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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Lerner

Category creation shortcuts & examples

Startups: How to sell a product nobody’s looking for

So you’ve built a product that nobody is looking for, but everybody needs. Fair enough. Nobody was looking for Slack, Uber, or Canva either. True visionaries are ahead of the market by a few years.

But you don’t have a few years! So how can you shortcut the process?

For starters, don’t try to talk about your product, it will leave your prospects guessing. Instead, talk about what’s in their heads. (It’s probably frustration, and that’s pretty powerful.)

Here’s the thing, new categories don’t just pop out of thin air. You’re always replacing something.

For example:

  • We enjoyed music before Spotify

  • We found vacation rentals before AirBnB

  • We messaged coworkers before Slack

  • We hosted SaaS before AWS

The category may be new, but the need is not. So one quick way to hijack people’s attention is to find the current bad alternative, and position against it. Here are a few examples:

  • Salesforce: When they launched, Salesforce ran a campaign against software

  • Transferwise: Campaigned against egregious bank transfer fees

  • Dollar Shave Club: Challenged the expensive razor oligopoly

  • Uber: Rallied against waiting for taxis (and the industry fought back, giving Uber millions in free publicity)

If you want attention, it’s helpful to be against something, that’s a rhetorically strong position - not just for PR, but as a guiding purpose for your company. But it can also backfire.

Choose your enemy carefully

The thing you’re against has to be universally disliked, something people won’t feel bad opposing. You want to avoid naming specific companies. Instead, consider one of these options:

  • David vs. Goliath: Some brands challenge an entire hated industry (“big banks” or “brand name razors” or insurance conglomerates).

  • Straw man: Sometimes it’s safer to challenge a tongue-in-cheek abstract concept. For example, JustEat (jokingly) tried to “ban cooking” (even though their actual enemy was pizza delivery). And Salesforce staged a protest against “software” (even though they were kind of a software company).

  • Achilles heel: If incumbents have an annoying feature or trick you can vilify (e.g. hidden fees, long contracts, unused minutes expiring) focus your ire there.

When is it okay to “go negative?”

The examples above work best if you have a “high NPS product in a low NPS world.” If an industry is widely disliked, you can bring those feelings to the surface. But you need to pay that off with a great solution!

It’s also a personal decision. It’s your brand, you need to be comfortable speaking from a “negative” place (to get to a positive goal of course). Either way, remember, this is a hack, it can get you a burst of attention in the short term, but eventually you’ll want to pivot to a positive stance.

One final warning…

In for a penny, in for a pound…

This is not for the faint of heart. If you choose this route, be bold and outrageous. Your goal is to get “free” coverage (e.g. PR stunts, social media virality) you could not otherwise afford to buy. And focus your message on the problem, rather than your solution (people will usually give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you have a good solution, so long as you deliver…)

Simple next step

Here are a few questions to help jump-start a campaign against your Goliath.

  1. What does your product help people achieve?

  2. What’s wrong with your competitor’s current approach?

  3. Is there a way you can position against it and be a little outrageous?

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