Let’s begin with a necessary coinage.
Homo forresterous, if you will.
A subspecies of the much-storied Homo economicus. An obsessively-rational, B2B “agent.”
Someone who sees the world through the tidy, assured logic of hype cycles and magic quadrants. Someone who eats tech landscape reports for breakfast. Someone with a sheer excess of clarity on knowing that they, say, don’t just need to fix their conversions but instead deploy a “revenue acceleration platform.”
Someone, above all, fictional.
In the following interview, GoSquared’s co-founder and CEO, James Gill (@jamesgill), thoughtfully draws us closer to that overlooked truth — To how certain industry narratives are neither relatable nor real; to how little they convey about the reasons behind why buyers buy and builders build — and offers an operating model (and intention) worth aspiring to.
Relay: Of all software categories, the unease around competition, seems most prevalent in martech. Best represented by the popular, ever-mushrooming, annual landscape report, compiled by Scott Brinker. And clarity on category design is often offered as an ideal, if not the only solution. How have you come to think of this widely-accepted notion over the years?
James: First, thanks so much for having me – it’s an honour to be here!
This is a huge topic, one that I doubt I can do justice to, but I’ll happily share my thoughts on. I have always found the “martech landscape” report to be of questionable value.
It’s always thrown up in slides to say “look at how much competition is out there!” but no one uses it to make a buying decision, no one uses it to make a decision on what company to start. It’s like it’s sole function is to be placed in slides and for people to gasp at it. I don’t wish to discredit Scott’s work – I find it interesting, but I don’t find it particularly useful.
The number of “competitors” or “vendors” that exist in the martech world keeps ballooning – is that a bad thing for you as an entrepreneur? I’d argue not – those other companies, being started by other smart people – they’re entering that world because they see opportunity and demand.
It’s better to be a fish in a large pond than be a fish on the land!
In terms of competitive landscape – through GoSquared’s history, we’ve been thrown off course far too much by over analysing competition.
In our early days, we found ourselves being compared to other companies thanks to publications like TechCrunch who loved to report on a battle taking place. Investors also seem to love to back “the leader in the space” so they inherently need to define a “space” for you to exist in.
Our thinking has evolved tremendously since we were in our early twenties building GoSquared. We absolutely keep an eye on others in our space – who doesn’t? – but we don’t use that to fuel our decisions, and we don’t use that to make us anxious or fearful.
We keep looking at where our customers are going, what they’re asking for, and how their lives are changing. I believe if you can do that, and plot those trendlines, you can set a path out that’s an exciting trajectory, without paying too much attention to other providers in your space.
On the focussed toil of building “a machine that can differentiate and demonstrate value in a game-changing way”
Relay: Well, it’s an honour to begin this series with you and learn from a decade+ of thoughtful building, James! You’ve hit on something remarkably critical here. How founders must discern industry narratives for their utility, more than anything.
Implicit in such charts and the larger category discussion, is another assumption that categories resemble aisles in a retail store, which further implies that saturation is always an impending reality, that discovery is linear (which, as you’ve touched upon, is just not true on the internet) and that founders can succeed either by labelling their own aisle (category creation), so to speak, or by doubling down on differentiation within an existing one.
How have you come to see that? Also, for founders who’re just starting out, attempting to be as close to their users as possible, how organically does clarity on differentiation arise as a result of that closeness? And what else should they be doing to prepare themselves for translating customer know-how into meaningful distinctions for the market?
James: I love the supermarket analogy! I had never quite thought about categorisation like that before, but it makes so much sense.
I think everyone has different drivers for starting a business, so “it depends” as always! But when starting out, I would simply articulate what I would do – that’s all I know for sure!
For me, it’s all about starting out with what problem you’re trying to solve, and for who. Not the solution, not the category, not the competition, not the technology – it’s about the problem and the people who have that problem. Everything else is a distraction.
It’s pretty much the same as saying “build something people want” – you can build something people want by solving a problem that hasn’t been solved before, for a specific set of people (likely creating a new aisle in the supermarket), or you can build something people want that already exists, but better, or for a new set of people (putting something awesome on a shelf in an existing aisle of the supermarket).
In terms of clarifying how you’re differentiating, I think always the best thing to do is to speak to your customers – to not assume you know why customers buy from you, and to not purely use metrics to understand.
You have to get on a Zoom call, you have to spend a good 30 mins+ and ask them to talk about themselves, listen to them, and understand why they came to you. I think people often want a push button solution to solve this – “Just tell me in 2 words why you chose to use GoSquared!” – but it’s never as simple as that to start with.
Perhaps ultimately you can get to a point where you have a set of 5 “key reasons” why customers choose you, why you’re differentiated, but that’s not the starting point. The starting point is spending time listening to customers, and hearing thousands of their own words about why they chose your solution.
By doing that hard work, you learn the language your customers speak, you learn about the place you occupy in their busy lives, you build a comprehension of how to speak back to them. And it’s through that listening, acting, and iterating that you build that beautiful “hand in glove” fit to ensure you build something your customers want, and pitch it to future customers in a delightful, enticing way.
