Lessons learned from working with over 90 B2B companies in 5 years

by Michael Bernstein on December 17, 2021

A little more than 5 years ago, we published the first blog post announcing Reify, our little two-person consultancy. Here’s how we described the idea in the post:

…to combine my unique experiences as a developer, a salesperson, a marketer, and evangelist to provide a service that is both unique and sorely needed at many early stage B2B SaaS startups: marketing and sales aimed at the developer market.

We thought it would be fun to share some of our experiences and lessons we’ve learned 5 years and over 90 clients later. We’ll break them down into the following categories: what we were right about, what we were wrong about, what we enjoy, and what we don’t enjoy. Finally, we’ll talk a little bit about what we think might be next.

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What We Were Right About

We had some pretty strong ideas when we started out. What did we actually get right?

Just the two of us
More than anything else, the real foundation that has kept our business running has been our relentless focus on keeping it small. We decided to build a company in order to make something sustainable and impactful that would allow us to have as much free time as possible. Aligning on this took a lot of energy up front, but it has paid off tremendously: we have an iron clad rubric by which any major, strategic business decision can be judged. If it detracts from our quality of life, it’s not the right move.

There is a market for strategic B2B Software Marketing consulting
We intuitively knew that the kind of strategic and tactical work we wanted to help companies out with was sorely needed, but we also knew that didn’t guarantee a real market for it. We didn’t have a lot of models to copy, and the actually hard advice we got from folks was few and far between. It turned out that we had our own set of packaging and pricing problems to solve. It wasn’t as much about what we were trying to sell as how we were trying to sell it. We’ve since settled on a core set of three services that effectively cover everything we think we’re good at. More on that below.

It’s going to take a lot of studying
One thing that we were pretty certain about was that if we wanted to stay on top of technical software while not being programmers anymore, we were going to have a lot of studying to do. Since 2016, we’ve been fortunate enough to ride a few waves of new technology: Blockchain, Serverless, and Graph Computation startups come to mind as three successive trends that we have been fortunate enough to see come on the scene and impact on how people make software. We’re very happy to be right about this one, by the way: keeping on top of new tech is one of the most gratifying aspects of what we do.

What We Were Wrong About

Back to those strong ideas … yeah. Not all of them worked out the way we thought.

Companies are not fundamentally similar, they’re fundamentally different
One of the wrongest ideas that we had when we started was that we were going to be able to develop a set of tactical practices that would be applicable across all of our clients. We legitimately thought that the companies we worked with were going to have enough in common that at the end of the day, we could use a set of predetermined recommendations, simply shuffle them around, and “scale out” our services. N-O-P-E. Why and how we’re wrong about this could and probably should be a post of its own, but it comes down to this: we don’t work with companies, we work with people. Even companies in the same domain selling to the same market will just need different work at any one given time because we work with quickly growing companies in rapidly shifting markets. Fortunately, this is part of what makes our work so valuable and important. This is one that looking back, we’re kind of happy to be wrong about.

Fundamentals alone aren’t enough
We got some very early good advice from a good friend (thanks, Steve Berry), that we should package our services like a product as quickly as we could, and that an “audit” type engagement was a great place to start. It was in fact a great place to start, but we mistook it for more than that: we thought it would be enough. The idea was that we would get people on the hook for a look at their fundamentals, write them some smart words, and then sit back as they shipped it. Another big mistake. Part of what every company we’ve ever worked with needs help with is the shipping part itself. You can see this reflected in our current service offerings: our “Foundations” package includes not only writing a new Brand Promise for your company, but also writing your new homepage, and as often as possible, sticking around while you ship it. This is a direct reaction to how wrong we were about just doing an audit.

We don’t really do sales help
In the description above, you can see the words “and sales,” and to me, they stick out like a sore thumb. Since Brian and I both fancy ourselves excellent salespeople, we thought for sure that a big chunk of our work would involve helping companies directly with tactical sales work. While we still think we’re awesome salespeople and could help almost any software sales organization, the fact remains that focusing our services to one discipline in our target client companies vastly simplifies the whole process. This meant that we should probably choose between marketing and sales, and at the end of the day, as good as we think we are, we’re actually writers, not closers. We’d rather be deploying words from our home offices than deal sheets from random airports, and our values and incentives are more aligned with most marketing and product organizations. Fortunately, we’ve found a good compromise: we’ve found that we can still be very impactful and work with key stakeholders during Pricing & Packaging engagements, and this scratches our sales itch just fine.

