You Need a Nemesis

It isn’t always enough to cast your company as the hero—sometimes, you also need a villain.

DHH’s recent spat with Apple turned a pedestrian product launch into an epic battle between a corporate juggernaut and the plucky underdogs of Basecamp. A hundred thousand product sign-ups followed.

Much of Box’s earliest press coverage can be traced back to a towering billboard on California’s Route 101, proudly proclaiming: “ is like Sharepoint, but without the servers, setups costs, manuals, downtime, firewall restrictions . . .”

To this day, I can’t think of HubSpot without imagining a shadowy “outbound marketer” physically cramming spam mail through my letter box.

These brands are case studies in what Paul Graham called “beef marketing”: find the adversary you have a strategic, beneficial beef with, and cast them as the villain in your story.

Villains Make Heroes Look Better

HubSpot, Basecamp, and Box understand a core tenet of storytelling: villains exist to make heroes look better.

Without a force to fear, fight, and eventually overcome, your story isn’t worth telling. Remove Sauron from The Lord of the Rings and you have a flaccid tale of Frodo’s privilege and family squabbles. Without the nemesis of “outbound marketing,” the redemption offered by inbound marketing is meaningless.

There’s a lot going for the hero vs. nemesis dynamic:

  • Build empathy. A day in the life of your target customer is fraught with frustration, like—in the case of HubSpot’s target audience—an inbox of junk mail, obnoxious telesales callers and internet-ruining pop-up ads. Vilification allows you to call out the struggle, empathize with the reader, and nudge your product into view: “You’re sick of this. So are we. Here’s the product we built to fix it.”
  • Differentiate. Most marketing is pretty saccharine. Measured criticism and, heaven forbid, acknowledging the existence of your competitors, can cut through the mix like nothing else. Picking a fight—albeit in a measured, strategic way—is just downright interesting.
  • Change your industry. DHH’s critique of Apple gained traction because of its valid concern: monopoly power. Many of the story’s loudest amplifiers were other company founders who had fallen afoul of seemingly arbitrary judgments from Apple. Criticizing Apple led to Hey’s approval and, according to DHH, it “paves an illuminated path” for other apps to follow.

HubSpot, Basecamp, and Box illustrate three different approaches to “beef marketing,” and three different ways you can cast a villain in your own story. They are (in order of ascending spiciness):

You vs. the Legacy Solution

Spice Level: 🌶️

HubSpot’s vocal opposition to “outbound marketing” is an example of squaring off with a legacy solution—an older, dated, and relatively inefficient way of achieving the same goals as your product.

Spreadsheets are the classic legacy solution. As this viral tweet posits, the chances are high that someone, somewhere, is using the humble spreadsheet to achieve pretty much the same thing your product does. In the same way, outbound marketing is just an amalgamation of lots of legacy marketing tactics—like cold calling and direct mail.

Legacy solutions are soft targets for vilification because they’re often processes or products so old as to be virtually faceless. You can criticize spreadsheets freely: they’re slow, prone to human error, and difficult to scale, and Excel’s board members won’t take offense at the critique. Similarly, outbound marketing is a total straw man: it isn’t a person, or a company, or really even a single process, so there’s nobody to resist the critique.

As a result, any company can cast a legacy solution as the villain of their story. Many do:

  • Coda’s entire go-to-market messaging is built around its opposition to spreadsheets, epitomized by the tagline Enough of this sheet.
  • Vyond’s animation software takes aim at PowerPoint, another last-generation product in the same vein as Excel.
  • Greenlight Guru pits itself against old-fashioned processes and “the lure of legacy quality management systems, highlighting the pitfalls of using paper or “digital paper” solutions like Google Docs.

These legacy solutions are easy enough to find. They’re the products and processes your product is bought to replace, discussed in every sales call and likely still used by laggardly hold-outs. If in doubt—trash-talk the spreadsheet.

You vs. the Big Guy/Gal

Spice Level: 🌶️🌶️

Basecamp vs. Apple is an example of taking up arms against your industry’s biggest players. It works because most of us enjoy rooting for the underdog. We like to see small, plucky startups overcoming the odds and beating faceless corporate behemoths.

In the Apple example, DHH used the ubiquity of a globally recognized brand to raise awareness for a less famous product. His bombastic tweetstorms and blog posts garnered coverage from media outlets like Wired, TechCrunch, and Engadget. By piggybacking on the vaunted Apple brand, Basecamp turned a pedestrian problem—app store regulation—into a huge PR coup.

Like legacy solutions, huge companies are relatively easy targets. A company of Apple’s size is used to criticism and weathers it on a regular basis (as Austen Allred points out, “Apple has plenty of experience with ‘I don’t care what you think’ as a stance”). The blow is softened further by the decision to attack a nebulous, unsexy part of the bigger Apple business—App Store regulation instead of, say, the iPhone.

Wistia is another company that’s adopted a strategic beef with an industry giant: YouTube. The giant video platform is referred to as alegacy social network,” with warnings made to avoid a “world where Google keeps your traffic, owns your subscribers, and controls their viewing experience.” There’s even a guide that walks the reader through the steps required to delete their YouTube channel.

You vs. your Competitors

Spice Level: 🌶️🌶️🌶️

Box took beef marketing to its logical conclusion by leveling criticism at the company’s direct competitors. Instead of tip-toeing, Box went straight for the jugular.

Many companies are reluctant to acknowledge the existence of their competitors, but loyal customers are not the product of information asymmetry. Most customers already know about your competitors.

Against that backdrop, Box understands that an honest critique of the competition is a powerful differentiator. It’s a chance to make the comparison on your terms. It raises awareness for your product among the very customer base you’re trying to court. It’s useful for the customer, and it oozes confidence.



Box was able to make these feature comparisons because they took pains to offer a truly competitive product. You can likely do the same: most founders aim to build products that are better and different than anything that’s come before. There’s no need to be coy when you’ve built a best-in-class product—calling out the limitations of competitors is fair game.

Even without feature parity, direct comparisons can work in your favor: if you’re not strictly better, highlight how you’re different.

Podia is an example for competitor critique done well. They harness a strategy we call “competitor alternative” content: using the natural search volume for keywords like “clickfunnels alternative” or “teachable alternative” to create search-friendly comparison pages. Each page includes testimonials from post-switch users, a direct feature comparison, and a clear product call-to-action.

Crying Wolf

The power of a beef marketing strategy stems largely from its rarity; few companies call out their rivals, so we take notice when one does. We don’t follow brands that cry wolf, because the strategy loses efficacy with each subsequent crusade (case in point: I’m starting to develop cynicism around Basecamp’s ongoing feud with offices meetings email big tech).

If you want to incorporate the power of beef into your marketing, use it sparingly and deliberately.

Each of the companies covered here—HubSpot, Box, Basecamp, Coda, Wistia, and Podia—spend far more time and energy on the “hero” part of their marketing (building incredible products, adding value through content) than they do the “nemesis” portion. They use villains as a point of contrast—a way of bringing their great work into sharp relief.

H/T to Benyamin Elias for introducing me to the term beef marketing in his newsletter.