Good Positioning Makes Everything Easier

Here’s how to do it well

"A terrain map with a pin in it, digital art unreal engine"

When I first  joined Substack back in 2018, it was kind of hard to explain what product category we were competing in.

The founders had originally conceived of it as an all-in-one publishing platform for independent writers who wanted to offer paid subscriptions. So the core product elements were: 1) website, 2) email newsletter, and 3) subscription payments. The thing was, there weren’t yet many writers who were ready to take the jump and build an independent subscription business—and the few that were already doing it didn’t want to go through the painful process of switching to a new platform. So that was a problem.

Thankfully, the founders figured out a subtle shift in positioning around the time I joined that made a big difference. They kept all three core elements in place, but started pitching it as a newsletter platform rather than a paid publishing platform.

It might not seem like it, but little language changes like this can have a large impact. I think it's easy to underestimate the effect this can have because very little about the product has to change—to many product-oriented founders it doesn't seem ”real.” Because of this, many founders choose by default the market framing (aka “positioning”) that popped in their heads when they initially conceptualized the product. They might not even understand that it is a choice.

But it is. And the choice you make makes a huge difference.

In Substack’s case, life in the “paid publishing platform” market was rough, because very few people thought they wanted it, and the people who did were locked up by switching costs from the complex systems they rigged together. But competing in the “newsletter platform” market was a dream in comparison. Hamish could email writers on Mailchimp and say, “Would you like to stop paying $60 a month to send to your list?” and it was a no-brainer. Or he could talk to a Tinyletter user and ask “How close are you to hitting the cap?” (Yes, Tinyletter actually caps writers at 5,000 subscribers.) Or he could ask Medium writers if they would like to own their own email list and brand, or ask Wordpress users if they’d like a built-in newsletter. Shoot, he could even nudge professional authors and journalists to start a newsletter as a sort of career insurance policy—and it would work!

Needless to say, competing in the “newsletter” category made life easier. It wasn't perfect: most of the writers we acquired this way did not start paid subscription newsletters, and we generated no revenue off them. But still, it was absolutely worth it. The “newsletter” positioning served as a wedge, and generated a viral distribution loop where more writers came on Substack, made their readers aware of it, some of whom would go on to join as writers. It created credibility and awareness that were the key to giving more people the confidence to start paid newsletters. And, most importantly, it laid the foundation for the network effect that today helps writers on Substack get more readers without having to do any extra work.

Bottom line: choosing the right market frame for your product is essential.

Traditionally, this is known as “positioning.” But most resources on positioning are too disconnected from strategy for my taste. They are useful, but only tell you how to execute on a position. They don't help you choose the right one.

The best thinking I’ve found on this is in the book Obviously Awesome by April Dunford, but I felt it could be even more useful if combined with strategy concepts like disruption, wedges, shifts in the the basis of competition, etc.

This post is a new way of thinking about positioning, informed more by strategy than marketing. If you’re building something new of any sort, I hope it helps make life easier for you, the same way the “newsletter” framing made life so much easier for us at Substack in the early days.

The Startup Positioning Process

There are five steps:

  1. Start wide open
  2. Identify the bright spots
  3. Anticipate where they lead
  4. Choose a path
  5. Conform everything around that choice

Let’s dive in!

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