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GTM Playbooks

Positioning Cockroach for the win in the Distributed SQL database category

This article is part of François Dufour’s “New Category or not?” series on positioning and category creation in B2B. There, founders and CMOs reflect on their positioning, category-naming journeys, and decisions. They share advice for those embarking on such a project.

Peter Guagenti is not your typical B2B tech CMO.

Peter spent 15 years as a digital agency founder and consulting executive working on Fortune 500 brands at companies including Accenture and Razorfish, before making a career switch as a leader in tech start-ups. He was an early employee at Acquia, working as their VP of Products before building out marketing and sales development at NGINX, Mesosphere, and MemSQL (now Singlestore). He has been CMO at Cockroach Labs for the past 3 years, joining the company after its first year of revenue and building it to be the perceived category leader in a new database market – Distributed SQL. He shared with me how he created and positioned the CockroachDB brand and continues to succeed in a highly competitive category.

He has strong points of view, which I wholeheartedly agree with. Enjoy his lessons!

Key Takeaways

  • Too many marketing leaders act out of fear. Have the courage to invest in your brand and feed word of mouth, even when you can’t measure the impact
  • In a crowded market, be crystal clear about your best-fit target audience, including your main use cases, and differentiators. Build processes to know customers deeply and iterate until you get it right. Then you can define your positioning
  • If you're trying to create a category, work with influencers and also your competitors to build that category
  • With a new category, you are fighting inertia. Live in the pain of the old way with your customers - show you care and get it -  and then redirect that energy: teach people a better way of doing things
  • Punch up, not down. Go after legacy players and incumbents. If you are a leader, don’t badmouth other players in your new category, or you risk damaging it and giving small competitors too much importance
  • Analysts may not always say what you want them to say about you, but you must engage them to influence their perception of you. Being recommended by analysts takes years of effort. Most get started with these programs too late

Peter, you have a strong point of view on marketing technical products and building brands. Let’s start there.

Sure! I would start off by saying that awareness matters.

“Too many marketing leaders underinvest in Brand and word of mouth. They act out of fear, not having the courage to invest at the top of the funnel just because they can’t measure it well.”

The problem is that we all too often look for perfect data in our analysis of what converts. That’s just not possible. What we do in sales and marketing is not math and physics, where everything can be tracked, measured, and understood. What we do is sociology and psychology – doing our best to track human behavior to affect the outcome. If you want perfect visibility and formulas that always net out to zero, you're in the wrong business.

Word of mouth and great educational content in the right channels are what sell technical products.

At Cockroach, we often sell million-dollar software deals. This is a long, complicated sales process with lots of people involved. In my marketing analytics, I see an average of over 200 marketing touches across seven contacts required to create a sales opportunity. But do you realize how many other additional touchpoints that we can’t track need to take place to inform that decision? Certainly, many more than that 200.

If you have not built a strong brand reputation and a real understanding of what you do and why you matter, you are not going to close big deals. Does anyone think I can just buy Google ads - because we can track that well - and that’s going to convince somebody to write us a seven-figure check for a mission-critical system of record? We just convinced one of the top financial services institutions to move their entire trading platform to CockroachDB. You can be sure that on top of evaluating us through their own experiences with the brand, they contacted their community of peers to hear what others had to say.

Tell me about the context of Cockroach and the database market, please.

The database market is very large and is comprised of many players, including extremely large companies such as Oracle, IBM, Amazon, Google, and also many specialists. It is tough to stand out, so you must be crystal clear about who you're targeting, why they’re an ideal fit, and how you're different. The database market will be worth $100b in 2025. It’s the single largest market in enterprise software. There are over 330 databases tracked by dB engines. This is probably the most complex and competitive category I've ever operated on in my life, but it also has the biggest prize for the top players.

How did you start your positioning journey?

Many technical founders and marketers who come up through technical disciplines make the same big mistake: they lose sight of the forest for the trees.

“They’re so focused on the product’s capabilities — what we call the speeds and feeds — that they forget why the hell customers came to them in the first place.”

It's really important to always work backward from the customer. What’s the pain? What is their unmet or underserved need? Who do you fit best with?

