There’s an unrelenting, top-down, winner-take-all bent to most conversations surrounding category creation. A popular book on the subject warns, ‘if you don’t design a Category King [title case, theirs], you’re creating a failure.’
In this view, customers are mere passive recipients of positioning wizardry that’s brewed within companies and is later lapped up by analysts.
From day zero, they’ve single-mindedly facilitated and immersed themselves in a community-driven exploration of an emerging category. Resulting in supercharged product (and marketing) roadmaps, an organically growing band of ardent supporters, and a CEO’s inbox that’s flooded with requests on adopting a new, new GTM stack.
In the following exchange, Alexa retraces Pocus’ exceptional path, offers a long-needed corrective, and talks about:
— Reverse-engineering the conventional category creation playbook
— The first three steps of community-led category thinking
— The “huge unlock” of building a community, a category, and a product, in tandem
— Sifting through an ever-widening array of perspectives and defining potential routes
— Signs of category-market fit
— Why you shouldn’t conceive a category for the sake of it
— How does this meticulous, community-centred approach impacts a founder’s schedule
Pocus is a Product-Led Sales platform that helps sales teams turn their existing users into high value customers. Pocus combines customer and product usage data into a single holistic view so that sales teams can prioritize the best opportunities and take the right action… all without engineering support.
For some background, in my former life, I was leading sales strategy and operations at a startup. When I was there, I recognized the inability for sales teams to access product-usage data, specifically data on how users were engaging with the product to inform their sales strategy. I ended up hacking together a bunch of things similar to what Pocus does today.
After leaving that startup, I went to Stanford for grad school where I met my co-founder. We spent three months going nauseatingly deep into this space. We talked to over 300 people in the sales teams at PLG companies.
And we realized this is something new. We’re not dealing with traditional top-down sales. This was a huge, hair-on-fire problem that I was meant to solve. But I couldn’t have just fit it into another category, because that category didn’t exist.
So when I say Product-Led Sales, I’m talking about a new term that we just started using.
When starting Pocus in early 2021, one of my goals was: “We’re not going to just create a product. We’re going to also create a category. We cannot create a Product-Led Sales platform without also defining the category of what Product-Led Sales is.”’
Product-Led Sales is a new way of doing things. It’s a new sales motion, which requires new types of roles/responsibilities, new go-to-market motions, new workflows, new incentive structures. Everything.
When building the category of Product-Led Sales, we did something non-intuitive: we did not start with defining the category. In fact, the first step is not writing down a playbook.
We reverse-engineered everything.
When I was doing customer discovery and talking to hundreds of salespeople at PLG companies, I deeply empathized with their pain-points. They acknowledged that this new sales motion differed from traditional top-down sales, but they did not know how to operationalize this new motion.
Everyone was so hungry for resources, frameworks, and best practices. They wanted to connect others solving the problem in their organizations. So, my first step was putting smart brains together.
I started with a simple Slack group of 20 go-to-market leaders at PLG companies. I wanted to see what topics, conversations, and pain-points emerged from putting these innovative thinkers in one place.
About a week after starting the Slack group, we had our first get-together on Zoom. I brought in my lead investor, Meka Asonye, who previously ran a sales team at Stripe. We had a casual conversation where folks from the Slack group asked Meka questions about everything from org structure to compensation.
We received positive feedback from this discussion, so we decided to bring in more speakers. I asked other Pocus’ investors and GTM leaders at PLG companies to join us for what we called “Product-Led Sales AMAs”.
From there, members of the Slack group invited their friends, peers, and bosses. The Slack group continued to expand, and it has organically grown to over 700 members.
It was never: ‘I’m going to tell you what I think Product-Led Sales is and I’m going to be an evangelist. So, you all have to listen to me and adopt it in your organization.’
It was very much so: ‘Okay, let’s talk about this. Let’s all define what is the role of a PLS person.’
We found that someone at Guru had a very different opinion from someone at Zapier and MongoDB and Dropbox. So, we got into a (Zoom) room and hashed it out… This leads me to step two: once you have the people in the room, now it’s time to have friendly debates on frameworks and best practices.
There’s something really powerful about bringing together like-minded people that are solving similar problems at different companies.
If you’re in sales at a PLG company, you can ping your peers or boss if you have a question. But, if you’re in sales at an early-stage PLG company that is still “figuring it out”, it’s not every day that you get access to someone who did this three years earlier at a Dropbox or Slack.
And finally, step three is building and experimenting out loud and publicly. With the power of the community, we’ve developed initial iterations of frameworks ranging from how to define & operationalize Product-Qualified Leads to the org chart for a Product-Led Sales company.
But, our goal is not to lay out definitive guides that are set in stone forever. Instead, we see these as living documents that we will update as Product-Led Sales matures. With the community, we can continue to develop and iterate on frameworks together.
We started the community at about the same time that we started aggressively dedicating resources to building the product mid 2021. This was a very strategic and intentional decision. I wanted the community to inform our product roadmap and I never wanted to build a product in a silo.
My goal was to build the Product-Led Sales solution that PLS practitioners needed and literally would do anything to get their hands on. So how was I going to figure out what that was? By building with them.
I’ll be honest, we had a really good sense of what we wanted to build from working with PLG companies and doing intense customer & product discovery for ~6 months with our design partners. But, we needed to continue to validate this, test hypotheses, and experiment.
There are two key benefits of building product and community at the same time:
First, I can receive real-time feedback. I would Slack DM a community member a specific question about a new product feature. I trust the community members’ opinion as I’ve gotten to know them through building Product-Led Sales frameworks. On the other side, they are excited to provide feedback as they are passionate about building the future of PLS.
