Time for the obvious statement of the day: the startup journey is chock full of challenges. From fundraising to selling to just keeping the lights on, founding teams have plenty to deal with. But there is one thing that should be at the top of a startup’s to-do list: positioning and messaging.
I know what you’re probably thinking. Of all the things on that to-do list, why is positioning and messaging so important?
It’s so important because having the wrong messaging impacts all aspects of your business. Whether you’re pitching, selling, or marketing, messaging is involved. And creating the right messaging is not a one-and-done process. It takes trial and error, feedback, validation, and revisiting the drawing board numerous times to finally get the story right. And even when you do get it right, the story will have to scale with your business, which means that your messaging journey is never really done.
This is one lesson that Eric Prugh learned along his journey co-founding PactSafe, a platform that empowers high-velocity contract acceptance through seamless clickwrap agreements. In the early days, the PactSafe team was constantly testing and adjusting to find the right story to tell. While PactSafe is scaling and growing, it wasn’t always that way.
As Eric explains, “It took us a year and some change to really get that first big deal across the line. And you know I think it was obviously a combination of the right message, right time, right product, but it's also aligning to the right type of person that's going to align to the product and understand the value.” Through the journey to finding the right message, Eric learned a lot of other lessons along the way, and he shared those during his guest appearance on the Better Product podcast. Here are a few of the things he learned.
Your lack of sales success can either be a product problem or a message problem.
Some sales meetings don’t convert, and that’s just the name of the game. But if you’re striking out repeatedly and don’t know where you’re going wrong, you could have a product problem or you could have a message problem. If it is a product problem, then there are things you can do to address it and make sure that it is solving real problems. But if you’re like Eric and you’re confident that your product is addressing real problems and providing value, then it may be time to check in on the story you’re telling.
Strong messaging is more than just explaining what you do. In order to craft a compelling story and resonate with your audience in a way that drives them to buy, you need a real understanding of the value you provide, the right stories to tell, and the personas of the people who can derive the most value from your product. That way, you can be confident that the story you’re telling is the one that your audience wants to hear and it is the one that will make your product irresistible.
“It was really challenging in the beginning to get people to care. And it was because we started out with a very horizontal focus where we said anybody with online terms and conditions can use this product. And that is such a classic startup mistake to think about it that way.”
Refining your message takes persistence (and a lot of questions).
Finding the right messaging doesn’t happen overnight, and you certainly can’t do it from a bubble. In order to find the message that resonates with customers, you need to talk to customers over and over again. You should be obsessively looking for chances to test out your ideas and making in-the-moment tweaks to be constantly honing your message for each audience.
Start it early, seek validation, and don’t be afraid to get real feedback. In the early days of PactSafe, Eric and team were constantly testing, and it was from those failed meetings that they learned the mistakes they were making. As Eric explained, “It was really challenging in the beginning to get people to care. And it was because we started out with a very horizontal focus where we said anybody with online terms and conditions can use this product. And that is such a classic startup mistake to think about it that way.”
After learning lessons, making changes, and collecting wins to site in the process, they were able to align on the right messaging that spoke to the buyer’s pains and helped convert sales.
“If we didn't have customers to talk about that were using the product, if we didn't have the stories that related back to the real value that PactSafe provided… That's what got us to the right messaging. That's what got us to the right personas, and to think about things the right way.”
You need to scale your message alongside your product, and make sure that you have the right team to support it.
When you’re in startup mode, you’re likely extra responsive to your customers because you want to keep them around. But as you scale you’re going to have more differing opinions and it can be easy to lose sight of what you’re working towards. But just like you use a product roadmap to guide product growth, you need to align your message to the high-level vision and value proposition of your product, and understand when to say no. As Eric of PactSafe explains, “We definitely fell prey to being too responsive in the beginning and I think there's a little bit of residue of that even today.”
Don’t get me wrong, it is important to listen to your customers and make sure you’re scaling in a way that aligns to their needs and goals. But resist the urge to be too accommodating and instead root your team in the foundational position and message that you want to communicate in the market.
The best way to do this is to hire someone to lead the effort. In the beginning when there is just a handful of people responsible for the message externally, it is pretty easy to keep it aligned. But as your team grows and your organization becomes more complex, product marketing can become a big blind spot for the business. If you have groups of people out there telling a different story, it will cause confusion, but bringing product marketing in house will control the message and align it to the product’s value.
Product messaging, when done right, can do wonders for a startup. Aligning on a strong message takes perseverance. However, the fruition of all that hard work is a necessary tool that bolsters sales, ensures success, and fosters growth. Every startup has a market-facing message, but it takes an excellent one to elevate your business. In the startup world, learn from the mistakes of those before you and keep messaging at top of mind throughout your product process.
To hear more about using product messaging to take your startup to a scale up, tune into Eric’s episode of A Better Product podcast.