When I joined Cockroach, identifying our best-fit customer was job number one. I don't mean the types of businesses we may be able to support, but laser-focused on the ideal accounts, as in “if you could win 100% of one profile of customers, who is that?” As a young company trying to find product-market fit, we did a lot of analysis on our customers, including both quantitative and qualitative. We ended up with an ideal customer profile based on a predictive model that uses firmographic and technographic data, further filtered down to specific industries and buying behaviors where we believe we can win.

“We can be considered a “general purpose database”, so could have been a lot of things to a lot of different customers. But that kind of thinking diffuses the impact you have and hurts your ability to succeed.”

So we focused on where we add the most value and are the most differentiated: mission-critical applications at scale. Our core attributes and capabilities were really for when things that matter go wrong. This means serving apps and businesses dealing with scale, geographic distribution, and an application going through ongoing iteration and change. The level of effort required to do that with legacy applications is literally an order of magnitude more than the level of effort required to do the same thing on CockroachDB.

We did a regression analysis on all of our closed-won and late-stage opportunities and built our predictive model using a tool from Dun & Bradstreet.

Talking to customers is also crucial, though. I try to listen to two to three customer sales calls every week. It's also important to talk to your own reps and your customer support people and read every customer case study. Customer empathy is so important that we instituted a requirement that we capture a customer case study for every closed-won deal, whether or not that story can be shared externally. This ensures we have documentation of every single customer win in gory detail, which helps inform our selling and marketing efforts.

That’s the foundation of all of our brand positioning.

What was the resulting positioning, and why?

Our first positioning was “Scale fast. Survive anything. Thrive everywhere”. It captures the core differentiating features of the product and leans into the name of the company. That immediately disqualified a bunch of customers – “if you are not doing serious things, then we are not for you. If you care about survivability, then you’ve got a mission-critical application. If you care about scale, then you have an app that’s evolving and changing over time”.

With the concept of Thrive everywhere, we touch on unique features and capabilities exclusive to CockroachDB: we are a global database that can run anywhere and on any infrastructure. You can have CockroachDB living on nodes all over the world, and it will behave like it's one logical database.

Screenshot of Cockroach’s homepage in March 2023

How do you identify customers with such needs?

I've seen this across every brand I've worked on over the last 13 years:

“The technographic profile of a customer and their hiring profile is the clearest indicator of who they’re going to do business with.”

It's something we identified: there is a whole new tribe of people who are building data-intensive applications. They tend to be full-stack developers, and they tend to look for more cloud-native technology. They're very adaptable. These are people looking for the best tools for resiliency and scale.

Was newSQL the category you initially chose to operate in? Something else?

We needed to stand out from multipurpose relational databases. Initially, our category had been named NewSQL by Matt Aslett nearly 10 years ago and was reinforced by others in the community. But there was a question mark around what to call the category a few years ago, as many in the first wave of newSQL vendors went under because they were too early. The apps weren't available for them yet.

We then decided to go with a more modern phrase; Distributed SQL.

Why? I'm a big believer that:

“If you’re trying to create a category, then you have to work with your peers and your competitors to actually build that category. ”

We had noticed others – including both competitors and pundits – started calling the category distributed SQL and it was gaining momentum. So I thought we had to go all-in on this.  At the end of the day, we're all really trying to put Oracle out of business. That whale carcass is more than enough to feed all of us for the next decade. So let's go in and agree on that language.

To get attention, it helps to pick a fight against incumbents. Did you do that, and if so, against whom and how?

I am a believer in always punching up, never down. We first go after legacy databases as a concept, and we’re pretty ruthless about going after “Why would you do it the old way? It’s antiquated and cumbersome. Why not use a modern, cloud-native database?” From there, I'm always willing to go after the big bullies, particularly Oracle, because they are no longer respected, and many of our potential buyers want off Oracle as soon as possible.

When I was at MemSQL (now Singlestore) we were a more like-for-like replacement for Oracle Exadata, so I went after them hard. I rented one of the storefronts across from the entrance to Oracle World in SF and papered the whole thing with anti-Oracle messaging. We opened it for free coffee and drinks to all Oracle world attendees. It was a packed house that week.

