What the heck is your product really?

I was one of the judges in a pitch contest last week (thanks for having me Innovate Manitoba) and listening to the pitches it struck me how for most products, the answer to the question, “What are you?” could be answered in multiple different ways. It also struck me that how you answer that question changes a lot more than just your marketing — it changes your vision of what your company could become in the future.

An example: one product, two frames

Here’s an example. One of the companies pitching (I’ll leave their name out of it since I haven’t run this piece past them), has a gizmo that sits the on the dash of your car and lights up when you are approaching a speed trap, a red light camera or a reduced speed zone. The value proposition is “Save money on tickets”.

What do they do? They help you get fewer tickets. Or put another way, they are in the ticket avoidance business.

But it struck me that they could be in other businesses. Instead of being the thing that helps you save money on tickets for example, it could be the thing that helps you drive more safely. Instead of being in the ticket avoidance business, they could be in the driver safety business.

Changing the frame changes the future

Is one way of thinking about it better than the other? Probably, but I have no clue which one — I have no background or experience in their business. (Aside — pitch contests drive me a bit batty for this reason. My opinion is likely wrong about everything). Does it matter which position you choose? It absolutely does — but probably not in the way you think.

Let’s say I am in the ticket avoidance business. Simply by making that decision I have set a path for a bunch of critical things for my business. Who is my target market? People that get a lot of tickets. What can I charge? Probably less than what I would pay for 1 or 2 tickets. What does my roadmap look like and which features should I build next? Well, maybe you could help me avoid parking tickets too or keep track of my insurance and plate stickers so that I don’t get a ticket for those things either.

Now let’s contrast that with saying I am in the drive safely business. Who is the target market? People that are worried about driving safely (or worried about people in their family driving safely). What can I charge? I think it’s tied to the cost of other car features that help me avoid an accident or death. What does my roadmap look like and which features should I build next? You might want to warn me whenever I am speeding beyond a certain speed limit. You might want to track if I came to a full and complete stop at a stop light/sign. You might warn me if I’m approaching bad weather or traffic accidents.

Default vs. deliberate positioning

The point I am getting at is that even though the offering is the same today, the frame of reference we choose for that product will change the entire trajectory of the business. It’s not merely a marketing decision or a messaging decision — it’s a strategy decision. Funnily enough, these sorts of big decisions are often made unconsciously. I’m pretty sure most companies go with what they would consider to be the default frame of reference. In my opinion it deserves more consideration or at least an awareness that there are other frames of reference that might be better for the business in the longer term.

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I’m the CEO of Sprintly and a veteran of 6 startups. I blog about startup marketing and sales at www.rocketwatcher.com