How product framing can help grow your startup (or kill it)

I frequently talk to startup founders with innovative products that struggle to explain why their offering is really exciting. I frequently think the problem is really one of improper context setting or framing as I like to call it.

What’s framing and why should you care?

Framing is the act of providing context to help prospects understand what you are and why they should care. It works much like the opening scene in a movies does. In the opening scene of Apocalypse Now we see Martin Sheen punching a mirror in in filthy hotel room full of empty booze bottles and we have a pretty good idea about his emotional state of mind before we’ve heard a word of dialogue. Framing helps audiences quickly get oriented so that they can understand what’s going on and focus their attention on the action.

A non-tech example

Let’s start with a non-tech example of product framing to illustrate why it is important and where it can go wrong:

A tech startup example

Early in my career I worked at a startup founded by a couple of guys with Ph.D.s in database architecture. Our product was a special kind of database that could do certain types of queries in a fraction of the time it took a relational database. We never questioned the way we framed that product — we were database people and we built a database — what else could it be? The problem of course was that at that time, the world didn’t know it needed another database. When we did sales calls and started with “Hi, we have a database…”, prospects didn’t even let us get to the part where we explained how we were special and different from the database they already had. They didn’t want another database, another query language to learn, another database to integrate with their Oracle systems. VC’s wouldn’t fund us for the same reason — the database market wasn’t growing, we couldn’t beat Oracle at their own game, we didn’t have enough sales traction.

Why are we so bad at this?

Why don’t we do a better job of deliberately framing our offerings? I blame the way we have been taught to do positioning. Since the 1970’s we’ve been taught that “Positioning” is critical to our businesses and we have been instructed to do it by creating a “Positioning Statement” which is normally a variation on this:

The positioning statement: candidate for most useless business tool ever

A better starting point — 4 styles of framing

A good starting point for thinking about how you might frame your product is to understand the different ways we can do it. Which style you choose will depend on your product’s strengths and weaknesses, the competitive landscape of the market you choose, your company’s ability to reach a market, your financial goals, etc. Each style has a unique set of potential risks and rewards.

Entrepreneur, speaker, consultant, board member, advisor. Former CEO Sprintly. I help companies launch innovative new products.

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