Creating a Category is Overrated

CommandBar's unique path to disrupting an established market

When CommandBar emerged from Y Combinator’s Summer 2020 batch, they set out to change the world with a brand new, unintrusive interface any product could implement to let users search and find what they need.

They quickly raised a seed round from Thrive Capital and followed it up not long after with a Series A led by Insight Partners on the back of this idea, and had some impressive customers like Gusto, FreshWorks, and Hashicorp using their product proudly.

But despite considerable initial success, Co-founder and CEO James Evans saw an even bigger opportunity in a more established market and decided to change course to go after it.

Since then the company’s growth has exploded and they’ve now served over 15 million end users in just a few years.

I sat down with James this week to talk about why disrupting an existing category is often better than trying to create a brand new one 👇

Creating a Category is Overrated

You know the modals and tooltips that pop up whenever you’re first signing up for a new product?

They’re part of a market called digital adoption that’s meant to help users get more value out of software by learning how to use it better.

CommandBar didn’t set out to disrupt this market but that’s exactly what they’ve ended up doing. Here’s how it happened:

The Original Vision

CommandBar’s original vision was to make it easier for users to search in any app by adding a command-k powered searchbar to every product.

Their core belief was that users spend too much time learning how to use new interfaces, and that a search-first approach was simply better.

If you’ve never used tools like Superhuman, VS Code, or Sublime — think about if you hit the command and “k” keys on your keyboard in tandem, and then a searchable window popped up that gave you the ability to quickly perform tasks.

Here’s what their original product looked like, set up within ClickUp

It’s pretty powerful, and the product was positioned as a brand new paradigm for interacting with software.

Early Success

After closing their seed round at the end of their YC batch, CommandBar went heads down for almost a year.

They had a bunch of YC companies paying for already but James and his team knew they’d need heavy hitting customer logos, case studies, and testimonials before they revealed the product publicly since it was unlike anything else and needed validation for why people should care.

They pulled it off and after a successful launch they were able to raise their $19 million Series A.

Your Customers Have Less Time Than You Think

Their pitch to companies basically amounted to “try us out — it isn’t hard and you’ll love the results.” They were confident in their product and the ROI numbers they were hearing from existing customers.

They found that teams were excited to try the product out, but their sales cycles were long — often when they were selling to a product manager, for example, the PM would be onboard but say they couldn’t get to it until the following quarter.

Most founders would default to thinking that this meant they simply weren’t adding enough value. But their ROI numbers were strong. It didn’t make sense.

Interestingly, they were doing their best selling through hackathons to the companies of the engineers who participated.

What James realized was that customers don’t have as much of an “attention-budget” for experiments as founders often think, and that CommandBar was currently positioning themselves as an experiment.

This makes sense — teams often think of experiments as vitamins rather than painkillers, unless there’s significant internal momentum towards solving the problem already (which you can’t predict from your external vantage point).

Even if ROI is strong, there are still questions like “will this work differently for me?” or “is this the right metric for us to prioritize?”

Embracing Digital Adoption

Their command-k product was the only thing CommandBar was selling at the time, but their customers kept asking if they had supplementary products that could replace their tooltips and modals. And potential customers were asking if it could replace those things too.

The team had originally brushed these off — they had a big vision and were having some success creating a new category. Why would they bother with what’s called the “digital adoption” market? Existing players were entrenched — and there were a lot of them.

But they didn’t. Instead, James realized that by simply positioning CommandBar’s existing tech as the next phase of digital adoption, they actually had an opportunity to capture and expand this market.

How? Well, their existing natural language search interface is 10x less intrusive to the user experience than traditional tooltips, modals, and help with their PLG motions. And they could take it one step further by using AI to proactively alert users about ways to better use software — but in an entirely personalized way. Think guiding users via personalized nudges rather than one-size-fits-all onboarding popups.

All of a sudden they had a product that was 10x better than every existing solution, with minimal tweaks.

Rebranding the Category to User Assistance

They called this new approach “user assistance” — basically making them a more modern rebrand of “digital adoption” platforms — and everything changed.

It no longer took a full 60 minute demo to convince a potential customer to buy the product, it only took 5 minutes. Customers “got it” right away.

Inbound sales increased, and in the cases where the vibe had been vague and non-urgent, now the full sales cycle was taking weeks instead of months. The new approach acted as a batsignal to companies that were unhappy with the old way of doing digital adoption.

Their belief is that user assistance tools should be:

  • Non-annoying

  • Responsive to user intent

  • Easy for teams to manage with no code

And it’s working. They’ve expanded beyond onboarding to also handle customer support, and are seeing users who actually enjoy a self-service help experience for once.

CommandBar’s new AI-powered customer support product called HelpHub

It’s a true 10x better solution without any extra work, and they’re seeing customers who previously never considered using digital adoption tools trying out and loving their products.

It’s very tempting as a first-time founder to create something that is wholly unique from the product to the market. Founders are taught to think this way because it helps them remain massively ambitious and irrationally optimistic during the tough times.

But more founders should take the path James and CommandBar did, where they followed the pull of the market and the path that already exists instead of their original assumptions. As Marc Andreessen says, the market always wins.

Startups Aren’t Linear

First time founders often think that startups are a linear journey.

You start out by not really knowing anything about who your customer will be, what product they’ll want, or how to get it in front of them but once you do growth becomes easier.

In practice this isn’t true — CommandBar found product-market fit but realized it was PMF in a smaller market than they wanted to tackle.

Rather than letting early customers from their initial market carry them through well received monthly investor updates for a couple years, James and his team realized that they needed to think bigger.

I highly recommend all founders to constantly be asking themselves whether the market they’re going after is the biggest one they could. Perhaps surprisingly, the answer to that question does actually change over time.

What’s Next?

James really impressed me with his vision for where CommandBar is headed.

I remember first using the command+k product out when they came out of YC and thinking what they were doing was interesting, but he’s managed to turn it into a business that’s on track to be huge.

Don’t underestimate the importance of helping your users get the most value out of your product. As the first major tool bringing user assistance into the modern stack, CommandBar’s unique and opinionated products are worth checking out.

📚️ Founder’s Library

🚀 Some more info from CommandBar’s Series A announcement

📍 Marc Andreessen’s take on how to find product-market fit, and why the market always wins.

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