Uncomfortably Narrow: Quick Tips for Customer Focus ft. James Doman-Pipe
An audio interview on how to focus on your customer
👋 Heya! It’s Alicia. Welcome to Finding Customer Focus - a newsletter to help you accelerate growth by putting your customers at the heart of your business.
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Today I’m happy to share with you a recorded interview with James Doman-Pipe - one of my best friends and the author of Building Momentum (where I go to upskill myself). The interview is 30 minutes long, and very conversational by nature.
Below you can find the interview transcript as well. Enjoy!
Alicia: Hey! Today, we're going to do something different. Instead of writing a long essay—we'll still have this interview in essay form—but I also wanted to give you a quick audio presentation of one of my best friends in London and the world - James Doman-Pipe. We worked together at Kayako taking a new SaaS-version of the product to market. And he has consistently—although I dread him hearing this directly—has consistently been one of the people that I look up to and that I learn the most from with regards to all things product marketing. So I'm happy to introduce you to James, and he can tell you a little bit himself.
James: Yeah hi! I’m James, I've always been a product marketer. I fell into it after being employee number four, at a startup out of university. And when that company was acquired, I fell into a more established product marketing team and I've learned everything up from that. So really, really broad product marketing experience in B2B SaaS as my speciality and mostly working with mid-market enterprise audiences. And I write a newsletter on B2B SaaS called Building Momentum. Hopefully Alicia will let me include the link to an article somewhere.
Alicia: Haha yeah, I will. And you got a degree in advertising, right?
James: Yeah. So I did advertising and marketing communications, um, at Bournemouth, which is one of the best schools in the UK for mixing together the art and science side of advertising… lots of universities will focus on one or the other.
They will be focused on the marketing strategy or they'll focus on the advertising creative, but there's so much power when you bring both of those together. That's one of the things that's given me a bit of an advantage in product marketing is having that crossover and those roots in advertising and comms. There were three things that we were just drummed into us for that course.
Firstly was: Who is your customer? Second was: Why do they care? And third is: Wow are you going to help them find out about it? And you know, those three things stick with me in all the work that I do as well.
Alicia: So I always joke because I feel like a lot of people, especially now while everyone and their mother wants a product marketer—it's wild—but, I’m getting a lot of requests for mentorship. “How do I get into product marketing? It's really competitive.”
And I know that whenever we were at our product marketing meet-ups in the “Before Years”, we would always have these little, you know, existential conversations. Like, where did you start from? Because no one gets a degree in product marketing. It's either, you fall into it from operations or traditional channel marketing or sometimes engineering, whatever, but you actually got the closest academic instruction in the foundations of product marketing, which is really the foundations of…. ✨Doing the right thing for your customers ✨
James: So actually in my kind of, you know, my personal statement, right at that poin in my ambition, was to go into the public sector, advertising, and marketing. So working with government health organizations. I thought B2B technology, it's just like really, really boring… But since that first startup, it's been anything but boring.
This is so much of that, again, that melding of creativity and just the science behind it, as well as so much, that can be done that.
Alicia: So before we get into the interview, we're going to focus on—which I think is completely on topic from your, your background, from academics to your career—how to get uncomfortably narrow for, especially early stage startups, whether you're a founder or a startup marketer being really focused in who you build for and who you market towards and ultimately whose needs you serve is something that is way easier said than done and most commonly overlooked.
And I know that's something that I learned firsthand working with you back at Kayako and over the last five years as well.
So we'll dive into that a little bit, but first, can you just kind of give me a little bit of insight into what's on your mind lately in the product marketing world. Is there anything in particular that is keeping you awake at night?
James: I think the first thing is, product marketing is super, super broad. There's so much in it. One of the pieces of the go-to market. And it's just so overused. There's so much content. I think there's over a billion search results for go-to-market strategy right now, and nothing that really tells you to do it. There's bits and pieces here and there. It’s about how you launch a product, how to build your product, and then market it.
