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Going to market through a platform ecosystem

My first real job in marketing began with a data entry gig as part of an internship: sorting out Excel lists of leads, importing and de-duplicating into a CRM. What was expected to take two weeks took two days instead. So I broadened out: writing some blog posts, tweeting, and playing around with the website. I was employee number four.

Fast forward 10 months, and I’d been working with them throughout my last year of university, and fell nicely into a full-time position in the now-10 people startup. We were PredictiveIntent: a flexible recommendation platform, first developed for mobile network operator media portals (remember those?).

Our audience then? Anything, and anyone. The sales team (the CEO and one account manager) were trying to nail down any opportunity, any pilot, any conversation they could. Funded with an initial $2m seed – in traction-based tranches – meant incentives were mismatched with the expected progress, and so the behavior was rewarded.

The most consistent interest we’d seen was from the eCommerce world. Retailers wanted to increase average order values, increase conversion rates, and deliver a more relevant experience (on the expectation it would grow loyalty and revenue).

In this post, I’m going to cover the three elements we used to focus our efforts to build traction, turn an API platform into something tangible, and join a mutually-rewarding ecosystem… and how these three steps took us to an acquisition within 13 months.

Niching down in action

We were trying to sell our product: an ultra-configurable recommendation platform that used a number of different algorithms to determine the best set of content to put in front of a user, based on what they were doing, what they had done, and what was known about them.

The co-founders had come from the mobile world, developing and selling mobile internet technology to network operators. But timing – namely the rapid growth of internet-enabled 3g phones – meant their problems dissipated over night. Without a coordinated strategy, they’d succumbed to a common mistake – trying to sell something to anyone. This meant our messages were broad, and confusing. Marketing activity was disjointed. The engineering team had no focus.

A few months into my internship, whilst I was working part-time, I’d began a more coordinated marketing and sales approach for the eCommerce industry, and we’d scored our first customer – an online Christian bookstore from the Midwest.

This was enough validation for us to narrow and niche. We restructured our website to speak the customer’s language and began to focus solely on solving an online retailer’s central problems: growing revenue, and saving on costs.

With a narrower value proposition, we tried multiple ways to sell the product. At its core, it was an API that required developer integration and quite a lot of setup. At the time – early 10’s – most retailers would have a Head of eCommerce, a business buyer that wasn’t technical. Showing a technical slide was an instant put-off.

So we changed the way we described the product to a core and components, delivered in combination in plans. We offered PersonalMerchant (simple, structured, with as little integration as possible) and PersonalMerchant Pro (requiring heavy custom integration and setup). The top plan acted as an anchor, pushing most prospects towards the main plan.

By naming and defining the plans, we made an intangible API platform into a real thing, a package that a non-technical buyer could understand and purchase.

Making it tangible

Even with a slimmed down proposition, we were struggling to get real traction: a plethora of closed-wall eCommerce platforms available meant every customer was using something different – or worse, their own.

Thanks to WayBack Machine, see all those platforms?

At the same time, we started talking to our first customer on the Magento platform. Back then it was an independent company, one of the first platforms to follow the commercial open-source model. They offered the core for free which anyone could use, and they charged extra for a Pro platform with extra features and support.

Magento had built the first app store for eCommerce platforms, Magento Connect. Anyone could create a plugin and market it via the marketplace with direct installation to a self-hosted Magento instance.

The PersonalMerchant Magento Connect listing in the background

I remember checking Google Trends for the Magento search term, a steady upward trajectory. Within a few weeks, I’d suggested and fought for us to prioritise an integration, targeting a quicker time-to-close and improving our deal velocity with a more focused ideal customer profile.

And it worked. Being able to claim (and prove) installation in under 60 minutes was a godsend for proof-of-concepts and trials, whilst we worked on building a strong business case for our $70,000 annual contract value target.

Focusing on one platform and creating an integration that we could literally give away for free was driving deals, and traction was building.

At the same time, Magento were building out their partner network, with one person on the ground in Europe. So we jumped straight in. We signed up for their paid partner program, which gave us the opportunity to train their account managers, get better visibility on the marketplace, and take part in co-marketing activities.

Growing in an ecosystem

A rising tide lifts all boats: Magento was pumping. Conferences in Las Vegas has grown from a few hundred people to 10,000. A community of developers, agencies, software providers, and retailers all connected, eager to learn and advance together. So we went all in.

We dug deeper into the Magento world, looking for tech agencies that had top-tier classes and building joint propositions together. We took control of the partner model mechanics, and flipped it to work in our advantage.

During the sales process, a client would introduce us to their eCommerce agency to scope out the technical integration. At this point, we would also start partner conversations and invite them to become ‘certified’, re-sell the integration they were going to build anyway, and profit from a partner margin.

Our certified partner program badge

We did this for every third-party we came into contact with, and created a certified partner program complete with sales training, collateral, co-marketing events, and of course, generous margins for them. We made a tangible relationship into a tangible package.

We called it the pincer-movement – approaching the customer direct, and orchestrating indirect partner activity to drive engagement and ultimately revenue.

We started saying no to non-Magento deals – one-off integrations weren’t worth our time anymore. We removed the other integration platforms from our website. We had truly found product-market fit with a targeted, growing market.

Marketing agencies would recommend us, and they would manage the process. The same with conversion rate optimization consultants, email providers, and more. We were relatively well-known in the industry, despite having less than 20 employees based in two rooms in a co-working space on the south coast of England.


Bringing it all together

We were not alone – many other software providers were trying to do the same. One of those companies was Emailvision, a French email marketing platform that was growing fast.

Within 6 months of an introduction, Emailvision had acquired PredictiveIntent, using the technology to create a unified eCommerce marketing platform with personalization and recommendation technology at the core, using the partner network we had created as a core sales channel, and using the Magento integration as a core driver of sales and marketing.

In this post, I hope you can see how three important principles – niche focus, making the intangible tangible, and utilising ecosystems – lead us from unfocused with no traction, to high-growth and eventual acquisition.

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