Picture of the Statue of Liberty - Category

Successful Category creation means burning your boats

Written by Jonathan Simnett

To the uninitiated, it may seem that Category leaders `Come out of nowhere`. Actually, they don’t.

Even those tech land grab companies such as Facebook, Google, Twitter, and Uber, although backed by hundreds of millions of dollars VC cash, are a product of a premeditated and sustained process.  A process leading up to, and then underpinning, a series of strategic `Strikes`.  It is these Strikes that are the route to first create then, eventually, achieve domination of a Category

But companies and individuals have much in common.  Spotting opportunities, taking and managing risk and relentlessly pursuing a goal are essential for personal and commercial success alike.

In truth, too, all Category leaders have a past and have had to break with it and the Category creation process has some key moments.

Nothing to lose, everything to gain

Whatever the background, it is an impetus for a necessary and radical change that drives Category creation. This could be the result of the leadership lessons of past failed, or stalled, ventures, or the sudden realisation that a current organisation may be under existential threat.  But it is often the life experiences of those that have gone on to build some of the greatest industrial and, later, tech companies that reflect and inform Category creation.

Many emigrants to the United States, in the late 19th, 20th , and even 21st centuries, had had nothing to lose and everything to gain. They gambled everything on a one-way steerage ticket or a cheap flight seat.  What they were seeking was a new start and the opportunities this would provide, free of the restrictions and struggles of the old worlds from whence they came.

In recent years, it’s turned out that for those with tech skills the gamble of emigrating to the was worthwhile. Whilst just 11% of the Fortune 500 have emigrants at the helm, for US billion dollar tech firms studies have shown the number is five times that, some 55%.

Get rich or die trying

But the point is that the emigrants were done with their past. They were never going back.  They had to believe in their choice. Their new life had to work and it had to be better than what they had left behind. To paraphrase the title of rapper 50 Cent’s first album, they could get rich or die trying.  But at least they had a shot at it. 

Many failed the first time out – but many didn’t. Some just kept going until they succeeded. The eventual winners had a plan. They successfully reinvented themselves and their future.  As the centuries progressed, they built the manufacturing, entertainment, electronics and big tech and other companies that shape the world we live in today.

Decision time

What has this got to do with successful Category creation?  Everything.  Category creation, like emigration, involves taking the best of what you have and putting it into a new context to give it a new opportunity to flourish.

But emigrants must decide not just to start the process of preparing to emigrate, they must make the decision to go through with it. As the date of embarkation approaches, they must finally assess the risks and opportunities of starting afresh.  But they must also know that if they do nothing their situation will probably get worse. The only question is how quickly.

Stage management

It is the same situation in which most tech companies will eventually find themselves.  A position of inevitable decline driven by adherence to the rules of old tech regimes.  The only option is radical reinvention.  But a reinvention process that, if done right, like emigration, ultimately affects and influences a lot of other fellow tech travellers.  This, in turn, creates new ecosystems, value chains, opportunities and, ultimately, new Categories.

Like preparing to build a new life in a new country, the Category creation journey has stages.  In the early stages you might agree on a future ecosystem structure, finalise an existing Blueprint, and sign off on Category Name and Point of View.  But you are only preparing for change.  The truly hard yards are yet to begin. 

Burn your boats

Actual change starts like when, in the past, an emigrant might have got off the steamer gangplank, descended the jet liner steps or simply drove across the border. It’s the point where there really is no going back.  It’s a point in Category creation where you have to `Burn the boats`.

You must take a deep breath and take the first steps in starting the process of mobilizing your entire company behind your new strategy as you plan and execute your first Category Strike.

That’s because it’s not enough just to arrive in a new place.  To be successful, you must expand and consolidate your position in the new environment in which you find yourself because many others will be trying to do the same thing. But you must be different. And you must demonstrate that difference over and over and over again.

That means strike after strike after strike after strike. It may be years before you have proven your approach and established your new Category leadership position.  But from the heights of your new achievement, you can wonder what life would have been like and whether you or your company would have thrived had you not taken the risk of changing the world. 

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