What are early adopters
To begin with we need to understand how new products are adopted (used) by different parts of society. Think about any piece of technology as an example, how long do you think it'll take for your parents to be on TikTok? and then how long until your grandparents? This concept is called the Diffusion of Innovation
Entrepreneurs need to gather a lot of opinions in order to figure out which way to go, getting advice is a core part of the whole journey. However, when you are doing entrepreneurship you are walking into the fog of the unknown and this means that you (1) need to take small steps and (2) ensure you are not being led down the wrong path. The only way to ensure you are heading down the right path is to stay close to your early adopters.
Other people may have good ideas and advice, which can be useful but your actions and strategy need to align with your early adopters, they are your true north.
How to understand them?
Your chances of success increase dramatically when you are able to gain a deep understanding and empathy with your early adopters. You can use the below worksheet to start to fill out what you already know and what you still need to understand.
Why are they so important?
Without customers there is no entrepreneurship so a founders number 1 job is to serve customers. Think about building a fire, you need to get the flame started and then work with it closely in order to keep it alive and you only add more wood once the fire is hot enough to survive. The same thing applies to entrepreneurship, your first flames are your early adopters you need to be working with them very closely.
How to find them?
Where do you find early adopters? Advertising! Right?
Good advertising requires that you know exactly what your product is and exactly who your ideal customer is. You don’t know that yet.
In order to find early adopters you have to go where ever they are, this could include literally anywhere physically or digitally the key is to think to yourself if I had this problem where would I be?, what would I be doing?, where would I look for solutions?
Always fish for referrals - Every new customer is a gateway to another one. Once you’ve impressed them with your service, be sure to ask if they know anyone else who could benefit from what you’re solving.
Here are the 7 ways to find early adopters, broadly speaking
Key question: Who are your early adopters, and where are they currently hanging out offline?
Whitney Wolfe and Justin Mateen would basically run around USC pitching Tinder to sororities and fraternities. The hook of seeing other single people on campus for the first time (and knowing if they’re interested in you) went viral. — Jeff Morris Jr.
In the beginning days of Netflix they brought on Corey Bridges to work on customer acquisition, he was a brilliant writer with a gift for creating characters.
He'd realized, early on, that the only way to find DVD owners was in the fringe communities of the internet: user groups, bulletin boards, web forums, and all of the other digital watering holes where enthusiasts met up. Corey's plan was to infiltrate these communities. He wouldn't announce himself as a Netflix employee. Posing as a home theatre enthusiast or cinephile, he would join the conversation in communities geared toward DVD fanatics and movie buffs, befriend the major players, and slowly, over time, alert the most respected commenters, moderators, and website owners about this great new site called Netflix. We were months from launch, but he was planting seeds that would pay off...big time. — That Will Never Work by Marc Randolph (Netflix)
Key question: Do your friends fit into the target early adopter group? If so, have you invited them yet?
We begged and cajoled our friends at other companies to try it out and give us feedback. We had maybe six to ten companies to start with that we found this way. The pattern was to share Slack with progressively larger groups. We amplified the feedback we got at each stage by adding more teams. — Stewart Butterfield
- Does your product rely on user generated content? Consider curating the early community.
- Is your value proposition incredibly strong? Consider throwing up a waitlist.
- Is your product innately social? Consider relying on existing users to invite new users.
The invitation-only element was a vital part of the platform’s rise. Not only did it help manage the growth level of Spotify, but it also helped create a viral element to the service, with users each having 5 invites at first to share with their friends. — TNW
Key question: Who are influencers of your target users, and how could you get them to talk about your product?
The founders picked their first users carefully, courting people who would be good photographers—especially designers who had high Twitter follower counts. Those first users would help set the right artistic tone, creating good content for everyone else to look at, in what was essentially the first-ever Instagram influencer campaign, years before that would become a concept. Dorsey became their best salesman. He was initially shocked to find out his investment money was going toward an entirely different app than Burbn. Usually, founders pivoted to a new product as a last-ditch effort to avoid going out of business. But Dorsey loved Instagram, way more than he’d ever loved Burbn. When Instagram launched to the public on October 6, 2010, it immediately went viral thanks to shares from people like Dorsey. It reached number one in camera applications in the Apple app store. — No Filter: The Inside Story of Instagram, by Sarah Frier
Key question: What’s a unique, compelling, fresh story you could pitch press?
The best way to do it is to pick one or two events a year where you can insert yourself into the cultural zeitgeist. For us, one such event was when Mailbox was being shut down. It was the perfect narrative, “I’m over here, come look at my company.” […] I currently have one of the most widely read articles on how to survive an acquisition. It was written in response to the Mailbox shutdown. […] That post ended up on Medium, and was syndicated to qz.com. We were able to insert it into the Zeitgeist. That article probably took me three days of doing nothing else, and another day of shopping it around. So four days all in. But those four days bought north of 5,000 signups. — Rahul Vohra
Key question: Could you build a community now, to leverage later?
The founders of Stack Overflow (Joel Spolsky & Jeff Atwood) both had large communities of existing followers from their previous online endeavors (Joel On Software and Coding Horror respectively). They invited members of those communities to participate in a private beta, in which they seeded the site with content so it didn't launch with no content whatsoever. — Jon
Driving Word of Mouth
All of these strategies need to be underpinned by word of mouth, it is critical. The way you drive word of mouth is by delivering a 10X experience. The way you deliver a 10X experience early with very limited resources is by constraining your target audience.
How to grow their level of engagement?
Once you have found 1 early adopter you treat them like royalty, you want to go to extraordinary lengths to find them and keep them, here are some live examples →
and some more...
For as long as they could (which turned out to be surprisingly long), Wufoo sent each new user a hand-written thank you note. Your first users should feel that signing up with you was one of the best choices they ever made. And you in turn should be racking your brains to think of new ways to delight them.
Ultimately you want to slowly increase each early adopters level of engagement with you, which might look something like this: 🔎→ 💬→ 📞→ ☕ → 🧪
- Find them in an online forum 🔎
- Get into their DM's 💬
- Have a phone call to understand their problem more 📞
- Have a Zoom/ coffee to go even deeper into the problem ☕
- Get them to test your first solutions 🧪
It is a very good idea to have a monthly update email to keep all mentors, early adopters and potential investors informed about what progress you are making.
This should cover your
- Progress (what have you learnt/done?)
- Goals (what are you going to do in the next month?)
- Asks (what do you need help with in the next month?)
The purpose of this update is to build support and trust among your early adopters, mentors and potential investors. These updates do this by giving clarity through metrics, sharing both good and bad news early, and including mentors/investors in your journey by asking them for things.
- Maintain an up-to-date intro paragraph on your business (it'll change a lot)
- The more real, honest and open you are the more everyone can and will help you
- When things go downhill keep writing an update, that’s when people will be able to really help
- Send it in a way so you can track who opens it (Substack, etc)
- After EVERY conversation you have which is valuable ask at the end “would you like to receive monthly updates from me?” ← 99% of people will say yes