market differentiation

How to Develop and Validate a Value Proposition (Product Positioning)

If I asked you these questions right now, would you be able to answer them?

  • What does your company do?
  • What product does your company sell and how is it different from the competition?
  • Whom is this product for?

Seriously, stop reading right now and try to answer these questions aloud or in your head.

Can you answer these questions in 1-3 sentences and in a clear way that wouldn’t invite follow-up questions from an average customer?

Can everyone in your organization?

What is a Value Proposition?

A value proposition is simply a way to connect a product offering with customer needs in a clear way. It should resonate with customers and would motivate them to try or buy your product. Essentially, the value proposition is synonymous with unique selling proposition and product positioning.

In order to find its product-market fit, startups need to come up with value proposition statements for its products. At first, you start with a hypothesis or a guess if you will.

This hypothesis then needs to be validated with customers and refined as the product evolves and as the company acquires more knowledge about the market and customers.

A validated value proposition statement is the ultimate outcome of finding the product-market fit. This statement should encapsulate key insights you’ve gathered about customers, as well as unique product strengths.

Do You Need One?

If you don’t have one, you’re shooting in the dark. If you have one but it’s not validated, you might be deluding yourself.

Here are some practical benefits of developing a value proposition:

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Principles of Ethical Marketing

“Aww, it’s just marketing…”

You probably heard people use marketing as a derogatory term.

Admit it, you probably did too.

Why?

You can probably think of many examples when marketing wasn’t practiced ethically. It’s true that one doesn’t need to go far to find them. Spam emails that lack “unsubscribe” buttons, misleading packaging, annoying pop-up or video ads that you cannot skip.

Marketing can go wrong for all the same reasons business can go wrong: misaligned incentives, short-term focus, and tunnel vision.

But business is not inherently and inevitably net-negative to society – quite the contrary. So isn’t marketing.

The thing is not all marketing is created equal. It’s just that some people in marketing make wrong decisions. Just like some engineers ignore safety standards, some doctors overprescribe medications, and some businesses pollute the environment.

Essentially, marketing is simply helping organizations serve more customers.

More specifically, marketing is about finding the right customers who actually need your product, using their feedback to make the product better, and consistently communicating useful information through the right channels and at scale.

With this in mind, I decided to outline a few high-level principles of ethical marketing.

Principles of Ethical Marketing

  1. Create value before capturing value.
  2. Long-term over short-term optimization.
  3. Customer feedback over company politics.
  4. Educate customers instead of misleading them.
  5. Build products that people want instead of selling the ones you have.
  6. Target customers who can benefit from the product instead of targeting everyone.
  7. Measure NPS, retention, virality, and product usage in addition ROI, revenue, and growth metrics.
  8. Consider the impact of marketing decisions on employees, other companies, society, government, and environment.

Here you go, a small manifesto of sorts.

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Monthly Newsletter: Issue 1

This is an issue of my monthly newsletter. Main topics: technology, startups, business growth, and marketing. See other issues on my blog or subscribe. ~Max

Technology and Startups

  • Ten-year Futures – a presentation by A16z. New technologies enable new use cases. Seeing them, as well as non-obvious “second order” effects, is key. E.g. mobile enabled Instagram, Instacart, and ride-sharing.
  • Decrypting Crypto – another presentation by A16z. Bitcoin is a combination of three old technologies: hashcash, public key cryptography, and distributed ledger. Value of cryptocurrencies goes beyond the traditional store of value and medium of exchange. E.g. tokens can help bootstrap new protocol-level innovation and incentivize developers, customers, and investors to contribute.
  • AlphaGo Zero masters the game of Go from scratch. The ML algorithm learned the game without any pre-existing understanding of rules or strategies. Building a general or at least a-little-bit-less-narrow AI appears to be a big priority for DeepMind. Perhaps this can count as a small step in this direction?
  • Delivering blood with drones in Rwanda – a TED talk by the founder of Zipline. What an amazing application of new technology and a case study in social entrepreneurship.
  • Tacotron 2 is a new text-to-speech technology by Google that is (almost?) indistinguishable from a human voice. If Google manages to make it less computationally demanding and ship it as part of the Android OS, all kinds of interesting use cases will be made possible. I personally will listen to more of my Pocket articles in audio.
  • Magic Leap is launching its SDK, shipping in 2018. AR/VR is already quite a saturated market. It’s not entirely clear yet how hyped Magic Leap technology will compare to Microsoft HoloLens, as well as to VR headsets: HTC Vive and Oculus Rift.

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Key Growth Metrics, Part 2: CLV/LTV, and CAC (SaaS)

I wrote this blog post as part of blog series on growth and marketing. See more here: Growth Map: The Missing Guide That Connects Marketing Strategy, Research, and Campaigns.

Managing a business is a little bit like flying an airplane. Keep your eyes on the speed, altitude, drag, and fuel and you’ll get to your destination fast. Try flying blind and you’ll crash and burn.

Who Should Read This

Startup founders, marketing managers, and growth hackers who are new to the growth game. Anyone who’d like to understand basic business metrics tech startups use. Here is why you might care:

  • You’d like to grow your business faster and understand the highest-leverage areas to focus on
  • You’d like to evaluate performance of your marketing
  • You’re raising a new round and want to be ready for the questions VCs are going to ask

So, let’s dive right in.

What We’ll Cover

Last time we focused on user growth. We looked into acquisition, retention, and virality metrics, as well as interactions among these three. Today, we’ll assess the dollar impact one user has on our business. To do it, we’ll learn to calculate and use another metric: customer lifetime value.