I followed that up with an ad campaign. On Valentine's Day one year, I ran what we called a “Dear Larry” campaign. It played on the idea of a “Dear John” breakup letter, writing a breakup note dumping Oracle using the language you would use to break it off with a selfish, abusive lover. We ran that in out-of-home billboards local to tech companies in multiple cities. That got a ton of attention to the brand.

“Dear Larry”, memSQL billboard on 101
“Dear Larry”, memSQL banner ad

All that said, the number of times where it actually makes sense for a brand to go aggressively after a competitor is fewer than the times people try to do it.  I tend not to talk about other players in our category at all. Why give them airtime and free advertising? Talking about a competitor makes you look weak and does not signal you are a leader. You also should try never to hurt your own category. A rising tide raises all boats. If we're ultimately all taking away share from the big players, that's good!

What programs do you run to establish your category and dominance?

Good tech marketing = education

I always invest very heavily in content marketing and ensure it is channel-appropriate.  At the end of the day, category creation is all about thought leadership and teaching people how to do the things they want to do in a better way. Good tech marketing should not look like marketing at all but instead, look like helpful content: thought leaders, help, how-to’s, and deep technical assets. Sometimes this takes the form of white papers and reference architectures. Sometimes it’s blog posts, talks, webinars, etc.

I always make my team ask themselves a simple question with everything we do: does it pass the ‘What's In It For Me” test? If I'm a prospect and do not intend to buy anything from CockroachDB today, do I still get value from this? If it’s self-serving or useless to our audience, then we go back to the drawing board.

Remember that, especially with a new category, you are fighting inertia, the old way of doing things. So live in that pain of the old way with your customers, attach yourself to the pain - show you care and that you get it -  and then redirect that energy: teach people a better way of doing things.

Covering all channels

You have to cover all channels and methods since it gets harder and harder to reach your prospects every day: we’ve got fragmentation of media, algorithmic reinforcement pushing content to people's existing interests (so they don't even get exposed to new things), people using ad blockers and cookie blockers. Then on top of all that, events disappeared during COVID.

The way I break this down is: what's your strategy for paid, earned, and owned media? You need to be channel-passionate – for each available channel and tactic, what is an authentic representation of my brand in that channel? Then focus on being in as many places with your prospects as possible.

How about analysts? Given your audience, do they matter for Cockroach? Why? Why not?

Influencers are critical to building a brand. Any time you can get others to tell your story is a good thing. Nowadays, though, the lines are blurry between analysts, press, and general influencers. For example, one of my favorite pundits in the cloud technology space is Corey Quinn; he has a great podcast on AWS that is very technical and gives great advice, but does that make him a reporter? A modern analyst? Something else? Another example is The New Stack. They’re ostensibly journalists but go really deep technically and don’t take traditional advertising, so they look more like analysts.

We look at influencers and what we consider “earned media” broadly and ask ourselves, “Who is talking about topics that we care about, and how do we get involved?”

To answer your question directly, though, analyst programs matter to us. Analysts still have incredible sway over the purchase decision in the Fortune 500. Word of mouth behind the scenes matters. Are you in the Magic Quadrant? Are you covered by them? What do they say about you? What do they recommend you for?

“Analysts may not always say what you want them to say about you, but you need to engage them to be able to influence their perception of you. Being recommended by analysts takes years of effort, and most people get started with these programs too late.”

We're niche in the Cloud Databases Magic Quadrant. It’s very big and very broad in scope. So I don't expect to be above the line when the top 10 in that category are all multi-billion-dollar companies. But Gartner has this view they call critical capabilities. For the critical capabilities in the use cases we target, we are above Mongo and a bunch of players who are much bigger than us and only just slightly behind Amazon. That's great.

When an analyst can show to a CIO of a bank “Cockroach does really well for the use cases you want to use them for. They offer things that we do not rate in the critical capabilities that you’re looking for,” that's a win I will take any day, even if we are not listed as leaders.

The value of these relationships is also bigger on awareness and consideration than most people understand. For example, Gartner recommends us twice as frequently as they get inquiries from customers about us. That makes them a net recommender and promoter for us. It's not a marketing-team-level Key Result, but I track the number of analyst inquiries and mentions.

Thank you, Peter, for sharing, as always, your no-BS take on marketing. Always good to hear your opinions and lessons for others.