Startups Need Market Engineering, Not Just Product Engineering

Perry Mizota
May 28 · 3 min read
Photo by Daniel McCullough on Unsplash

When you hear people in marketing describe what they do, they tend to talk in terms of the different functional areas that typically make up a marketing organization — I am a product marketer; I do marcom; I work on demand gen; etc. Yet, when you think of many of the goals that marketing has, it doesn’t really fit nicely into any particular area.

For example, many of the projects I do for early-stage startups involves developing a narrative and then getting that story out through various channels. This requires skills and expertise that cut across different areas — messaging development, product marketing, content development, public relations, etc. But there hasn’t been a term that nicely captures this multifaceted discipline. Until now…

About a month ago, I listened to Bruce Cleveland talk about his recent book, “Traversing the Traction Gap.” The book provides a new framework for how startups should think about running their business as they make the transition from ideation to scale; what is commonly referred to as the go-to-market phase. Bruce feels that many startups don’t succeed because they don’t handle this phase well and they fail to gain traction; thus, his term for the phase is the “traction gap.”

Bruce’s book is full of practical advice but there is one concept that particularly resonated with me. From Bruce’s perspective, successfully traversing the traction gap requires what he calls “market engineering.”

According to Bruce…

Market engineering includes defining or redefining a category, developing powerful positioning and competitor de-positioning, and performing in-depth market research to confirm or reject proposed products and features.

And in a synopsis of the book, he goes on to say…

We have found that most startup teams have excellent product engineering instincts and skills but many lack significant market engineering expertise. This compromises their ability to create and demonstrate traction in the go-to-market phase, and significantly diminishes their ability to secure a new round of funding to support ongoing operations.

I love the notion of market engineering. Ultimately, a major goal of any marketing organization is to influence how a market defines the requirements for a class of solutions, or in other words, engineer a market.

The value of market engineering to startups is clear. Whatever company is able to set the buying criteria in a market is going to win more times than not. Personally, I don’t think this necessarily requires creating — or redefining — a category, as prescribed in the book. I think it is okay to be in an existing market but I do feel it is critical to have differentiated messaging that is easily understood and repeated often at various levels within a market — from thought leadership speeches at industry events to sales pitches given on the ground.

As an illustration of this, I go back to my very first startup experience, when I was a marketing director at Sybase (now a part of SAP) in their early days. We had a messaging platform that consisted of an overarching tagline — “the relational database for online applications” — and five key underlying messages that we felt, as a group, differentiated our offering from the others. The messages were easy to understand, and everybody in the company knew them so they were repeated consistently and often. It was extremely powerful. To this day I remember the five key messages, over 25 years later!

Market engineering. A great concept. From my perspective, it takes a set of activities that feel abstract to many and makes them tangible. But most importantly, now when people ask me what I do, I can tell them that I am a market engineer :)

Perry Mizota

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An old (experienced) startup guy who thinks he’s young. Helps early-stage B2B startups figure things out. https://www.linkedin.com/in/pmizota/