Shortly after we spun my company Affectiva out of MIT Media Lab, I had the opportunity to meet Todd Dagres of Spark Capital, one of the leading venture capitalists in the Boston area. I will never forget the advice he gave me: the best companies, he said, are those that define a new category, name it, seed it and lead it. There are plenty of examples of companies that have done this very successfully. A few that come to mind: Uber and " ride sharing," Facebook for social media, and Venmo for microtransactions with your friends.

So how do you own a category? Here are 4 simple steps:

1. Name the category

We are surrounded by hyper connected devices and advanced systems with lots of cognitive intelligence (IQ), but no emotional intelligence (EQ). At Affectiva, we envision a world where our devices can sense human emotion and adapt accordingly transforming how we connect with technology as well as with each other. Using machine learning and deep learning, we build software that recognizes your emotion by measuring your facial expressions and other nonverbal behavior.

One day, Gabi, our CMO, and I were brainstorming how we could best summarize what we do. We were recognized as an AI company, but we realized that no category existed for our type of technology. We felt we had to create one, so it would be clear to potential clients, partners and investors where we fit. Emotion recognition? Emotion analytics? Emotion sensing? These were all top contenders that we'd used before, but they only partially encapsulated what we were trying to build. We particularly liked artificial emotional intelligence because it underscored that machines, like humans, need emotional intelligence to be most effective. But "artificial emotional intelligence" was quite long, so we shortened it to Emotion AI. That same day, we stuck #EmotionAI in a tweet. Since then, we have been invited to AI conferences to keynote and speak on panels about Emotion AI.

2. Evangelize, Inspire

When you are a category owner and leader, a big part of what you do is evangelism. You have to bring your vision to the masses. You need to inspire potential clients and partners, so that they can imagine how their businesses, their technologies and their lives will be better because of this new category you have just created. You have to do this in simple and clear language so there is no ambiguity or geek talk overload. Make sure you give credit to those technologies adjacent to your own -- even if they are your competitors.

So Gabi and I crafted a list of talking points for this new category. What is Emotion AI, what are the use cases, why should someone care and what value can they get from it? We thought forward several years: what does our world look like when Emotion AI is ubiquitous? In a world with emotion-aware technology, our devices would be emotion-enabled; our cars, home robots and conversational interfaces (like an Alexa or Siri) would all be able to sense and respond to our emotions. We painted a vision of this world.

And then we got out there and evangelized. Passionately. Relentlessly. In 2016, we were at 70 events. We took PR very seriously, spending a lot of time with reporters, explaining what we do and how our tech is used - using clear and consistent language and lots of demos. We built strong relationships with key reporters which led to other amazing opportunities: invitations to speak, introductions to strategic partners and other articles. As a result Affectiva was covered in more than 60 articles last year.

Gabi and I did this all ourselves, without the help of a PR agency. Yes it was time consuming, but it allowed us to build direct relationships with reporters, get their feedback firsthand and finetune our messaging accordingly to best position our company in the market. Only recently did we retain a PR agency, so that we could have them do more industry-specific pitching, freeing up our time to focus on other strategic initiatives.

3. Seed the market with success stories and case studies

Our vision for Emotion AI is big. We believe that one day Emotion AI will be ubiquitous, embedded on chips in our devices, ingrained into technology we use every day at home and at work. It is easy to get wrapped up into a future vision, but we also need to grow our revenue, so it's imperative to we show how Emotion AI can be used today, by prioritizing building strong relationships with early adopters.

Here are some the ways we do this:

  1. Identify potential references. We find clients and partners who are happy to go on record that they work with us. We spend time getting to know their business and how our technology adds value to their initiatives.
  2. Create success stories. We work closely with these partners and clients to articulate how our combined technologies offer value. We develop joint messages and document their cases studies.
  3. Find Developer Heroes. We don't just focus on clients and partners, but also the individual developers who build amazing things using our SDK. We call these people our Developer Heroes. We have started documenting their stories and soon will be featuring them on our website.
  4. Joint PR. We often announce our partnerships in joint press release, using these messaging and value propositions we have jointly created.
  5. Joint speaking. We then take these stories on the road. Whenever we have an opportunity to speak on stage we try to invite a client or partner along, as our story becomes much stronger when we can show how someone is actually using our technology.

4. Rinse and Repeat

Finally don't forget to stick to your messaging: be consistent and repeat often! But, listen well to understand what truly resonates and what does not. Iterate on that. Fine tune your story and do this over and over again.

The first few times we tried out our Emotion AI messaging, we weren't sure if it would stick. One of the challenges we faced is that we just did not know what questions to expect, as this was unchartered territory. For example we got questions on privacy implications. Data privacy considerations are extremely important to us, but we had just not articulated our position very clearly. So we made sure to do that, so the next time we were asked we could give a solid response. We talked about industries where are technology would be used, but realized did not have good examples of what that would look like. So we developed use cases and looked for more client references in those verticals.

Final thoughts

We are always refining our talk track, and we spend a lot of time developing new examples and success stories, but at the core, the message is still the same from that day that we first came up with "Emotion AI." You know you are doing this right when your competition starts emulating what you say and articles get published that use your language verbatim and you know you did not speak to that reporter. Investors now routinely call us and mention that they were interested in investing in the "Emotion AI Space." That is when I knew that we had built a new category.

Have you struggled to find a fit for your startup too? How did you define your category and what did that entail? Please share your thoughts in the comments section.

Published on: Mar 2, 2017