Second, building a community and category goes hand-in-hand with building a product. Power users and early adopters of our product are also the experts and innovators of the Product-Led Sales category.
I’ll explain what I mean by this with an example. In our product, Product-Qualified Lead (PQL) scoring is a very important concept. In Pocus, you can define PQLs, experiment with different scoring models, and then surface PQLs to sales reps at the right time.
How is someone going to use Pocus without understanding what a PQL is? They can’t. So what they need is education around PQLs. Where did that come from?
That came from our community.
Building a community and a category at the same time as building the product has been a huge unlock for us. It allowed us to learn things from our community and then pivot our product roadmap. Our community building, the category work, and the product roadmap were all a feedback loop that continued and still continues today.
Additionally, the category and community allowed us to build a product that differentiates us from our competitors. From the community, we learned that every sales team in PLG has a very different PLS motion — this is not a traditional top-down sales playbook that can be copy & pasted across organizations. We kept hearing that there is no one-size-fits all solution for Product-Led Sales.
So, we made the product very flexible and customizable so each PLG company can build workflows, dashboards, and PQL scoring models that work for their business. We scrapped everything that was hard-coded and rigid, and built a very flexible no-code solution that enables users to experiment — which the community was asking for.
Because of these collective efforts, I am getting quicker iterations of feedback to my product than I would have ever had. There would be no way we could build this robust of a product in this short of a timeframe if we didn’t do the category and community part.
I’ll mention one more benefit: lead generation.
When we are ready to publicly launch (which is soon!), we already have a waitlist of hundreds of companies because of our credibility as being the category creator.
There’s a lot of people helping define the product and category, so there are a lot of perspectives. Every time we ask for advice on a new product design or new definition, there’s always going to be 18 different perspectives and hypotheses.
So that’s where I find my role.
My job and the team’s job is to synthesize and make sense of the various perspectives. Not everyone will agree with our outcome, but we feel good about it from talking to hundreds and hundreds of experts.
Remember earlier in this conversation I said “don’t start with a playbook” and instead “reverse engineer it”? Well, now, we have completed v1 of reverse-engineering the Product-Led Sales category and so we feel ready to define v1 of the playbook.
So, we are launching the inaugural Product-Led Sales playbook in February. In this playbook, we’ll highlight various perspectives on PLS go-to-market. Our job is: “let’s bring everyone’s perspectives together and let them be heard”. But also provide our unique perspective and say, “this is how we’d do it if we were you”.
This playbook is going to change every year. People are going to have new perspectives. New best practices will emerge. Every customer is going to have a perspective. We hear competing advice. We hear everything under the sun.
We need to take all of that, but then also rely on our gut and expertise to build the best solution and define the category.
I think the funniest anecdote is in early 2021 I said the phrase, ‘Product-Led Sales’ and people literally looked at me like I was crazy.
And now I get daily DMs and emails saying, ‘hey, can you help me set up my PLS tech stack and go-to-market motion”.
If you look on LinkedIn, people are creating Product-Led Sales roles and titles. They are hiring for Product-Led Sales.
I’ve loved the community feedback. I’ll get messages saying “hey, so cool that you posted this article on the new role of Sales Assist, I am going to hire for this role, can you help me figure it out?”.
All of this is anecdotal, but it feels like product-market fit of a category. Earlier in June, it was very much so asking people for help: “Tell me, what are you thinking? Give me all your thoughts, talk about it out loud.”
And now, all of the thoughts are just coming in and I can’t keep up. Which is amazing.
Since starting the community, I’ve received a lot of questions from other startups about whether they should start a community.
Building a community is not just about starting a Slack group. It’s a big time and resource investment, so you need to evaluate that this is the right decision for your business.
I’ll put myself back in my shoes from last year. I asked this same question to three of my investors: Lenny Rachitsky who has a product community, Ben Lang who runs Notion’s community, and Brett Berson who runs First Round’s community.
They all had the same advice: Don’t try to create something that already exists.
So for example, if you go and create another community for HR or finance or product professionals that exists, there is no unique insight there. Why would people join? What value would they get that they couldn’t get elsewhere?
We experimented to make sure the community for Product-Led Sales did not already exist and we could provide unique insights. Which in the end, we realized, people were craving these unique insights. Which goes back to the need to also create the new category.
I think building a category and community is similar to building a product. You have to ship an MVP, which was our small Slack group. Then you have to experiment and iterate.
So many things didn’t work. So many things did work. You have to lean into the things that do work. You have to continue to listen to your customers. Not customers of a product, but customers of a category.
So it’s really just not creating a category or community for the sake of it.
It’s really to fill a need for your customers.
It’s a similar day to most founders - I am talking to sales teams at PLG companies all day, every day. Whether that’s an existing customer, whether that’s a community member, whether that’s a prospective customer, it’s just learning from them.
And instead of me developing insights and frameworks internally, I’m doing it externally, with the community.
I don’t think my day-to-day is that different.
But, building a category and community is not easy. It takes time and effort. It’s a strategic decision we made to move our business forward. There is a lot of thinking, planning, experimenting, iterating, and I could not do it without my head of marketing and thought partner, Sandy. This is not a one-person side hustle. We’re thinking about this all day, every day.
Besides that, I think it’s the same as any other founder.
You’re just listening to the customer, iterating, and building.
— GoSquared’s co-founder, James Gill on questioning the utility of SaaS industry reports and the limits of category mania
— Vue.ai’s co-founder, Ashwini Asokan on cracking the unknowns of a new category