What We Enjoy Doing

We started out being focused on the quality of the work we wanted to deliver. What do we actually enjoy about the process?

Finding the right partners
We knew early on that if we could work with companies multiple times over the course of a few years, we knew we would be successful. We’ve maintained a pretty high rate of reengagement so far, working with some companies for a series of high impact projects that have lasted nearly two years. We were so focused on the work that we would be producing early on that we almost forgot how important the relationships we would build we were going to be. Even though we’ve produced some work that we consider excellent and know was highly successful, it’s the connections with the individuals we’ve worked with and all of the things we’ve taught each other that really keep us going. Now that we’re armed with this information, it has also had another positive side effect – we know now that when we’re deciding who we should work with, that it is often more successful to go with your hunch about the people rather than the product or the tech itself. While it might be cool to have high-profile Company X in your list of known clients, trust us when we say that Company Y who may have less cachet but is more aligned with your values will result in a better product for everyone.

The Ah-Hah moment
Another product of our quest for writing words that end up in prominent places instead of thinking about the people that it might impact led us to overlook what is by far the best and most enjoyable aspect of consulting: when the words land and everyone really gets it. We now know that what we should look for to see if we’ve been successful, especially with our foundations clients, is to see if there has been a fundamental shift in how they communicate about their product, both internally and externally. Getting our fancy slogans shipped to big websites is fun, but not nearly as rewarding as having the conversation with a founder who has been working on a product for years who feels like they finally have a way to communicate about it. There’s almost a literal, audible click. It’s really something else.

Pricing and Packaging engagements
We only get to do a handful of these per year because they’re so time intensive, but the two of us really, really love digging in to pricing and packaging for our clients. We think that this is because they’re interdisciplinary exercises by necessity: whenever we’re doing pricing work for someone, we get to break out the Python notebooks, do customer interviews, get creative about what things are called, and everything in-between. It checks all the boxes.

What We Don’t Enjoy Doing

Running a small business isn’t all fun stuff. Here are the parts we deal with in order to make things work.

Slack and other expectations
Early on we experimented with how far into our clients company culture it was appropriate for us to delve. We joined Slack rooms, we even tried going to offices on site for a few days per week. Neither of these things work for us because they shatter the fragile line between employee and consultant that, pardon the cliche, “ruins the magic.” Maybe it’s just us and the way we operate, but our status as “outsiders,” even when we have regular contact with our clients during Fractional CMO engagements, has remained tremendously valuable to us. In some ways this may be a limiting factor on our ability to be successful within certain organizations, but that is a tradeoff we have decided is worth it for us to make.

Explaining why Marketing is important
The longer we’ve been in this business, the less time we actually have to spend convincing people that our services are necessary. Maybe this is because we have a strong track record and highly vocal supporters who are happy to refer us, or maybe this is because the market itself is changing, new people are running things, and the idea that “if you build it they will come” is even more laughable now than it was five years ago. Whatever the case, we still don’t enjoy wasting our time convincing someone why they need to work on their marketing fundamentals if they want to be a successful software business. Sometimes we find ourselves going down this road, and our Spidey Sense (also known as “Gray hairs”) tells us to slowly back away – we’re never sorry when we do.

What’s Next?

It’s very gratifying and humbling to be standing this far down the road knowing that despite the mistakes and wrong turns, this is pretty much where we wanted to end up. We couldn’t have done gotten this far without the many, many people who took a chance on us early on, and those who continue to support us by entrusting their life’s work to us.

So what’s next? More of the same, hopefully! We’re always looking for new and creative ways to partner with companies that will align our incentives in long term ways. We’re always looking for the next and most interesting tech, and most importantly, we’re always looking for excellent human beings to partner with. If that’s you, please get in touch, and thanks again!

If you’d like to learn more about what we do, email us at hello@reifyworks.com – and thanks as always for reading.