The challenge of creating a new category

One of the hardest things to do as a startup is to create a new category.  Bloggers and press have a natural tendency to “pigeonhole” – to group startups into cleanly delineated categories, and then do side-by-side comparisons, comment on the “horserace” between them, and so forth.

At my last startup, SiteAdvisor, we were at first consistently pigeonholed as an anti-phishing toolbar, even though what we did was help search engine users avoid spyware, spam, and scams, which (for various technical reasons) had almost no functional overlap with anti-phishing toolbars. My co-founder at Hunch, Caterina Fake, had a similar experience at Flickr.  Early on, people compared Flickr to existing photo sharing websites – Shutterfly, Ofoto, SnapFish – and found Flickr lacking in features around buying prints, sending greeting cards, etc.

Pigeonholing is one reason startups should actually welcome direct competitors.   It was only once a direct competitor to SiteAdvisor appeared that people started treating “web safety” as its own category (Walt Mossberg was the first one to legitimize the category with this article).

At my current startup, Hunch, being pigeonholed as a so-called Answers site is one of our main marketing challenges.  Hunch is a user-generated website similar to Wikipedia except, instead of creating encyclopedia entries, contributors create decision trees that help other users make choices and decisions.  For example, about 50 computer enthusiasts came together to create this decision tree about computer laptops that helps users with less expertise find the right laptop.  Hunch gets smarter over time as more people contribute to it.  So far, about 10,000 users have made 115,000 contributions to the site.  Last month, our third month after launch, over 600,000 unique visitors used those contributions to make decisions.

Many of the initial reviews of Hunch accurately reflected that Hunch is trying to create a new category of website.  Nevertheless, the tendency to pigeonhole Hunch as an Answers site remains. Answers sites allow users to ask a question and get back direct answers from other people.  There are many Answer sites including Yahoo Answers, Mahalo Answers, Vark, Answerbag, and ChaCha. These are all excellent and useful services – but have as much to do with Hunch as Ofoto had to do with Flickr.

There is no easy solution to avoid being pigeonholed.  All you can do is consistently, straightforwardly describe what you do, and then keep beating that drum over and over until the message gets through.

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