A few of us at Basecamp became fans of the “job to be done” framework taught by Clay Christensen, Bob Moesta and Chris Spiek. The core idea is that what you are selling and what people are buying are two different things. Understanding what people are trying to do with your product helps you know whether you’re getting hotter or colder as you consider changes to your product.

For example, we think we’re selling a project management product. But some people really use our tool and pay us every month to manage their clients. The projects were always fine—it’s the clients that are a challenge! That’s just one example.

Clay has suggested (eg. here) that when you identify what people truly use your product to accomplish, you protect yourself from competition. He’s a smart man, so when he says something odd like that I try to dig in. I’m starting to see what he means.

It’s natural to identify with a product category. You think “we make product management software” or “we make candy bars” because you have to explain yourself over and over. It’s always easier to use available categories than to invent new ones. It’s just like language. We speak the lexicon instead of inventing words.

But for people who want to innovate, this is a problem. Identifying with a product category is outsourcing your strategy to the past. Is the world really carved up into allowable product categories? No. We are all figuring this stuff out every day. Experience shows that amazing breakouts and surprise successes competed on unorthodox dimensions (see Blue Ocean Strategy for examples).

Bob tells the story of a clock maker. They sell an alarm clock for small kids who started sleeping in their own room. It’s not a normal alarm clock. It has an arrow that points to whether the kid is supposed to be in bed or whether he is allowed to get up. That way he doesn’t go running into his parents’ room until after a reasonable hour.

If you think this product is a clock then it’s in the clock category in the clock aisle with a clock price. But parents who bought the clock said they would pay $100 or more for it because it keeps the kid out of their room. It’s a sleep protector.

So how does thinking outside the category protect us from competition? I’ve been conducting interviews with Basecamp customers, and I’m feeling first hand how tricky it is to think outside of a category. You don’t have a shorthand. You don’t have words and feature lists given to you. It’s like you’re floating out in space with nothing to grab onto.

That’s the key. The fact that it’s so hard to think outside of a category is the moat. Staying focused on why you made the features you did, what specific situations call for them, and how that combo creates progress for people requires diligence and confidence and unyielding attention to actual behavior. Sticking to the truth of the matter instead of the walls of a category keeps you on your own path and away from the pitfalls of conventional thinking. That’s hard to compete with.