This is our third blog post in JPK Group’s CI Experts series. The following is an interview with CI expert Sean Murphy. Sean is CEO of SKMurphy, Inc.
Conducting the interview is Alok Vasudeva of The Marketer’s Continuum.
AV: How did you start your career and, specifically, how about the CI function?
SM: I started out in risk management consulting, then went to work for a CAD software startup, which led to work in semiconductor industry for about a decade. Finally, I moved into data networking at Cisco for another decade before launching SKMurphy in 2003.
During my time at the CAD software startup, I worked in a pre- and post-sales support capacity, which required spending a lot of time with customers. At that time, the electronic design automation industry was undergoing a rapid evolution. While I spent most of my time in a customer support role helping to close deals or make customers more successful (deal-specific), the sales and marketing team spent time and effort tracking competitors (competitor-specific). The latter often involved listening to prospects and customers, benchmarking activities, and conducting trade shows/industry event intelligence.
AV: Was your route to competitive intelligence a normal one? What does the typical route look like?
SM: I do know at Cisco that both the engineering and technical marketing folks, as well as the sales team paid a lot of attention to the competition. I view the CI function as dispersed across both different individuals and departments who are talking to customers and prospects. In later years, Cisco did form a small, dedicated CI function that acted as a clearing house and source of curated analysis on competitive threats and opportunities, which I collaborated with.
AV: Is technology expertise important in a CI function?
SM: Certainly! For technology products and companies, I think technology expertise provides a very useful context to not only understanding customer needs, but likely competitive offerings that will incorporate or build on new technology components and capabilities.
AV: Give me examples of competitive intelligence that you deliver, what departments do you interface with, and what CI metrics do you look at?
SM: Another CI output we deliver is what is now referred to as “battle cards,” where we help craft competitive strategies for individual competitors and win/loss analysis where we glean as much as we can from customers who selected our client’s offerings and prospects who went a different direction.
For the last 14 years, I have been interfacing almost exclusively with early-stage startups, so I’m working with the founders—the executive team if you will—and am primarily concerned with our prospects’ and customers’ perception of the alternatives available to them and where my client’s offerings fit in.
AV: Does your company make a distinction between market intelligence and competitive intelligence?
SM: Yes, we look at the evolution of existing and new technologies as well as new business practices, which I would characterize as ‘market intelligence.” For the second part, “competitive intelligence,” we look at specific competitors and competitive situations, and help our clients craft and execute appropriate responses.
AV: What kinds of questions are you asking?
SM: Here are some examples of questions that I need to find out for my clients:
- What are likely capabilities competitors can offer our prospects today?
- What technologies are likely to mature in the next six months to two years that we should be evaluating for internal use, as well as how to compete/differentiate if competitors adopt them?
- How can we craft offers that are going to be difficult for competitors to match either because they lack a key capability or they are going to cause problems for their business model?
AV: Do you find a difference between CI generated by a dedicated professional versus CI generated by a someone whose primary function is something else?
SM: Yes. What I observed at Cisco was that with the dedicated CI team, they were much more accessible, had a macro-level view, and could piece together a useful context from events or interactions that had taken place in various geographies or markets. Finally, they could determine patterns that the local “micro-level” experts lacked context on. However, the local experts were better able to get insights from customers and technical experts. I look at it as a complementary, synergistic relationship.
AV: What forms of analysis do you have experience with?
SM: Probably the most significant source of insight for a startup is answering the question, “Why did a customer select us vs. a competitor, or “Why did we lose to a particular competitor?” This is found through win/loss analysis.
We take a structured approach to win/loss interviews, we always have two consultants on the call to learn as much as possible, and to take as little of the prospect’s or customer’s time in doing so.
AV: Give me examples of soft skills required for your job?
SM: Soft skills are probably 2-3x more important than hard skills in assessing competitors in nascent markets. You can learn a lot by just keeping your eyes and ears open, reflecting on what you see and hear, and working out the implications. I read a lot to keep abreast of the latest technology and business developments. I find I can learn a lot about a competitor’s strategic intent by either hearing competitors present or seeing videos of their talks. While part of it is the talk’s content, much of it is the world view they communicate.
AV: What type of CI ethics do you adhere to?
SM: I always assume that everything I do will become known. There is a quote by clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson I find useful for sales and negotiation situations: “Tell the truth. Act so that you can tell the truth about how you act.” I think these are two separate quotes. Could we just include the second?
AV: How does the CI department go from a nice-to-have to critical?
SM: In a small company, I think the executive team has to be sensitive to competitive intelligence considerations and that it’s OK if there is someone who has responsibility for it along with many other functions. Most of our clients have less than two dozen employees and everyone is wearing at last two hats. In larger firms, I think it’s useful to have at least one person or small team dedicated. They need to able to provide insights that help alter the outcome in gaining or retaining customers. It’s not enough to provide a detailed autopsy of a client departure or a lost opportunity. They have to provide specific guidance that has an impact, and determine how do they make it proactive instead of reactive?
Sean Murphy, CEO of SKMurphy, Inc.
Sean Murphy has taken an entrepreneurial approach to life since he could drive. He has served as an advisor to dozens of startups, helping them explore risk-reducing business options and build a scalable, repeatable sales process. SKMurphy, Inc. focuses on early customers and early revenue for software startups, helping engineers to understand business development. Their clients have offerings in electronic design automation, artificial intelligence, web-enabled collaboration, proteomics, text analytics, legal services automation, and medical services workflow.
Alok Vasudeva – Principal and Founder at The Marketer’s Continuum
As principal and founder of marketing consultancy, The Marketer’s Continuum, Alok blends big company processes with the agility and frugality of a startup.
A Silicon Valley native with an extensive history as a B2B marketing professional, Alok has held roles and responsibilities focused on product, content, and corporate marketing. His titles include director of marketing, product marketing manager, product manager, marketing programs manager, marketing manager, and industry analyst.
Alok currently chairs the Silicon Valley chapter of the Strategic and Competitive Intelligence Professionals (SCIP), the largest competitive intelligence organization in the world.