Muhammad Ali became the most famous athlete in the world by designing his own category.
Ali sculpted a completely different category of boxer from any that had come before. He danced and cajoled in the ring and was clever and outspoken in public, plus he was always — to use his word — pretty. How many boxers before Ali ever called themselves pretty?
In our book, Play Bigger: How Pirates, Dreamers, and Innovators Create and Dominate Markets, we describe a new business discipline called category design — which also applies to individuals and their careers.
Category design can be a strategy for increasing your odds when the odds are stacked against you. It involves embracing the idea that you don’t exist in a vacuum, and taking action to condition the market to see you in a certain way. It’s identifying a problem that people need solved and offering a new way to solve it, not just doing something well and hoping that’s enough. And it’s about taking advantage of the exponential value of different versus the incremental value of better.
The whole idea is to play bigger than you used to. Here’s how:
1. Category is the strategy: The space around you is as important to your success as who you are and what you can do. You create a category to plug into when you define a new way to solve a problem that’s been around, or define a new problem that people didn’t know they had. If you articulate the problem well, people will assume you know how to solve it.
The best way to start a category and make yourself its king is to find one of those problems, concisely define it, and make sure others see it as you see it. Chances are good that others will begin to see you as the person who can solve the problem.
2. Find your category: Consider your skills and knowledge, and look for an unfulfilled need for it. If you don’t have the abilities to solve a problem, get them — take courses or lessons or whatever is necessary.
When thinking about your personal category strategy, always remember — different versus better.
When you seek better, you are into someone else’s territory, always fighting for attention and having to prove that you’re better. When two people say, “I’m the best,” one of them is lying.
When you seek different, you aren’t climbing someone else’s ladder — you’re building your own ladder and putting yourself on the top rung. To be sure, this is not the easier path. In fact, being different can be challenging. But ultimately it puts you in a more advantageous position than if you constantly fight for better.
3. Design your personal three-legged bar stool: It’s important to design a great company, product, and category at roughly the same time. That’s also good advice for people. Design yourself, what you can do, and your category together.
Designing yourself might involve developing a personal set of beliefs and a way of conducting your life that fits with what you do and the category you address. Design the “product” — that is, your offering to the world — by developing your skills. And design the space around you so it fits your capabilities and also challenges you.
4. Develop a point of view: In the process of category design, one of the most important exercises for a company is working out its point of view (POV). This work involves a deep dive into a company’s psyche, exploring questions about why this company exists and what it wants to do for the world.
Putting yourself through a POV exercise can be incredibly clarifying. Who are you, and what you want to bring to the world? How do you want people to see you? What’s the problem you can solve, and your way of solving it? Write down this personal view and hone it until it sounds like a presentation — so that if you had 10 minutes to sell yourself, you could go through your POV and anyone would grok you.
5. Condition the market: If you are different, if you are identifying a problem people didn’t know they had, then the market by definition is not ready for you. The market, accordingly, must be conditioned to accept you. No one knew why they needed an iPhone until Apple showed them. The “If you build it they will come” mentality doesn’t usually work.
If you’ve developed a strong point of view, your message will be clear. After all, you’re trying to rearrange synapses in people’s brains so they can’t help but see the problem you define, and think of you as its solution.
6. Design an ecosystem: A great category builds up a healthy ecosystem around its king. For a company, the ecosystem might include customers, suppliers, developers, partners, and both real and virtual communities.
People need ecosystems, too. Individual category kings are good at building a community of supporters, followers, partners, and colleagues. Do it purposefully. Surround yourself with people you trust. Treat them better than you treat yourself. Form bonds that go beyond the walls of your company. Just like categories make category kings, other people make you successful.
7. Fire up a lightning strike — and mobilize: When companies set out to establish a category and position themselves as king, they pick a date for a so-called lightning strike, which is a concentrated bolt of energy meant to shock the market and get attention.
For a person, a lightning strike can be both a great motivator and a life-changing event. A lighting strike is a huge public goal, which might range from performing a musical piece at a recital to a major presentation at work. Once a date for that lightning strike is set, you will have to mobilize to pull it off. Deadlines make things happen.
8. Establish yourself, then expand your category: Amazon.com started by selling books, nailed that, and then expanded to other areas of retail. It didn’t start by saying it would be the most powerful retailer. Legendary category kings constantly look for ways to expand their categories, increasing their category potential.
That’s good advice for people, too. This is how you grow, open new opportunities and generate more demand for yourself. If you become the category king of product designers in a small company, maybe it’s time to move to a bigger company. If you’re the best kitchen remodeler in town, maybe it’s time to tackle whole-house remodeling.
Be a category creator until you know you’re “done” — when you are the satisfied king of a category that has a big enough market to make you happy.