Co-Founder & CPO of Perimeter 81, a leading Secure Access Service Edge (SASE) service, leading the company’s product, vision and growth.
For every startup that hustled its way from a small business to an industry leader, there are thousands more that never made it beyond the SMB stage. That’s to be expected. But it can be hard to admit that not every business will become a multinational brand (just as not every basketball player can go pro) — even if that’s something all ambitious founders desire.
What separates the industry leaders from the less successful? One reason: The will to change is just as important for startup founders as ambition. Naive founders who stick with the same business model or with the same target audience envisioned in their original plan quickly hit obstacles and don’t understand why. Experienced founders, on the other hand, know that learning and striving for change is vital. They work to take themselves out of their comfort zone and program open-mindedness into their role.
This wasn’t a comfortable shift for me, but it helped push my security startup from a fresh industry entrant to a niche leader, so it’s become my go-to advice for the less-experienced founders I meet. Here are the four steps I tell them are essential to embracing change and establishing yourself as an industry leader.
The Purposeful Pivot
My partner Amit and I started in the VPN space. We noticed that business customers were already aware of how feeble VPNs are at protecting corporate networks. Once we had made a successful exit, we launched Perimeter 81 to be something more — a unified platform that would serve multiple security tools over the cloud.
But pivoting from our old product into a new one was more complex than we anticipated, and because we still had the resources of a very small startup, we needed to prioritize. I decided to make a few changes, mostly to try to open my eyes to what might be happening outside my normal day-to-day perspective.
These four steps helped me embrace change, build a better product and elevate the entire business.
1. Let customers tear apart your MVP: The best way to find a productive direction is to get it directly from customers. Customers are really picky, and experienced founders know that rather than designing around customers, you should design through them. They’ll more often than not suggest use cases for the MVP or ways it can improve, and this is when smart founders perk up their ears. Be on these calls or train your people to be vigilant for clues.
I made it my job to be on at least one customer call per day as a silent observer. What I learned from this experience was priceless: Many customers simply weren’t interested in the types of features we had prioritized, yet some networking features that they noticed weren’t present helped inform a new concept that quickly began to take shape.
2. Get a 360-degree view of your market: Once customers give direction for a new feature and you have the concept on paper, it’s important to explore if the same thing exists elsewhere and, if so, what competitors are doing. We had added networking functionality to our product plan, and after conducting an analysis of product, pricing and messaging of relevant competitors, I better understood how we could stand out.
Companies in our space were starting to move in the direction of commoditized security over the cloud, as we were, but many required users to connect through an agent. We decided — again, informed through customer feedback — that agentless access would help us win the market share of companies who need secure access for the unmanaged devices of consultants, freelancers and outsourced workers. Founders looking to nail down their positioning should prioritize competitor awareness in this way.
3. Stay close with industry analysts: The most authoritative voices and most informed minds in your industry are the analysts at Gartner, Forrester and other top firms. Get to know them. These firms can help you gain a broad yet precise view of your space, size up the biggest competition, learn about new trends and reposition your product. Their awareness of your brand is also priceless — they’ll notice and trumpet your success.
We happened to meet with Gartner at a pivotal moment in security: when it released a report declaring that SASE, a unified cloud-based product, would soon begin to make industry waves. The report validated our budding product and put a label on the trend we were already seeing in our space.
4. Build a brand atop the foundation: Branding is the way your mature product will gain the lead — and keep it. The why of your company should be your brand, not what you sell or how your product works. Your single value — in our case, making security simple — is the epicenter of every ad, campaign, feature, blog and partnership.
Part of the fun in early success is folding capital back into brand-building activities, and despite that it’s sometimes hard to peg down ROI, things like conferences, PR opportunities or investing in a new design language have surprising power.
Move Or Die
Competitive startups need to stay on the move, but it’s hard to know which direction to go. By changing my perspective and using these four steps, I designed a customer feedback and feature-vetting loop that I could rely on. It helped me and my partner go from recognizing a need in the marketplace to addressing that need better than anyone else.
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