Hitching Your Software Engineering Firm's Positioning to a Platform

I advise and write for the advertising, marketing, creative, design, digital, public relations/affairs, software engineering, and all the little nuances in-between. A small but increasing percentage of these digital firms are aligning themselves with a particular digital platform.

Maybe it's Drupal or WordPress or Craft for CMS, Magento or Shopify for ecommerce, Salesforce for CRM, HubSpot or Pardot for marketing automation, or about fifty others that fall in the TL;DR category.

Too many of them are falling back on a default positioning that leaves them with scarce choices around differentiation. They attract someone who needs a Sitecore instance, and so the pool of candidate firms gets narrowed down to the 200 (or whatever) experts who know Sitecore inside and out. So far so good, right?

But how do they distinguish themselves further from the other 199 firms who are supposedly great at Sitecore? Here's where they go next:

  • Clutch reviews. "We are a top-rated firm on Clutch."
  • Higher certification standards within that eco-system. "We are a SalesForce MVP firm."
  • Our size. "We're bigger than this firm."
  • Incorporated services. "We also have UX."
  • We're more human. "You'll love the dog we snuck into our employee roster page." or "Our ping-pong table is really cool [although we're all working remotely]."

I was on a solo photo adventure in Bolivia and snapped this picture of a young boy chasing a bus, and it reminded me of what hitching your positioning to a platform must feel like. (That's also what inspired the illustration for this article.) The ride is easier for this guy, but he had no control over where he was going, how fast he get there, or if the bus will break down.

Hitching your positioning to a platform is an easy way out and it is a disservice to how your firm could excel. The platform expertise that you bring to the table is not irrelevant—you probably aren't in the consideration set unless your bonafides align with their expectations. But that consideration set should just be a simple box that they check off and not the primary distinguishing criteria for why they should hire your firm.

Here's why:

  1. Some other organization is controlling your destiny. Maybe they botch the rollout of Drupal 7, or drastically change the licensing model of Sitecore, or HubSpot releases a free CRM, or everyone finally recognizes that Salesforce has the most unusable interface on God's green earth (in spite of Lightning). You've hitched your wagon to someone else's tow vehicle and the only steering wheel you have is the one you get on Amazon for the kid in the back seat who cannot be trusted with steering duties quite yet. It feels like you're steering, but you're along for the ride.
  2. You're relegated to a downstream implementation role. In this scenario, bigwig client with a lot of money has already made the big upstream decisions, the CDJ is all laid out, the UX/UI considerations are all considered, and they just need a great software engineering firm. You may (and probably will) come across all kinds of decisions that you'd have made differently, but they want you to stay in your lane.
  3. You're at the end of the chain where time gets compressed. There's a drop-dead deadline, there are last-minute capability requirements, and you'll feel more pressure to deliver than any other expert who came before. I don't think I need to expand on this one.
  4. You mistake community support for marketing activity. Okay, I'm just going to admit that this one is going to feel like it's from left field, but bear with me. Say you're a WP shop and you develop a nifty little WP plug-in and make it freely available to the community. Then you let your engineering team answer technical questions on the discussion board to help out other developers. You even get invited to present regularly at the annual conferences (back when traveling was a thing). Everybody in the community loves you, and you mistake that for a powerful marketing position with prospects. It's not.

Let me backtrack a little, now that I've made the point, and clarify something.

Just because a large org doesn't want to go to the expense of swapping out an enterprise platform doesn't mean that they aren't looking for strategy. There is a little nuance here, but step back and take a hard, honest look at how an outsider would view your positioning.

Are you an expert in [platform] who also promises to be a great guide? Or are you an expert in, say, ecommerce who happens to have a deep familiarity with [platform]?

These things matter, and doing it right might just be the ticket to owning your positioning. I love working with smart software engineering firms and most of the ones I've encountered are open to seeing things differently.

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