tend to journal about on CategoryDev. Perhaps we should think about category creation by another definition — that best of breed companies today are building businesses at the heart of process reinvention where incumbent technologies do not exist.

Slides from our session are included below — but I wanted to summarize Menaka and my five takeaways from our time at Box, and specifically, how those lessons now apply to building category-defining businesses.

1. Go Big With Your Brand and Message

Aaron talked about developing a challenger position to associate your brand with an incumbent using a message that’s juxtaposed against how people traditionally think about you. But what if your brand is relatively unknown? During the session we use billboards as a proxy for bold brand campaigns.

In the early days at Gainsight, it was enough for us to just to get the words Customer Success on a billboard. By messaging our category by name along one of the most influential stretches of highway in the world, passersby would associate Customer Success as a real thing. So long as our logo was present as well, that same driver would then align the Gainsight brand with Customer Success.

The “boldness” for us was an ROI-forward message claiming 5-10x churn reduction with Gainsight, a solution that none of you drivers (at the time) had likely heard of. Now that ROI was in fact real and a result of an in depth study of our early customer base, but the boldness of the claim would certainly lead someone to ask: Who is Gainsight? There’s no way they can actually guarantee results like that. I would have heard of them. So on, and so forth — seed planted.

2. Create a Movement

The Customer Success movement was born out of the SaaS revolution — it became easier for vendors to acquire customers, but just as easy for those same customers to leave for the next best alternative. This led to a need for vendors to assign bodies to monitor customer health, and just like that, the Customer Success Manager position was created.

What we recognized rather early was that although the job function existed, what didn’t exist was an industry or community championing the growth and development of that job function. This became the mission of our marketing organization — and through a heavy investment in early-stage content marketing, event marketing, and other top-of-funnel efforts, we helped spark the Customer Success movement.

But measuring the success of a movement is rather ambiguous — it’s probably not the funnel metrics you’re used to tracking for sales and marketing efficiency. Our belief was that everything ultimately ends up on Twitter, whether a billboard or a specific piece of content. We decided that by tracking how often the words Customer Success were being mentioned on Twitter, we could gauge the growth in the conversation online, and therefore, the movement.

You can read more about how to measure marketing efficacy in new markets here on CategoryDev.

3. Iterate Different Entry Points, Early

We faced a unique challenge at Gainsight different than both Box and Betterworks, however, a familiar challenge for all new category marketers. We found ourselves in a position where we had to educate the market about Customer Success first, prior to positioning Gainsight as an enabling technology. Teaching while selling.

Turns out many of our prospects had deep conviction for our cause, but had absolutely no budget to spend six figures on Gainsight. In fact, most had never purchased a solution to enable their productivity before. We won their hearts, but needed to win their minds.

Our approach was to teach our prospects how to buy Gainsight. We invested in an ROI model early to start evangelizing the value of (a) an investment in Customer Success, and furthermore, (b) incremental value in an investment in Gainsight. We mobilized our early customers as loud and passionate advocates. We even created later stage content — such as a Customer Success Platform Buyer’s Guide and Sample RFP — and marketed them at the very top of the funnel in order to create sales process where it didn’t exist prior.

4. Use Events to Spread the Word

Those following CategoryDev know that we’re big believers in the power of events, specifically hosting your own industry conference to help solidify your position as community leaders. That opinion was definitely formed during my time at Box and watching their Boxworks conference series develop over the years.

Box was founded in 2005 and pivoted to the enterprise three years later in 2008, but the first official Boxworks would not take place until 2011, 6 years after the company’s founding. We’re seeing that with companies today, conferences are becoming a more regular part of the marketing mix, but beyond that, that companies are hosting them earlier and earlier in their operations.

To illustrate that point, our inaugural conference called Pulse was started in May 2013 only a few short weeks after raising our Series A round. We only had about 15 customers and were still able to drive over 300 attendees. You see, there’s no excuse for companies who think they’re too early to host a conference. It’s never too early.

The key for Pulse was to build an industry conference, not a partner or customer event. The focus was on sharing industry best practices, creating networking opportunities, and celebrating being pioneers in our new category. There was never a mention of Gainsight as a product unless you sought that conversation out. The result? In addition to helping establish our thought leadership position in our new category, Pulse is also our biggest pipeline generator for the entire year.

5. Build Customers and a Community

It’s no surprise that one our core values at Box was “Blow our Customers’ Minds.” Whether that’s by building a great Customer Success program or just being proactive in the press regarding our big wins, Box customers are the heart of the business.

Our mission at Gainsight is to help our customers lead their world in Customer Success. But that mission is extended beyond just our existing customers, but rather to anyone interested in learning or investing in Customer Success. We created a number of programs as an extension of our content marketing efforts to help the broader community become great at this new job function. We built an online university for those who want to achieve certification in Customer Success. We facilitate the growth of 25 local chapters across the US and Canada that meet on a quarterly basis to network and share their scars.

A traditionalist may ask — why? What value can come from an investment in programs that do not clearly articulate the value proposition of the business?

Building a community creates a competitive moat around the business unlike any other marketing program. It helps the business execute on their brand promise. It fills your database as the community opts-in to your thought leadership campaigns. It drives pipeline as a community of learners become prospects and product evaluators. Eventually, it even grows the total-available-market of your new category, and hopefully by that point, your brand has become the clear leader in that now established industry.

Bonus: Market Your Iconic CEO

I’ll have to admit that I’m pretty lucky to have worked for CEOs like Aaron Levie and Nick Mehta (in fact they both make for great content subjects). They are incredibly authentic, intelligent, and have a sense of humor that is uniquely them. But there is a good lesson here in exec comms for new markets — one that isn’t too dissimilar from the now iconic Box billboard discussed in the video.

Young companies are used to punching above their weight. Whether in messaging, event presence, or PR, you’re typically executing on a campaign that makes your brand look much bigger than the actual size of your cash number. So why should your executive communication strategy be any different?

We looked for opportunities to get our CEOs name in the same sentence as some of the greats — whether that’s sharing a stage with admired CEOs just a few steps ahead or singing karaoke in a rented Range Rover. This helped elevate the perception of our executive as a leader not just of our new industry, but of the macro-category of which our innovation belonged to. Just as the famous billboard catapulted Box into the same sentence as SharePoint, a similar approach on your exec comms program can make for a big impact.

Its been really incredible to see session write-ups and notes just like this one captured and published by folks in the audience at SaaStr Annual. Take a look at a few of the articles below for great third-party commentary on our session.

5 Marketing Lessons from Aaron Levie and the Early Box Marketing Team by @drewbeechler

Running the Box Playbook: Even Better the Second Time by @datafoxco

Notes from SaaStr 16’ — Day 3 Summary by @saasmetricsco

Anthony Kennada

Anthony Kennada is Chief Marketing Officer at Gainsight, building and leading the Customer Success Management industry. He is passionate about creating new market categories, scaling thought leadership programs, and (obviously) customer-centric marketing. Prior companies include Box, LiveOffice and Symantec.

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