Ryan Hall and Greg Mutai on Heartbreak Hill

Catching the Leaders on Heartbreak Hill: 16 Topics for the New Exec

Sixty days into my transition as an exec at Aternity, I feel like a runner just behind, but in sight of the lead pack in a marathon.  Just like the chaser needs to push hard to catch up to the leaders, I’ve been focused on accelerating my ability to add value as a member of the leadership team.

tf90d-book-coverIn “The First 90 Days,” author Michael Watkins lays out an approach to structured learning which helps the new executive determine where to focus their effort.   At this point, I’m about two-thirds of the way through that timeline, and I’m feeling confident about my progress.

With the 118th running of the Boston Marathon this week, it struck me that the two-thirds point of the marathon course is in the middle of the four Newton hills, which culminate between miles 20 and 21 at Heartbreak Hill.  This section of the course is often where leaders are caught.

Boston Marathon Route
Boston Marathon Route

In fact, Heartbreak Hill is so named because of the dramatic finish of the 1936 Boston Marathon.   Defending champion, John Kelley, whose statue now stands at mile 19, overtook Ellison “Tarzan” Brown and gave him a consolatory pat on the shoulder.  This inspired Brown to overtake Kelley and go on to win, thus breaking Kelley’s heart.  Kelley statue before Heartbreak Hill

The new exec shares a similar goal as the chaser of the lead pack at Boston.   Make your move around the two-thirds point, so you catch up to the lead team by Heartbreak Hill.   Just like there are 16 miles to the start of the Newton Hills, there are 16 key points for the new exec to tackle, in order to achieve this goal.

Business Topics

Target market

  1. Market size and growth rates.  Company market share and trends.
  2. Target customer profile and buyer personas.
  3. Industry analyst coverage of the market – size, trends, competitive analysis.

Current customer base and growth  

4.  Revenue, customer count, and average sales price, by customer market segment.
5.  Past and projected growth rates.

Product development

6.  Product revenue and growth, past and projected.

7.  Road maps, key capabilities and competitive advantages.

8.  Access to product demos.


9.  Current and future competitors, based on planned road map.  Their revenue, growth, target customers and buyers.

10.  Strengths and weaknesses.

Partnership ecosystem

11.  Partner categories and leading partners within them.

12.  Business plans and key metrics for measuring success.

Culture Topics

Cultural topics are equally as important as business topics, especially at a small company.

Decision making

12.  Is the culture driven by consensus, top-down management style, or something in between.


13.  What methods of communication are used?  Social media guidelines and key influencers.

Meeting cadence

14.  Regular management team meetings and functional meetings.

Dress code

15.  How formal is the company dress code?

Work practices

16.  Working from home, typical times for arriving and leaving the office.    Social activities like group lunches, happy hours, etc.

What’s missing from my list?  How have you made your move at Heartbreak Hill?  I’m interested to hear about similar or different experiences.   On to Boylston Street!

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shutterstock barefoot running_136762700

Minimalist Running: Born from the Voice of the Customer, or Marketing Hype?

Minimalist running hit the mainstream in 2009, when Christopher McDougall published his New York Times best-seller, “Born to Run.”  The book profiles the eccentric Micah True, as he arranges a running competition between American ultrarunners and the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico’s Copper Canyons, who run for hours on their huaraches made of tire tread.  The book suggests that humans evolved to run long distances naturally, with little to nothing on our feet.   It claims that the cushioning in modern running shoes causes more injuries than it prevents.

Vibram FiveFingers, synonymous with barefoot running
Vibram FiveFingers, synonymous with barefoot running, photo courtesy of Vibram

Sales of minimalist running shoes took off, along with the book’s popularity.  In 2010, minimalist running shoes made up 30% of the market, according to Outside Magazine, with new market entrant Vibram FiveFingers capturing 2%.

Today, although the share of minimalist shoes is down to 15%, all of the major athletic shoe brands promote minimalist models, such as the Nike Free, Merrell Trail Glove, and Saucony Kinvara.   Is the voice of the customer driving this trend, or just hype?  Let’s analyze the question with a marketer’s tool set.

Minimalist Running:  the Value Proposition

The value proposition of minimalist running is that “less is more.”  Minimalist running advocates for the least amount of shoe that runners can safely wear.   With less padding, a runner’s foot feels the ground more effectively and sends feedback to the brain to modify the stride.   Over time, runners change from striking the ground first with their heel to a more natural strike, with the mid-sole or fore-foot, which should strengthen the foot and prevent injuries.

The Voice of the Customer – from WAY before 2009

Minimalist running was not invented in 2009.   Men and women were running barefoot, and running FAST, long before then.

In the 1960 Rome Olympics, Ethiopia’s Abebe Bikila ran barefoot to win the marathon in 2:15:17.   In Tokyo in 1964, he won again, becoming the first two-time marathon winner, finishing in 2:12:11.

Famous for her collision with Mary Decker in the 1984 Olympic 3000 meters, South African Zola Budd set the world record for the 5000 meters, running barefoot, in both 1984 and 1985.

A Competing Voice Calls for “Clown Shoes”

In 2010, the padding pendulum began to swing the other way.  That year, elite ultrarunner Karl Meltzer tried a pair of massively cushioned Hoka One Ones,  known affectionately as “clown shoes” because of their huge sole.

Photo courtesy of Hoka One One
Photo courtesy of Hoka One One

More forgiving and stable, the brand has quickly gained a devoted following of top competitive ultrarunners, claiming 30 trail running wins in races over the past 18 months.

A Closer Look at Buyer Pains

I’m not talking about leg pain, and whether minimalist shoes or maximalist shoes are better for injury prevention.  The science is inconclusive.  I’m talking about a deeper look into the voice of the customer and what drives the purchasing decision.

According to the Buyer Persona Institute, key aspects of a buyer persona include priority initiatives, success factors, and decision criteria.   In determining preference for more or less cushioning, wouldn’t these factors be the same for the majority of serious trail runners?  Of course!   Run fast over long distances.  Avoid injury.  Appearance doesn’t matter.  Clown shoe or weird looking foot-glove – if you get the results, then wear them with pride.

Then how to explain what seems like two different voices of the customer?

The answer seems obvious.   Serious trail runners are only a small portion of the market!   Some buyers (gasp!) are not even runners!  The Nike Free, the minimalist category leader with a 70% share, is most often purchased by non-runners.  SportsOneSource even separates it from other minimalist shoe sales when reporting on category market shares.   The voice of the customer making a fashion purchase is certainly different from that of the ultrarunner.

Minimalism:  More Than Marketing Hype, a Lasting Impact

It appears that the era of barefoot running is indeed over.  Minimalist shoes declined to 11% of market share, as reported by Runners World in spring of 2013.  And the share falls to 4% when the Nike Free is removed.   But the decline doesn’t mean that it was only marketing hype from “Born to Run” that drove the market.

The minimalist running trend has made lasting impact on larger running shoe categories, like traditional trainers.  Companies are incorporating new materials and processes to drive down weight and ramp angle throughout their product lines.   Like the impact of alternative fuel vehicles on the broader automobile market, these significant innovations will continue to drive the market in the future.  Although you may see more Hoka One Ones than Vibram FiveFingers in your next ultra, the minimalist running trend has left its mark.

How about you?  Have you used minimalist running shoes?  How about Hoka One Ones?  What was your purchasing criteria?

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