But there's nothing that really brings together the strategy to it. It’s all just tactics. And that's one of the things has been really annoying for me to see over the last couple of years, especially because product marketing is relatively young, there's just not enough knowledge around the strategic approach for marketing, which is again, so much opportunity for marketing to be super strategic and help businesses change the way they go to market. But first we need to learn what it actually is.
Alicia: Yeah. That's interesting because in some ways it's been around for a long time. Like it's, you know, 10, 15, 20 years at the big, big dogs, like Google and Apple. And um, that one, you know, what are they called? Uh, who's that one that, um, Salesforce usurped…. over in the Bay Area….I'm losing my San Francisco creds.
Anyway, all the big kind of enterprise giants have had product marketing for a long time, but it's a much more narrow view of the role. And so that's, I think why a lot of marketing often gets stuck in this really reductive definition of the function because it's so dependent on the size and scale and maturity and the kind of business model that you're trying to apply product marketing to.
So, yeah, it's very easy to lack a clear definition of how we add value when it's, when it changes so much depending on the company. But I do agree that product marketing playing this very broad through the full product five cycle is, my favourite part of it.And I think that is definitely really new.
James: Anyway. No, I think you're right. There was a viral thread on Twitter the other day that was talking about “product marketing is strategy” and it absolutely is…..
James: Not enough people have experienced what good marketing looks like. Even in those companies, like I said, it's super, super niche, but my personal beef with those companies… is a real lack of development for junior and mid-level marketers. It's very difficult to learn how to break beyond that point in the next couple of years, I think.
Alicia: Do you know, um, Sean Broderick, Head of Product Marketing at eDesk— we’re Twitter friends never met in real life. But he's amazing. I think he was just talking about on Twitter, that there's this huge gap and junior and mid-level product marketers. And I think he’s right. I'm just very impressed with your and Sean’s ability to see trends light years beyond most people.
One of my, uh, as we say in America, pet peeves—what do you guys say again, bug bears— is when someone is applying for a PMM role in my team and they let it slip that it's just a stepping stone into Product. It's like immediately, no way. Are you kidding me? Product marketing for life, yo.
So let's get into the interview.
Why don't you set the scene in terms of the process?
We went through just getting to the point of launching the new Kayako and the background there.
James: Yeah, I think we effectively had two launches. We had one big launch and then one that we iterated on. The first launch, we again, built a brand new product from scratch and we did everything right. We talked to lots of people, lots of customers. We built strong messaging that resonated when we tested the people.
We went with a pricing consultant from Microsoft and we learned a lot of these best practices. We felt quite comfortable about the pricing that we had settled on. We built an onboarding process and trained the sales team in how to talk about the new products and everything like that.
And then we launched, and things just started folding going completely south.
We went from adding thousands a day in MRR to basically nothing. And when we looked at the feedback, we were starting to get insight to diagnose some of the problems behind that.
There were three kind of main challenges.
Firstly, our pricing was just completely whack, but people couldn't see themselves represented in the pricing plans. Similarly with the positioning— we had focused on this kind of aspirational messaging, very visionary. It wasn't really connecting to the people that were coming to the website and encouraging them to take a free trial.
And then the onboarding piece, we thought we wanted to follow best practices around getting people set up as soon as possible, but people were coming in and going straight to that Admin area where we'd spent no time on that at all.
When it just looks horrible and it was really confusing. Free to paid conversions were just dropping… horrifically.
So once we started to understand all of that, there were three things that we did to turn it around.
We started looking at what the customers who actually had and tried to learn more about them, not necessarily just the customers that we wanted… so that people that were coming to the site, for example, were mostly technical evaluators or champions, they weren't necessarily budget holders. They weren't necessarily managers that we wanted. But they couldn't find that kind of functional level messaging on the website.
So they're immediately turned off.
With the pricing, we've taken inspiration from some of our biggest competitor to set some similarity there. But again, people that were coming to the site just didn't see the right thing for them. And so we took the data that we had from all the persona resections basically did and did a lot of pricing research ourselves for our own stuff from ProfitWell and their strategic pricing ebook to carry out feature preference analysis, and willingness to pay surveys.
