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JUL 14, 2020 - 27 MIN

Early Stage Positioning for B2B Startups with Justin Warren

  • Messaging & Positioning
  • Product/Market Fit

Justin Warren discusses how to avoid pursuing the wrong approaches to marketing and product development and instead accelerate finding product/market fit in a verifiable way.


In the current climate, burning through your runway while pursuing the wrong customers with the wrong approach could prove fatal, and fast. In this group session, messaging and positioning expert Justin Warren discussed how to avoid wasting time and money pursuing the wrong approaches to marketing and product development and instead accelerate finding product/market fit in a verifiable, structured way. You can watch the video below for Justin’s full talk or read on for a summarized transcript.

The Importance of Positioning

Refining your messaging, particularly at a weird and strange time that we’re all going through, is valuable. If your customer meetings take 20 minutes just to explain what your product does, going through this exercise will move the conversation from, “we’re trying to get you to understand what we do,” to, “how can we help you?”

In this current moment, it’s also about not wasting your runway. There is too much to do and not enough people or resources. You need to make bets and positioning reduces the risk in areas where you don’t need to take additional risk so that you can focus on areas where you get a bigger payoff.

At the moment, all your customers are busier than ever. Your positioning and targeting needs to be better than ever because getting their attention was already hard to do and now it’s so much more difficult. But your competitors are really distracted at the moment as well so you can potentially do better than you might have in other situations where they weren’t as distracted.

What is Good Positioning?

Positioning is about how others think of you. A good place to start is to consider, “what do my customers think about me now?” If your customers think your position is X and you think it’s Y, you’re doing something wrong. Positioning is about what you’re doing to the mind of your prospect rather than your product.

You can change your product or pricing to influence some positioning but if there’s a gap between where you are and where you want to be, then identify those two points and plot a path between them. If the goal of distinctive positioning and messaging isn’t clear to the whole org, the person or team who owns the messaging will end up becoming a bottleneck for all decision-making throughout the organization.

If people on your team are constantly asking questions like, “Am I on the right track? Do we understand what’s going on?” it indicates that maybe people don’t know what the message and position should be. Having good positioning will actually help you with organizing things, particularly when you’re remote or distributed and can’t just wander down the hall and have a quick chat.

The Process

The position is all about being different, not better. Some people like vanilla ice cream, some people like chocolate and that’s okay. Your goal is to go and find all the people who like chocolate. Trying to convince vanilla people to like chocolate could be really tricky if you’re trying to sell a product.

It’s about making explainable decisions. “Why did we choose to take this position and not a different one? Why are we choosing this go-to-market plan?” In the early stages, there’s a lot that you’re not going to be sure about so you need to be able to change direction. You need to be actively looking for evidence that you’re wrong about things, so that you can change them. If you can’t execute the strategy, it’s a bad strategy.If your strategy requires you to be a 1000 person company with $20 billion in budget and you don’t have that, that’s the wrong strategy.

You can’t shortcut from segmentation straight across to comms. If you haven’t done the targeting, you can’t brief an agency on who they’re trying to communicate to, you can’t write good copy because you don’t know who your audience is. If your communications isn’t working, back up only as far as you need to. Back up to the messaging, and if you’re still not sure, back up to the positioning, is it accurate? Are you positioned well for the target that you selected? You don’t need to go back to segmentation and targeting if they’re still relevant so only go back as far as you need to and then go forwards again.

Get Sales Involved

The quick way to think about positioning is to think about what makes you special. But you also have to understand what you’re not. Trying to find more information to make better choices is one of the activities that you’re all going through. But you’re going to have to make some bets based on the best information you have available and just run with it.

Some of those choices might be wrong, but most of them, if you’ve done your homework, you should have a pretty good idea about what the right choices are. Particularly right now, when runway is limited, funding opportunities may be slightly more reduced, people are a little bit scared.

