How to spot an early adopter and jumpstart your business


If you're starting a business you'll need customers. Of course we all want millions of customers and if you day dream you probably day dream about the entire world using your product.

But tomorrow, when you've just put together a few words about the problem you're trying to solve, who has the greatest chance of putting money down to see it solved?

It's all about learning

If you are a startup then by definition your goal is learning. When you're just starting you have one main priority: validating that the problem you are trying to solve is in fact real and someone is ready to pay to have it solved.

Some businesses will be different, but ultimately even if you are a charity someone will have to give you money if you want to continue to operate.

Figuring out who that someone is is therefore crucial to your survival.

The best way to confirm the existence of a problem, especially early on, is to go talking to people. So who do you go talking to?

While it's true that a year from now, when I wish you to have a million customers, people will probably be across a spectrum, tomorrow when you need to get things off the ground you are likely to need a very specific type of person as not everybody will be ready to even talk about a product that doesn't exist.

But also about market penetration

What's more is that a lot of people won't ever consider your solution unless someone else has been using it for a while and you can show them the benefits.

This has been formalized in a concept called crossing the chasm from which this graph is taken:


Any new product's adoption happens in phases and different customer segments are involved in each phase. You are on the far left, the innovator, coming up with a new great idea and need to make your way to the far right where the laggards are.

When you start to reach out to your first customer you're looking for someone in the block on your immediate right, the early adopter. Only, and only if, you can manage to get enough early adopters you'll be able to jump that red chasm and enter early majority land.

The story repeats all the way to the laggards who will adopt a new product only after the late majority has bought in.

When most people start out they like to think about the times when they will be rich and famous, but in doing so they get the wrong mental picture of the customer they need tomorrow in order to get started.

Spot the early adopter

So who's this early adopter anyway? Here's Steve Blank's definition:

  1. Has a problem
  2. Is aware of having a problem
  3. Has been actively looking for a solution
  4. Has put together a solution out of piece parts
  5. Has or can acquire a budget

Often we have the temptation of stopping at 1. even when we know about the other 4, but it's a huge mistake.

If the person is not aware of the problem, even if you can see they have it, it will be really hard (read expensive) to show it to them and you have to since nobody would by a solution to a problem they don't think they have.

The fact they have actively looked for a solution proves the importance of the problem as there are many things people will complain about, but then do nothing to fix. Four is actually a reinforcement of three, if you find people that show signs of that they are even more likely to listen to you.

Last but not least, if they are supposed to be customers, not users, then they must have the money to pay to buy your solution otherwise you are not going to be able to build a business.

Need help with marketing? Welcome the early evangelist

Early adopters are awesome in many ways: they put up with your initial broken product, they help you refine it and in general want to see you succeed.

But probably the most important thing of all is that, if you make them happy, some of them will become your early evangelist, the ones that will talk to every single friend, Facebook friend, and any living soul really, about your product. There's a high chance at some point in your life you've been one, I know I have for Trello for example.

Most startups don't have a marketing budget so this is really important and your single best chance to get out of a niche without having to spend thousands of dollars.

Persona development

Whenever I work with entrepreneur I often end up doing a persona development workshop for them. This comprises of a set of exercises centered around the description of their customer, in this case of an early adopter.

Here's a comprehensive guide on how to create your persona archetype, but the short of it is that you should try to describe as accurately as possible some demographics, behaviors and needs of your ideal first customer.

The more specific the better as this is someone you need to talk to. The reason for the specificity is two-fold:

  1. identify the person
  2. make sense of the data

The first is obvious, if you're out on the streets or at a coffee shop, who do you approach? The more important aspect is however making sense of the data.

If you are trying to solve a problem about business books and you go out and ask a mix of undergraduate students, 60 years old businessmen and moms at home trying to get back into the workforce how are you going to make sense of diverging answers? Compare that to the case where you're asking just undergraduate students. It's all about having a baseline, that's what specificity helps you with.

Too narrow, too few? Don't give in to fear

When you start taking a closer look to this concept of early adopter you'll soon likely feel like you're going so narrow you're left with no customers.

This is normal and something everybody fights all the time. I mean just yesterday you were day dreaming about millions of people and today you're trying to describe your first customer and can barely think of a couple friends like that. It's daunting.

But you need to resist the fear because ultimately, if you don't, you have a high risk of never getting to even customer number one.

Don't miss the forest for the tree

While it's very important that you get specific and niche it down, especially when you are starting out, it's also important to remember what the larger vision is and make sure you are not missing the forest for the tree.

As you begin to validate a persona for an early adopter you should be careful not to get carried away and start obsessing with that archetype regardless of what you find out in the world.

Your goal here is to get feedback on your product and prove there's someone willing to invest time and money to solve the problem by using your product.

If you find yourself walking away from a conversation after a minute because the person is 35 years old rather than 32 as you had anticipated you are doing it wrong.

Describing a persona is largely to the extent of helping you visualize and overall making that validation process easier.

What are your biggest challenges with early adopters?

I'd love to hear what are you biggest challenges with describing, finding or talking to early adopters - leave a comment and I'll make sure to respond.

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