This stuff is of course really hard, but I think I’d just underline: there are almost never shortcuts. You don’t AB test your way to success and create a differentiated, category-defining business.
You have to use your gut, you have to be extremely creative, and you have to get on Zoom (and maybe one day again: outside the building!) and talk to prospects and customers specifically to learn from them, not to pitch to them.
Once you build that into your habits and routine, you build a machine that can differentiate and demonstrate value in a game-changing way.
Relay: Right? What you’re illustrating above is an absolute immersion in customer-think/feel and how that can pave the way for a special kind of product intuition to emerge. It brings to mind a great Gary Klein quote on the subject: "Sense-making is not just a matter of connecting the dots. Sense-making determines what counts as a dot.” One can have all the data in the world and not be richer for it until this acute sense of knowing one’s customers exists.
A couple of questions here: 1) Can you describe an instance where your specific intuition and understanding led you to a very different place compared to where the market was pointing? And 2) You, being a founder, have obsessed over and honed this inner sense for years. How do you practice translating this into accessible, organizational knowledge for someone who has just joined GoSquared?
James: I love that quote! You have to know what counts as a dot – so true!
For us, many years ago, a pretty pivotal decision we made was to shift out of the pure “real-time website analytics” space and move towards user-level analytics, which ultimately took us on our journey to building the extensive growth platform we offer today.
At the time, investors and the tech press were pitching us against a pretty established player in the space, and if we were to follow those voices it would have taken us on a very different path.
Who’s to say that that path would have been less successful, but it was a path we weren’t comfortable with – a path to building a company we weren’t inherently excited about building, and a product that didn’t serve the customers we had.
This may get a little “meta”, but I think people love to label or categorise things – whether it’s products in a supermarket, or approaches to business. Some might call our decision to go our own path a “customer-led” decision, or maybe a “product-led” way to build the business. I don’t tend to think in those terms – the leading is done by us as a team ingesting, surfacing, and prioritising many different inputs and ideas.
As a founder, I feel like my role is always evolving and I always need to be learning. If that isn’t the case then we are stagnating and moving too slowly. I am always trying to be out of my comfort zone – it’s the best way for me to become a better version of myself.
A huge part of that evolution for me has been taking the experiences and skills I’ve honed over many years and finding ways to channel that into the rest of the team. This has not been easy!
I keep trying to divide my time more clearly between working “in” the business and working “on” the business. Most of my time used to be spent on the former – and this involved everything from speaking directly to customers, to writing the CSS to get a button in the product looking “just right”.
These days, it’s really a problem if I am needed to change some code somewhere – that’s a sign that I haven’t done my job right as a leader! To make that transition has required a ton of work that has at times felt weird to me – as a creator, I often feel best when I am directly creating new things.
But in order to have greater impact, I obviously need to channel my creative energy, my decision making, my thought processes into frameworks and playbooks for the rest of the team to adopt, use, and improve.
As a concrete example, I’ve been spending more time defining our values and purpose as a company. I used to think of values as a clichéd, pointless exercise that corporate businesses do to feel good about themselves.
But as we have grown the team at GoSquared, it’s been increasingly clear to me that values have a real purpose – in aligning the people we hire, in encouraging and rewarding them, and in encouraging the actions that each of us take every day.
And it’s in those values that we express a lot of the core skills – being curious about what customers have to say, listening intently, moving quickly, making decisions without all the information you might want, and having an expectation of excellence.
James on keeping “the customer front and centre” for everyone on the team (and James’ insightful Relay AMA in its entirety):
In terms of keeping the customer front and centre, and truly understanding their needs, there are a couple of practical things:
We use our own product, and so we are a customer of ourselves. This drives a lot of new ideas and product thinking.
Part of the GoSquared platform is GoSquared Inbox – a shared team inbox to enable you to respond to your visitors and customers.
We have a rota, and every member of the team – in any position – spends some time using Inbox to respond to customers on a regular basis.
The rota means that not only does everyone experience our own product, but they also spend time on “the front lines” helping customers and hearing their feedback first hand.
I don’t think anything can replace first hand experience – no matter how well you think you understand your customers, you can always understand them better!
Beyond this, we also are always evolving our frameworks for how we believe we help customers – moving away from the features we build, to thinking about the problems we solve for them, and where we are strong, and where we suck at solving those problems for them.
The best bit is the feedback – does the customer even bother to respond? Perhaps this isn’t a big enough problem for them to care about it. Perhaps they’re just busy. Do they hate what you’ve sent them? Great! You’ve just saved weeks of building the wrong thing. It’s even better if they like it. But will they pay for it? Do you need to build it to find out? It’s amazing how motivated the team can feel when working on a feature knowing there’s already a queue of customers waiting for it.
Thanks for reading!
At Relay, we believe there’s no one way to build a SaaS business and thus the existence of playbooks and other settled notions, must be constantly questioned using diverse founding philosophies.
Heuristics and Hunches, thus, is a quiet place to probe, explore, and deeply understand some of those mind/industry-expanding beliefs and perspectives.*
If you’re a SaaS founder and would like to learn from and contribute to similar insightful exchanges, you can request an invite here.