The Hard Yards of Category Design

Written by Paul Maher

Much of the fun and all of the focus on Category Design happens in the early stages of the journey.

The heated debates among the founding team as Point of Views are revised and revised dozens of times; the Category name breakthrough after a seemingly-never ending impasse; the planning and execution of the first and the second strikes. Telling your Category story for the first time is for most a once, or maybe twice-in-a-career, highlight

At Categorical we always emphasise just how much remains to be done after the initial moves are made. No matter how buzzed the Strike team is about the game-changing results of early Strikes, no matter how much social and media interest the Category makes, this is just the start of what we know of a multi-year, perhaps decade-long ascent to Category dominance. Nothing goodever comes easy.

A man who knows that all too well is Vincent Peters, the deep-thinking and pragmatic CEO of Berlin-based (Product-to-Consumer) P2C e-commerce leader, Productsup. With a background in retail and technology, Vincent has plied his trade at a series of nailed-on Category leaders including Oracle, Siebel Systems and Tibco

He has seen exactly what it takes to build lasting tech Categories and has set his sights on the same for Productsup. Here are three takeaways which we hope persuade you to listen.

Every journey is different

In this podcast, ably hosted by Jonathan Simnett, we see the light and the shade of bringing a team together to execute on a product vision. We hear how it is not enough to envision a future enabled by your different Point of View. It is not enough to share this with the internal team.  Achieve buy-in from the analyst community and scare rivals then you might just be on to something. On top of all of this, you need luck, timing and, of course, to bring your customers along with you.

What Vincent shares is that this can be achieved top-down by persuading customers at a high enough-level in target accounts that the Category is right for their future. In the right market, at the right time, this can happen fast. Look at Zoom and Slack for instance.

The route to Category success can also be achieved, ‘in the trenches’ with smart upselling to customers who are already bought into your products, if not the entire Category vision. This is more of a slog as the level of buy-in may only be with junior buyers in a customer. This, though, is very satisfying because such buy-in creates the most loyal Category advocates.

Beware hidden agendas

A key part of the success of many of yesteryear’s Category leaders was their ability to persuade the major influencers of tech stack decisions. These global consultants and systems integrators who have the ear of C-Level buyers are always hard to convince. The question raised by Peters, is one many are pondering. Is it worth the effort to persuade them?

It has always been a long slow process to persuade these services companies to represent your Category. They know very well the value of their entrenched customer relationships, which often span decades and they are not above ‘pay to play’ grifting of ambitious sales teams looking to gain access to ‘their clients

This is a particularly interesting perspective at this time in the economic cycle, as the largest Global System Integrators, or GSIs and management consultancies, both pure-play and accounting-affiliated, are struggling to justify their fees. Now is not the time to expect these ‘partners’ to do anything other than focus on work for their own teams

AI is the new friend of Category creators

Another point made eloquently by Peters is that Artificial Intelligence both breaks down traditional silos – in a way very similar to how new Categories challenge and redraw use cases and vendor ecosystems

Often when designing a Category, the future envisioned requires new job roles, different organisational structures or the design of new ways to market. Think about what Netflix, battlefield drones or food delivery apps have done to distribution, value chains and employment prospects – both good and bad.

Productsup’s focus on making the delivery of product information to merchandisers, suppliers and direct manufacturers fast, accurate and accessible has always been important. Where that can go with AI is a new aspect of the Product To Consumer (P2C) Category which is only now becoming apparent. The ability to experiment, examine data and very rapidly change tacks, with new campaigns, targeting new cohorts on new channels is game-changing

This wave of AI change is happening in many Categories and Peters believes will accelerate his and other Categories, which are tailor-made to take advantage of shifting ways of conceiving of customer issues and so, solving them. Despite the hard yards to be travelled by all those who have the courage, conviction and sheer tenacity to build new Categories, it is always worth focusing on the goal.

Shoot for the stars – you might just clear the crossbar.

Catch up with Vincent’s thoughts and many other contentious Category issues on The Difference Engine podcast at

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