How to own a category? It’s a team sport.

Why building a category is a multiyear endeavour

How to own a category? It’s a team sport.

Topia helps companies move employees between roles and locations all over the world, in a category they have created that is worth $32BN, connecting offline employee mobility partners into a single technology platform to automate everything related to mobile employees. They have more than 100 enterprise customers and in this article Brynne Kennedy, founder of Topia, discusses her experience in designing a category, from initial market insights to the importance of building and aligning communities to help customers move to the future of work.

  • Why categories really matter is that all homo sapiens want to be part of something bigger than themselves.
  • Category design, when done well, can create enormous amounts of discretionary effort.
  • Why building a category is a team sport.

You can listen to the interview in full here…


Why is the process of defining a category so important?

Innovation is about creating a new or better way of doing things, for a large number of people, Done well, that creates a new category, and companies become synonymous with the category. A small number of those companies, often just one, go on to dominate a category in a winner takes all approach, gathering the greatest value and market share. So positioning yourself to dominate your category, the category you have created, is critical to success.

How do you think about the process of designing and ultimately dominating your category?

The business and the opportunity was my first source of inspiration. Going back almost seven years, there were three macro trends that were changing the nature of work and I believed these three trends would accelerate in their impact. Those trends - which were changing the nature of work itself - were globalization, demographic changes in the workforce and AI / automation. This was all while doing my MBA at London Business School, so I had plenty of time to really ponder these topics.

From there I started thinking about what companies would need, and thus what type of solution might be needed in the face of these macro trends. What I saw was that there was an increasing amount of mobility within major organisations, with increasing numbers of employees moving around the world, working in different places, working on different projects. So there were more and more employees that were frequently travelling but also frequently relocating. This could be up to 50% of a company’s workforce.

Then I looked at the existing solutions in the market, which were really focused on the notion of static employment, and not at all on the mobile employee.

So there was a clear gap in the market, one in which a new category could emerge. I thought about whether I could build a company that would become the leader in this category and would become synonymous with the globally mobile employee.

When we launched Move Guides (as it was known then) there were a lot of iterations on the business model and the product, and indeed everything you go through building a company.  Through that journey we had some stops and starts on what the appropriate category messaging was and how to define where it started and finished. One of the big challenges of a category is there is no precedent. No precedent for the product, no data on the market. And there are lots of people with strong perceived notions of what is needed in the market. We were taking a market that is very traditional and offline services heavy, to a technology platform tied to the future of work. The evolution of the market and taking the buyer through that evolution is a multi-year process.

Early in 2017 it became clear to us. We undertook a six month transformation to ready ourselves for the next phase, how we would define it at scale, how it translates into a brand, how it translates into company values, basically everything. And we did a full scale re-launch under the Topia brand, which has stamped the category and has become synonymous with the talent mobility category.

There is an interesting inflexion point when the category moves from implicit to explicit.

In the early days of the company you are only really focused on the problem and how you can solve it. You receive lots of feedback from many stakeholders, which you synthesise into decisions about messaging, product, recruiting. You think more about survival and getting people to buy your product and less about defining the category and aligning your messaging.

Then as you grow, you reach a point where you have sufficient visibility and, at that point, you need to put a stake in the ground and take a more intentional approach to: where is the TAM and where does it start and stop; what are we trying to achieve and why; and take an intentional approach to the brand.

At Topia I think we knew that we were building a new category, but over the years as Move Guides evolved there was some confusion as to who we were and what we were trying to achieve.

Now we are very black and white and intentional: this is who we are, this is what we represent, this is the category we have created, intend to own and has had to major and positive effects on:

  1. our ability to acquire customers and
  2. our ability to recruit people on to the team.

How has this explicit transformation impacted Topia?

Topia operates in a market that is historically a services market, with providers who dabble in technology. What we do is build a technology layer that can sit above all the existing providers – tax, logistics, legal, etc – and connect them all into a single platform and single version of truth. The market comes from a place where it was expected for companies like us to deliver professional services, so we did that at first, in order to take our customers on a journey from pure services to a digital solution.

The downstream impact of that journey was that at times it was hard for customers, and employees, to really put their finger on what we stood for. But taking a step back and completing the exercise to define the category, the brand, the company values and effectively re-launching the business in the market, provided an immense amount of clarity to customers, employees and investors. People knew what they were joining and why, and that has made it much easier to attract employees and customers.

Defining a category matters because fundamentally all humans – whether in business or politics – want to be part of something larger than themselves. In start ups the concept of a large new category, in which you are leading the way, inspires a lot of discretionary effort.  

Productive paranoia is the key to being an effective leader.

We are paranoid about someone coming along and owning the category we are creating. Jim Collins talks about productive paranoia as being the key to being an effective leader in his book, “Built to Last”. All good leaders need to wake up every day and think about how they are continuing to grow, how they are continuing to innovate. If not, they will get blind-sided. But the challenge is to continue to take the business forward. We think about it in terms of product, people and thought leadership. For example, we have continually developed the levels of integration into our products and challenged ourselves to hire ever better people. We have created compelling research papers that, for example, show the link between mobility and employee retention. We are working on a book called “The future of work”.

How to own a category? It’s a team sport.

For Topia, our strategy is focused, as before, on product innovation, people, thought leadership and building a community.

Within the product we are actively building out the ecosystem, aligning with an integrating all the associated providers. So, our strategy is to be the infrastructure which is innovating horizontally, by offering value to customers through connecting offline providers, centralising the data and adding value through the automation and centralisation, which is displayed through multiple HR functions and employee experience.

We then bolster this with thought leadership and community focus. All our customers are at the same events, talking about the same topics related to globalisation and how AI and automation are changing the future of work.

The thing they often don’t realise is that talent mobility is the basis of all of that, and they need to be able to agilely move employees between roles and locations in order to win the war for talent. They also often don’t realise there is an HR team working day and night to make this process a reality.

So we try and tie those things together through our thought leadership and raise awareness that the future of work goals are enabled by talent mobility.

In the HR space it’s also important is to build a community. Building a category is a team sport, building a community across different groups of people who believe what we believe from our partners, our customers and other suppliers.

All of this is designed to take customers on a journey.

Who’s doing this well, moving from a problem no one knew they had to a category leader?

Operating in the HR space, Workday is the best example of this. They have become synonymous with human capital management and the cloud. They have created a brand associated with having a single code line for all customers and a single location for all employee data. They’ve made this space very sexy, with great thought leadership, a great community and a great venture portfolio of companies, of which Topia is one. We’ve had a front row seat watching Aneel Bhusri and their incredible market department create their category and community, and we are trying hard to emulate them.

Workday invested in our Series B and we are excited to announce a partnership with Workday. Many of our customers are joint customers and we are thrilled about working more closely with them, to take our customers to the future of work.  

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