Sometimes I’m dense, and take way too long to listen to recommendations…

My brother-in-law is involved in the local startup community.  He’s a programmer, user experience designer, and has a good eye for marketing (especially the brand-centric stuff).  And, he’s big into business strategy — especially in the tech industry.

He knows everybody and everybody knows him within our local startup business community, which is substantial.  After rising to the top of one of our city’s most successful publicly-traded companies, he was tasked with building a really interesting new company under a different brand, co-owned by that company.

Well, a few weeks or maybe a couple months back, he started recommending this book to me: Play Bigger: How Pirates, Dreamers, and Innovators Create and Dominate Markets.

I think I was turned off by the name.  I’ve heard enough empty calls to “play bigger” that the language had lost meaning and motivation to me.  So even though I knew he was probably recommending it to me because it was a good book, I wasn’t motivated to pick it up.

Even when he described it to me, over, and over, and over again, I didn’t feel like it was anything all that new or unique.

But he just kept bringing it up.  Then, this weekend he showed me a presentation he had put together for his team, on the core content of the book.

Something clicked.  Finally I realized this wasn’t just some motivational nonsense.  I realized it had some really powerful substance behind it.  And I realized it was way more actionable than I’d expected, because I’d (unfairly) lumped it with other books in the “play bigger” category.

This book outlined — with data and actionable systems — how to win at business today…

My brother-in-law and I have an email chain started, going back and forth about this book.  While the book introduced a bunch of interesting questions about what makes the difference between big business successes and spectacular business failures, I think the core question is this…

Do you want to build the business that’s always a step behind and trying to catch up — or do you want to build the business that stays a step ahead and leaves the rest of the market trying to stay caught up?

This isn’t necessarily about size.  Although if you do this right, you will probably grow to the biggest, most successful business within your category.

It’s not about disruption.  Even though if you do it right, you will likely disrupt the old, entrenched powers-that-be and move markets your way.

And it’s not about technology companies exclusively.  Although in today’s business environment it’s often the new application of tech that creates leaders in a market.

The secret?

Your business must create, define, and own a new category…

The book goes through previous business revolutions, and what you had to design to dominate.  Industrial design was all about designing the manufacturing.  Product design was about packaging the functionality.  Company design led to better teams and a better environment, and better value creation for customers.  Then the web was rocked by experience design, where a better experience of the company and products led to more sales and customer loyalty.

Which brings us to today.  Most companies today do a pretty good job of ticking off those boxes.  And yet some can nail all of them and still fail, while others seem to have a magical ability to create entire markets out of thin air, and catapult to “unicorn” valuations and actual market dominance with revenue to back it up.

What gives?  What’s the difference?

Category design.

Not being better than what’s out there.  Being different.

Literally creating the playing field you’re going to play on.  And then dominating this.

Part of the reason I was willfully blind to this was that there’s so much overlap with what I already teach, I didn’t think it was all that new…

A quick rundown of parallels — things you already know that put you a step ahead…

— Much of category design is about either finding a new problem, or redefining an existing problem to make way for a very different and clearly superior solution.  In direct marketing, we’ve heard “problems are markets.”  That if you speak to a problem in a way nobody else has, and really agitate your prospect around the impact is has on their life, you create a winning ad campaign.  This is about building a company around that.

— A great problem to build a category around is one that no other solution solves.  I’ve written before about the PAISA formula for writing sales copy — problem, agitate, invalidate, solve, ask.  (When I taught this to Clayton Makepeace’s mastermind, even he was taking notes!)  The whole “invalidate, solve” portion of this is what takes you from having a problem’s solution into “category of one” territory.  If you’re able to reposition a problem such that no other solution addresses it, and you do that convincingly, you have a category all your own.  (In retrospect, most of my biggest winners were products that basically already had this in place, and I highlighted it big-time in my marketing.)

— Also, much of category design is about the stories you tell.  It’s worth nothing to have a tech innovation, a product innovation, a company innovation if you can’t tell it in a clear, compelling, exciting way.  Category design has to take place in two places: in your company, and in your market.  Define category design for your market (think Google for search, Netflix for online movies, Apple for tablets) and you become very hard to unseat.  That happens with story.

If we as direct marketers already know so much about category design, what’s the advantage of going deeper?

This is a really important question.  The folks behind the Play Bigger agency, who wrote the Play Bigger book, are trying to own the category of “category design.”

That’s a pretty audacious goal, as the foundation for category design goes back well over 100 years, and it draws on so much that comes before it (including the infomercial industry, which is referenced a few times in the book).

So what NEW do they bring?

In short: a process.

What made this book so different and the reason I’m so excited about it after finally giving in and getting it is because of the process.

The book walks you through the thinking process of stepping back from your products, the problems you solve, and the company itself, and thinking, “What is the category we inhabit, and what are we doing to make it ours?”

They don’t promise a magic pill.  They don’t promise that you can read their book and become the next Google, Netflix, or Apple.  But they do lay out a pretty solid case that Google, Netflix, and Apple only became the companies we know because they understood and implemented category design, and the best way to have similar success in your category is to follow the well-worn path.

And I’m just scratching the surface.  I actually got the audio book, and I rarely read or listen to something twice, but I started my second listen the moment I finished my first.  I’m likely to also buy a print copy, because the questions throughout the book are worth having readily available.

While I understood, on some level, everything that went into the final process, the way they put it together formed a comprehensive and well-refined process for applying that thinking in a very systematic way.  It also made me reconsider big projects I have in the works, and how to more effectively define my category, instead of just offering a better solution than others.

It feels trite to say it, but I do think it will help me fulfill on the promise of the title and “Play Bigger.”

Yours for bigger breakthroughs,

Roy Furr

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