And that gave us super nice results in terms of, for these personas, this is how much they're willing to pay and this is how much they're not willing to pay. And so we put that in and straight away. It was great. And then turning that data we had, that customer insight, and starting to pull that into just an iteration process.
We gave ourselves a couple of weeks to start things up and then just kept making the friction - so access to iteration really effortless. So trying to remove all of those barriers. So we got access to the website so we could make changes quickly ourselves and make updates. We worked with the pricing biz ops team to working on pricing changes in a couple of days, rather than a couple of weeks, just because we wanted to see those results quicker and see what would move the needle.
And we worked with the sales team on helping them to understand why the changes were being made, what we were looking for, and help them to understand how to interpret some of those results, and come back to us as feedback themselves. And that those three things, I think we did a lot to help us at Kayako.
The second iterative launch - we actually turned that I think within 18 months of launching the new product.
We went from nothing to 2 million ARR within that time.
But for a small team, I think that was a really good accomplishment for us.
Alicia: Yeah, for sure. That was a great summary of, uh, what was a very stressful time. Our free trials are not converting what's going on?!, but I really feel like I'm just reflecting now that a lot of the stuff that we did to “face the music” and just be honest with ourselves that it, the launch wasn't as….you know, we didn't get hockey stick growth the minute the feature flag was removed… Like I think once you face it, you're like, okay, we got to fix something. A lot of the things that we did at first were really unscalable. You were doing sales call monitoring every day at 7:00 AM, I just came into the office and you were there, haha.
And we shadowed the support team, we were hosting daily calls with customers. Sometimes I had like two or three calls with customers every single day. We did…. I forget what that…. you'll remember what it was, but we used that tool where you could watch recordings of, of customers navigating your website.
James: Yeah User Testing, you watch people navigate your website and tell us their thoughts as they would move it around to be understood what they did and didn’t understand.
That's super, super valuable, especially your own positioning. Because we don't— one of the things that I've been talking about in some Clubhouses recently is about—we don't test the positioning, we just do it internally.
We might check it with customers and then we just throw out there, expect it to work. There's no other…there's not really out a part of a SaaS business— especially product and engineering teams that will do that.
Testing positioning should be relatively similar to testing products.
I think in a similar way, we do alpha testing, which is internal and to check that nothing's off, that everything should work.
And then we do beta testing, which is actually going to solve the problem. If we wanted to do testing through PPC or through some specific outbound campaigns, we'll make it a tiger team of sales reps on it so we can test the end-to-end sales funnel, for example, because all of that testing is about building confidence.
But you need confidence as product marketers.
You need confidence as a sales rep, as a CEO, as a business overall, just to make sure that they're going in the right direction. And the sooner you can pick up on that, , especially if that's before you've actually put it out there, then you have a chance to rectify and get back on track.
Alicia: Yeah, completely. And I think something that I've experienced, especially at larger scale-ups that I've worked for, is the more stakeholders you have that are invested in the success of a product or proposition or service, the more difficult it is… I mean, positioning is so at-risk of being diluted and watered down because of stakeholder feedback. It's a really nuanced, but important, part of the job of a PMM is to gather and aggregate all of the feedback from your stakeholders, but also know where to draw the line, and what pieces of feedback are actually important to take into consideration… and what you just need to put aside.
Because if you are labouring over every single word of your positioning and messaging before you've even got a V1 at the door, you're already losing because in some ways it doesn't matter what, well, it does matter.
But it should be an MVP. You're right. You should think about positioning and messaging as an MVP when you're launching something. And immediately, as soon as it's live. Pivot to go stress test it with customer calls and monitor your analytics.
And really be understanding—like I remember one anecdotal success metric that we had at Kayako—when we re-did all that messaging to be much more experiential, more human, more accessible, that I was starting to hear that messaging reflected back to us in the Voice of the Customer interviews.
And it just made me light up.
It was so cool. It's like, Oh my God, it's resonating. That means you're solving real problems for real people. And that's why we like our jobs.
James: I think for product marketers, that tension for us having too many chefs… around the stove… or whatever the saying is… I think PMMs are pretty unique in that sense, because we, I feel like PMMs have an ability to see patterns at different scales and understand the importance or unimportance or something.