Making choices about what you’re doing and saying no to things so that you can focus on what you really need to do is going to be critical. But you also have to look at what is special to who. Particularly with early stage companies, it’s actually more about a sales process and you need to be finding potential customers and talking to sales. Go and talk to your customers and get them to give you feedback on product and your messaging.

Don’t Copy Your Competitors

You also have to make sure, are you actually being different? Are you just copying your competitors because you’re scared and times are a bit weird right now? We’ve been through a few recessions ourselves, and we’ve seen people retreat back to what they feel comfortable with and everyone starts to copy each other. It can be safe to follow your competitor for some things but if they have other advantages, like access to bigger marketing budgets, they’re going to beat you because more people will hear of them.

There are two ends in the targeting continuum, either mass-marketing or microtargeting. The risk with microtargeting is that you miss the rest of the market that aren’t ready to buy and priming them ready to know about you when the time is right. Mass-marketing is expensive and early-stage companies don’t have the resources to do that.

We generally advise people to aim between the two, in between sophisticated mass marketing, which is essentially targeting within a particular market category and doing a broad brush of integrated marketing communications.

You Have a Tube, Not a Funnel

You have a sales tube not a sales funnel. Point your tube directly at a targeted market and get everyone who comes into that tube to flow all the way through. You can build a funnel, but right now when we’re all remote, early-stage lead gen activities like events don’t exist. A tube generally works better at an early-stage because you don’t have the resources to create the wide funnel that gives you that high drop-off.

The idea is that you want to get everyone who comes into your sales tube to turn into sales. If someone expresses interest, you want them to stay engaged with you, so automated marketing and nurturing campaignsare reasonably efficient ways to keep them from falling out of the tube.

There are two ways that you can increase the number of people who convert. One is to create a bigger tube. What often happens, though, is that people will come through and depending on how good your lead scoring mechanisms are, they’ll end up with sales or marketing and you’ll be wasting money and time filtering them out. Have a big tube but perfect your targeting and you won’t have had to spend so much trying to move people through the funnel.

The other way is to have a really efficient sales process. Understand good lead scoring and the customer journey. Whatever the process is that you use, whatever framework you wrap around that, if you can get people running through that process to buy really quickly, then it turns into sales much easier.

The Value of PR

Particularly at early stage, you want to be getting those early stage customers to convert across to either be a paying customer or to pay in something that isn’t money like case studies. Getting people on the record with a full case study early is important. The social proof that other people have picked you and are using you will go on record so you can use it in PR campaigns and get articles written about you. The value of PR is particularly underestimated for early stage companies but it often outweighs other marketing activities like standard advertising.

When to Start and How to Measure

The last thing is measuring things. When you’re designing your position, figure out how you’ll know if you’re wrong. Have a plan and run through a process. Have a baseline and then when you implement your campaign, track what you’re actually doing. You need to understand what you’re doing right now, because you’re about to go and change things and you want to be able to figure out if what you’ve changed worked. Did it hurt you, or did it help you? If you haven’t got a baseline, you don’t know.

Test what you’re doing early and if you’re wrong, fix it early. What is your current brand awareness? What do your purchase rates look like? Do you have any market share? Have early conversations with customers, do a bit of A/B message testing, then validate what you’re doing against what your goals were. Certain approaches like building a community, that’s months and years worth of constant effort. Or starting a blog and posting weekly, while you’re running the company and doing everything else you need to do, is actually a lot of work.

Think about what’s required to do it for long enough to have a good result. If you validate too early, you’ll get the wrong idea and will be constantly abandoning and changing the plan. Do your homework and figure out what is going to be the right thing. Pick it, plan it, run with it, and keep doing it until you can say, “We have enough data. We’ve run it for a long enough time to be able to tell whether or not this worked.”

We’ve been pulling together resources from industry experts and go-to-market practitioners to learn what teams can do to better adjust their revenue strategy or preserve runway this year. Check out our post on COVID resources for devtools startups for a complete list of COVID recovery content.