[S! Reading List] Play Bigger: How Pirates, Dreamers, and Innovators Create and Dominate Markets

Jameson Pitts
Managing Director
January 26, 2022

It’s more important to play bigger than better.

Last year I was on a call with one of my clients (by and large a group of truly inspirational, but certainly completely crazy people), where he explained he was incredibly serious about his company not entering any existing market, but creating an entirely new category.

As he continued his entrepreneurial and passionate soliloquy he pulled into the frame of the Google Meet a book, like a stage prop. I immediately Amazoned hardcover copies both to the office and to my home, and have since purchased two more and the audio book. Now, on any given day I can be caught delivering a similarly impassioned tirade about the singularly significant business consequences of well executed and articulated category design.

Read on for my review and teaser of that book, Play Bigger, as the first entry in a new blog series unpacking the shelf of foundational texts in the Sangfroid! office.

Play Bigger: How Pirates, Dreamers, and Innovators Create and Dominate Markets

by Al Ramadan, Dave Peterson, Christopher Lochhead, Kevin Maney

It’s good to be king

The premise of Play Bigger is that our society’s most impressive businesses are able to succeed at such scale because they create, and then dominate, completely new product categories. They introduce not just a better way to do something, but a different way to do it. The Play Bigger team call these companies Category Kings. Think of your Apple, Uber, Facebook, Netflix, Salesforce types.

I’ve written before about the differences in marketing between lifestyle and venture companies, and Category Kings are essentially the top of the top of ventures. Any venture-backed startup can do something better, can be radically scalable with technology, but only the most prescient and disciplined can invent an entirely new space to operate in and in so doing dominate the market.

Let’s look at three key takeaways from Play Bigger on how to achieve that.

Principle #1: Whoever frames the problem best has the best chance to win the category

This is the core idea of creating a category–a category is essentially a way to define a customer’s problem. Smart phones are solutions to one set of problems, laptops to another, hybrid vehicles to yet another.

It makes sense that whoever identifies the problem has the best shot of solving it, and so it is with category design. And demonstrating you understand a customer’s problem creates a connection to that customer. Just understanding them and their problem shows you have credibility in solving it.

An oft-cited example in Play Bigger is Salesforce, the CRM behemoth. Salesforce succeeded at defining the customer’s need for powerful cloud-based software that stored all customer data in one place.

Principle #2: Do it differently, not better

Once you have identified the problem you are solving, it’s time to undertake what the authors call Category Design. The idea is that unlike entering some competitive market and just clawing for market share, the truly dominant companies set up the conditions in advance so they are the inevitable market leader.

By first defining the category, you can then design a product and a company that are the natural, inevitable solutions to the problem that you identified. If you do anything else, you are trying to solve someone else’s problem better than they already have. This is certainly possible, but it’s not where truly disruptive companies are born.

Salesforce identified a need for a cloud-based CRM that companies of all sizes could use, so they were ages ahead of everyone else in delivering a product that solved that need.

Notice I said “cloud-based”. This is the most important part. To define a new category, it’s more important to do something different than to do it better. The Play Bigger authors repeat this over and over. We’re in the business of creating new space in the customer’s head. Before Salesforce, customer databases were clunky, on premise things–expensive software purchased and implemented on your company’s servers.

Salesforce nailed the triumvirate of category, product and company design. They understood a clear customer need, addressed it in a different way (the cloud!), and built a company around this idea (even the name Salesforce and their logo just being a cloud). After revealing to the world the massive gap in software on the cloud to manage your customer relationships, they were the inevitable solution, with their product and company designed to fill the gap they carved out.

There’s a saying in politics that’s true here too–winners win. From there, as the king of the category, it will be very difficult to unseat you. As the King, your name will become synonymous with the category, your growth will empower faster and better R&D, and anybody who comes after you (many will) will be seen as playing your game and compared to you.

Principle #3: Have a point of view

Perhaps the biggest takeaway for me from Play Bigger was the mandate to have a strong, clear and novel POV. Category Kings don’t just define the category, they take a position on it.

Back to the Salesforce example, they defined a strong point of view of “no more software.” The authors describe management distributing printed cards to their teams with the word SOFTWARE in the middle of a red circle with a slash through it. This POV took hold on the market, so fervently that the idea that the best tools are browser or cloud based is utterly commonplace.

Your point of view can be your biggest asset, and the best companies have complete adoption and devotion to the point of view. The POV allows you to connect the product, company and category. It’s this conviction of belief that allows you to open the new category and slide into it. It’s the answer to why the category needs to exist and at the same, why you are the best to solve the market problem. The “end of software” is not only catchy, but explains both the gap (a cloud CRM) and Salesforce’s credentials to fill it.

Put it to work

I highly recommend Play Bigger–it’s applicable not only to the biggest tech companies, but anyone thoughtfully considering a business’s positioning. We’ve always advocated that our clients be driven by a clear mission; one that is useful internally and externally, concise and motivating. It’s a core aspect of our brand consulting. But the companies that go a step further and accept the challenge of becoming a category king, plowing forth into completely and deliberately uncharted territories, will reap the biggest rewards.



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