A sales rep. Everything they do is about this one customer, this one prospect, this one deal.
So obviously they're going to be super, super biased. They're going to be thinking about the next thing, the next thing, the next thing.
And then you've got executives and CEOs and stuff, and they're just focused on when they say “what’s our customer”, they think... there’s hundreds of thousands of them, and they just refer to them as a single, you know, they don’t see the nuance in all these kind of little segments here and there, that you could be doing better for.
Alicia: Oh, gosh. Sorry. I haven't, I will anonymize this, but I was trying to drive a cultural evolution towards needs-based and away from functional, operational thinking, and it's kind of like, just completely diluted understanding of our customers.
Maybe, you know, 80% of these customers have very similar core needs, but delivering a really tailored, personalized experience that other 20% is your ICP. Like that's where the money is. That's your USP. You should be really explicitly uncomfortably solving the problems of a particular target audience better than anyone else in the market.
And I just was completely shut down. They're like, no, all of our customers like the same thing! It’s like, okie dokie…
James: One of the things I think that helps with that, I found a lot is there's a task you can do, and I've written about it in my Building Momentum stuff, is the customer empathy map.
Pretty simple. You get some people to do it individually. You come together, put them all on one mural board or whiteboard if you're doing it in person. And then you just have a conversation about it and you get these conversations. It's like, why do you think that customer thinks this? Like, we've never heard about that. Why would they say this thing? I've never heard anyone say that, or you get so much value in just again, bringing those opinions in, but then also using that as that filter, try and get rid of the noise and focus on the constants.
Alicia: I like to describe that type of activity as checks and balances.
Yeah, and it really helps to cut through the noise and cut through internal groupthink… it’s so easy. I mean, it's no one's fault. It's not like this is a finger pointing exercise. It's very easy, especially in a really fast paced environment. You have to cut corners to keep up. And then at a certain point, you're cutting corners so much that you’ve built up this like castle wall of assumptions.
You can't get out.
Um, and I've certainly been there myself, like even as a product marketer, like, oh, well this type of a customer cares about X, Y, and Z. And it's like, well, that's from something that I learned like a year ago. How am I really validated and continuing to evolve my understanding of their needs as the market changes as the competitive landscape changes?
James: And one of the things for that…. keep talking to your customers. Take them. And make more product marketing things you do evidence-based rather than assumptions based. Get notes, get calls, get recordings, stuff that you can go back and evidence is then is super factual. You're not talking about possibilities or opportunities.
It's that this is something we've heard. Yeah,
Alicia: Totally. Um, all right. I just realized that we have spent a lot of time and actually want to get to the topic that I was supposed to start with, which is, so you've set the landscape perfectly, the context for how we got Kayako off the ground and got that launch to a point of, of success that resulted in acquisition, which was cool.
Shout out to Jamie, but… how did we go about choosing direct-to-consumer brands as our Ideal Customer Profile. And can you just walk us through a bit about what kind of evolution that led to internally, how we stepchanged our marketing internally. I know that you've talked through the whole picture, but what did the importance of a really, really uncomfortably now ICP play in the success of that product launch?
James: Yeah. So my, motto, is focus plus confidence equals momentum, and that's the ultimate goal, right? We want momentum. You want everything to be going up into the right, but so many people, businesses, just find it so uncomfortable to be narrow. They feel they're missing out on things, right? So what we did at Kayako was borrow a spreadsheet, somebody who's ever since then from Notion VC, which is a really spreadsheet exercise to do where there are three main parts.
First is, getting as niche as you can be by listing different segments that you could target and work with and support successfully. And you want to get really, really niche in that. So that might be, you know, business size, employees, revenue, tech, stack, industries, specific problems, or anything like that.
And then you're just going to have some level of sanity check. Is there enough of those businesses out there?
And so you can use things like Apollo rather than lead sources to validate those assumptions.
The second part is about seeing if there's some Product Market Fit with that segment.
So pull out a couple of categories that define whether there is a level of fit with your product, and that segment. And so for Kayako, it was things like “has a lot of live chats” and “deals with a lot of email support” and “wants to improve customer experience as a source of revenue” for example.