Summary (TL;DR)

  • Customer Lifetime Value (CLV) = dollar value a company can earn from serving one customer.
  • Retention ↑ => CLV ↑
  • Price ↑ => CLV ↑
  • Discount rate ↑ => CLV↓

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Key Growth Metrics, Part 1: Churn/Retention, and Virality (SaaS)

I wrote this blog post as part of blog series on growth and marketing. See more here: Growth Map: The Missing Guide That Connects Marketing Strategy, Research, and Campaigns.

Managing a business is a little bit like flying an airplane. Keep your eyes on the speed, altitude, drag, and fuel and you’ll get to your destination fast. Try flying blind and you’ll crash and burn.

Who Should Read This

Startup founders, marketing managers, and growth hackers who are new to the growth game. Anyone who’d like to understand basic business metrics tech startups use. Here is why you might care:

  • You’d like to grow your business faster and understand the highest-leverage areas to focus on
  • You’d like to evaluate performance of your marketing
  • You’re raising a new round and want to be ready for the questions VCs are going to ask

So, let’s dive right in.

What We’ll Cover

First, we’ll focus on user growth. Here we’ll look into acquisition, retention, and virality metrics, as well as interactions among these three.

Second, we’ll focus on the monetary value associated with users. Here we’ll look into customer lifetime value and customer acquisition cost.

Summary (TL;DR)

  • There are multiple variables that will define business growth dynamics
  • Main ones are acquisition rate, retention rate, and virality coefficient
  • At any given time you might choose to prioritize some of these metrics over others
  • This decision will depend on the business strategy, available resources, customer feedback, stage of the product lifecycle, and hundreds of other factors
  • Models like the one shown here can assist you in making better decisions by letting you see where your business will be at in the future under different scenarios

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New KPCB Report and My Takeaways

In case you’ve missed the new (well, 1.5 months old) 2017 KPCB Internet Trends report, here it is. As always, it’s a fascinating 355-slide deck of charts and graphs that cover everything from advertising to macroeconomics.

Here are some less than obvious insights I noted. What did you find interesting?

  • Ads
    • Ads vary significantly in how much they annoy customers: mobile pop-ups are the worst
  • Social Media
    • Unexpected popularity of weird YouTube channels, e.g. people who record themselves unboxing stuff
  • Delivery / On-Demand Economy
    • Trending up across the board: from Amazon to Doordash
    • Amazon eating the world with Amazon Basics brand
  • Gaming and VR
    • Gamer’s average age: 35
    • More weird entertainment: the # of people watching other people play games keeps growing
    • Games have higher engagement in minutes/day than Facebook (per active user)
    • VR and gamification of the real world: Stanford Football, Peloton and all kinds of mobile apps
    • Virtual world simulations: Improbable
    • eSports growth
  • Media
    • Continued growth of the subscription model and personalization: Spotify and Netflix dominate
  • Enterprise Software
    • Interfaces become more humane as reflected in growing designer/developer ratios
  • China
    • On-demand bike sharing
    • AliPay + WeChat
  • Macro Trends
    • US Deficit
    • 60% of most valued companies started by 1st or 2nd generation immigrants
    • 50% of most valued companies started by 1st generation immigrants

Some screenshots:

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HBR on Corporate Culture Design

I had a chance to work for companies with very different corporate cultures. In my experience culture does not just happen. Instead, it should be deliberately designed and reinforced. So I found this Harvard Business Review article relevant and insightful:

Think carefully about each of these four elements:

  • Incentives are a basic element of doing good work. People should be paid fairly and competitively for their roles, and increases in compensation should be a predictable process. In addition to pay, the culture should work to reward results generated versus hours worked. Employees shouldn’t feel anxious about how visible they are in the office or on projects, and strict timekeeping can create a sense of mistrust between teams and management. Lastly, and this is something we care about a lot, good failure should not result in career suicide.
  • Context and rules will determine what rituals and processes allow people to do great work. If initiative is punished instead of rewarded, people will feel less compelled to push new ideas internally. The ability to make quick judgment calls and move decisions forward will outpace any lengthy or cumbersome internal approvals process. The same goes for autonomy and flexibility—do you trust your teams to lead while you get out of the way? Are teams allowed to participate in flexible work options that encourage their productivity? Your teams need the right tools and resources to do their job—are they spending more time fighting for what they need? If access to those resources is limited, individuals will be less inclined to take part in initiatives with so many blockers in front of them.
  • People are the core of a great organization and the processes and systems you use to hire, promote, and reward them can be both enablers and blockers. Bob Sutton’s famous “no asshole rule” is an important factor when hiring people for your company, especially if they’re “star performers”. Sutton believes that star performers who are demeaning can wreak havoc on organizations. You just can’t compromise your business on people like that.
  • Leadership has to play a role in the culture if the whole organization is to transform. And leading by example is a pivotal component of management enablers (and blockers: leadership can lead by poor example as well, of course). If leadership exhibits the behaviors expected of teams and individuals, then people in the organization will follow suit.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari is yet another mind-expanding book:

“About 13.5 billion years ago, matter, energy, time and space came into being in what is known as the Big Bang. The story of these fundamental features of our universe is called physics.

About 300,000 years after their appearance, matter and energy started to coalesce into complex structures, called atoms, which then combined into molecules. The story of atoms, molecules and their interactions is called chemistry.

About 3.8. billion years ago, on a planet called Earth, certain molecules combined to form particularly large and intricate structures called organisms. The story of organisms is called biology.

About 70,000 years ago, organisms belonging to the species Homo sapiens started to form even more elaborate structures called cultures. The subsequent development of these human cultures is called history.

Three important revolutions shaped the course of history: the Cognitive Revolution kick-started history about 70,000 years ago. The Agricultural Revolution sped it up about 12,000 years ago. The Scientific Revolution, which got under way only 500 years ago, may well end history and start something completely different. This book tells the story of how these three revolutions have affected humans and their fellow organisms.”