And you just score them.
And then the third bit is, what about their willingness to actually work with you?
So will they work with us in our current form? So do we need to do a lot more product work to win them and support them really well?
Are they trustworthy of startups in our stage… are they going to get scared off by our agility and bugs and stuff that eventually going to happen?
Are they willing to pay what we want? Again, score it. And at the end, tally all those numbers up, you come up with a really nice prioritized list of segments, which on the face of it, you can start reaching out to, researching, investigating that as your ICP. If it doesn't work, you move on to the next one. And there you go.
A lot of people will just put that finger in the air and say, well, I think that this customer is our biggest opportunity. So let's go for that. But putting the process behind it makes it again more, not really evidenced, but there’s something on paper that you can work from.
And so for us at Kayako, that came out with a bunch of different options from IT support teams, direct-to-consumer, e-commerce businesses, retail businesses, SaaS businesses, and this kind of stuff.
And that direct-to-consumer e-commerce was that highly prioritized segment for us. And it was really powerful just to give that clarity once we had that, we could say, okay, well, let's make sure our marketing, positioning, sales process, speaks specifically to those challenges.
Alicia: Yeah. That was one of my favorite parts of my career is getting to speak with like Allbirds, Harry's Razors, Me Undies, and all of these brands that I hear on the ads to my favorite podcasts.
All of a sudden, they're talking to us about customer service and effortless customer experiences and things like that, which is pretty cool.
I think we're short on time. Is there anything else that you want to speak to forever hold your peace.
James: So one of the things I want to, I would just say is that a lot of other positioning methods out there at the minute, we'll talk about starting with who are your competitors. Or they’ll start with, what's your product?
And what they don't really do is talk about who's your customer first?
And I think that's a really big part of positioning that we want to get right from the beginning.
Alicia: It’s a big distinction, when we're talking about product marketing, being the sole nucleus of your business—it's who you go after, when you're starting with your competitor or your product—you're not doing the hard work of figuring out who you're going after.
So that was like a huge distinction with how you set yourself up for success in the long run. Is that fair?
James: Yeah. And it's also a bias. Everything you learn or experience will be tainted by your products or documentation that will be viewed through these, these different lenses, which is not the same lens that exists in the market for your customers.
We need to move beyond this superficial understanding of your customer, the surface level empathy that we have for them… really need to understand what's going on in their lives right now? What is that mindset? What's keeping them up at night? What are the biggest challenges that facing the next few years? What are they personally looking to do, what do they need to do professionally? What's the business trying to achieve, you know?
Until we can really get down to those core jobs, pains, gains, and triggers. Positioning is always going to be weaker.
Alicia: I completely agree. And the best part is not many brands are doing this. Like, really, genuinely, not many brands are doing this and upholding a longterm commitment to finding customers focus… to quote my own Substack of which the majority of the listeners will already be subscribed…
It's a huge opportunity to stand out, especially in an increasingly globalized economy and an increasingly commoditized market. It's very difficult to stand out when consumers have so much more access to more. types of solutions. It's a really big way to differentiate and hang on to what makes you special and unique over time.
But it starts with these foundations that we're talking about.
So completely agree with you.
James: Yeah, it does. There, there's so many studies out there that showed that what you see on the website has three times more bearing on someone purchase decisions than anything else.
Alicia: That's insane. Do you have any book recommendations? I'm getting a lot of people asking me for book recs and usually I just steal whatever you're telling me to read.
James: I would recommend some non-marketing focused things. There's a really good book called Product Strategy. Like 40 quid on Amazon, but it's just a bible of doing product management the right way. And there's tools and processes that we could probably borrow from.
There's also the Twitter account called Strategy Plus Business, super, super valuable. And John Cutler on Twitter. A lot of his stuff is about the crossover between technology implementations, lots of lead change as well, whether that's, you know, within the business, within the marketing, within the sales, within the product development process and it’s a really nice human take on some of the more technical stuff that with.
Alicia: Nice, very good. Very cool. James Doman-Pipe. Thank you for your time.