There are a lot of misconceptions about finding early adopters of a new product or technology. It’s a question that comes up often in early market exploration: this post is a summary of my experience and current best thinking.
Q: What are some best practices for finding early adopters/earlyvangelist for a startup? What did you do specifically to get them on board? Any experiences shared would be greatly appreciated.
New technology evaluation and adoption is a topic I have spent several decades on from both sides of the table, I hope that these tips prevent you from making mistakes I have or even advancing a sale.
tl,dr: act with integrity and focus on creating value in your customer’s business.
Finding Early Adopters
We have helped a number of startups hunt for and find “early adopter” in B2B niche markets, your mileage may vary in large consumer markets and in established B2B markets where you are offering a form/fit/function replacement (typically characterized as a market segmentation play).
In these B2B niche markets “early adopter” is most often a function of:
- Innovation risk tolerance: in particular they buffer your solution with one or two backups so that your failure does not scuttle a project, put a dent in their career, damage their customer relationships, or cause an unaffordable loss in their business (as distinct from an affordable loss).
- A high level of pain with current situation. People in pain have an increased risk tolerance for failure, especially in a deteriorating situation, and are willing to accept partial solutions that represent a stepwise improvement over either their current situation or their anticipated trajectory.
- They are often “intrapreneurs” who are internal change agents trying to effect internal process or product improvements who are respected within the organization, have a track record in the organization of effecting earlier improvements, and are viewed as honest brokers trying to improve the overall survivability of the organization. They are often “positive deviants” who are getting above average results in a difficult environment and are looking for tools to enable others to amplify their positive deviance.
Many of the techniques advocated for Lean Startups exploring a consumer market are toxic to engaging with B2B early adopters.
- You have to act with integrity from the first conversation. Fake signup pages that don’t work except to “prove” to the entrepreneur there is interest are corrosive of trust. It’s better to make a “small offer” or partial solution (a minimum viable product) that you are willing to deliver and take their money.
- Asking early users if they would be unhappy if you shut the service down signals a lack of commitment on your part and can trigger a breakdown spiral in the relationship. Because it’s a relationship you are trying to establish, predicated on mutual trust built on progressively escalating mutual disclosures and commitments.
- A one page website built by anonymous cowards. Just throwing up a landing page without any information about the team behind the startup, their accomplishments and expertise, is likely to yield a false negative. B2B is about establishing personal relationships with early adopters, you cannot do this if you ask your prospects to identify themselves before you do.
- Naming an outrageous price (e.g. $1M) when asked “how much does it cost?” Have a realistic diagnostic process that allows you to present the value to your prospects based on numbers or objective facts they have provided. Don’t expect to name an outrageous prices and have them tell you what they are willing to pay, the more likely outcome is that you will be back in the parking lot and unable to get back on their calendar.
Don’t put the finish line at closing the sale (or getting paid) and understand it’s a multi-step process that requires playing a long game.
It’s much better to look at the sales process as one of project management: are you able to make and honor commitments that your prospects value. Act as if you are working with them on a joint project and avoid “closing techniques” and anything that smacks of short term thinking or a lack of integrity. Your goal is creating value in the customer’s business with your solution, not just getting paid for your solution, so that you have a satisfied reference customer who will give you a case study and referrals.
Assume the Risk To Get Them To Take First Step
I have offered a lot of general advice, often the trick is paring back the offer and assuming most of the risk to be able to get them to take the first step. How to do this tends to be situation specific but boils down to:
- sell services (concierge model where you operate your product to deliver a result and they pay for quality of result),
- sell useful information that helps them solve the problem your full product solves as a way of exploring the boundaries and depth of the problem.
- Jobs-to-be-done is a much much better approach than attempting to model buyer psychology or build persona’s.
- above all focus on value you offer that they are willing to pay for.
A benefit will normally be one of these if you are selling to a business decision maker:
- reducing an existing cost stream
- adding new revenue that’s incremental to their current plan
- managing or reducing a risk that they are concerned about
- reducing the cycle time for a business critical task or process
- reducing the error rate for a business critical task or process
You need to pay particular attention to:
- How will you measure the before and after?
- Who signs the check and how do they benefit?
- There is no such thing as a free trial, there is always opportunity cost for everyone involved.
Related Blog Posts
Some blog posts I have written that flesh out some of these points:
- Your First Dozen Enterprise Customers: an interview with Gabriel Weinberg, parts of which were included in the “Sales” chapter in his excellent Traction book.
- Chalk Talk on Technology Adoption: offers a model for multi-stage product introduction / sales process that minimizes downside risk and cuts time to payback instead of maximizing initial deal size and up front payment.
- Managing Change in an Organization, An Incomplete Resource List: with a discontinuous product (one that is not form/fit/function compatible) you have to collaborate on an internal change process. Finding an early adopter helps, this list of resources can add to your toolkit.
- If We Killed Our Product Would You Miss It? The business buyer views software as the promise of a relationship.This means that you need to assess not only the strength of prospects’ interest but also your customers commitment to the business relationship. This post explains why essentially threatening to kill your newborn product is a spectacularly bad idea for testing the strength of prospect and customer commitment.
- Price, Value, and Your Prospect’s Perception of Risk: a discussion of how prospects determine value balanced against risk when buying from startups.
- Early Customer Conversations, Use Appreciative Inquiry and Amplify Positive Deviance: A discussion of how to use appreciative inquiry models to determine what strengths to build on as well as diagnosing problems.
- Early Adopters Have Already Let Go of the Past: More on psychology of early adopters: it’s more about letting go of the past than embracing the new.
I am grateful to Chris Oswald of Peer 151 and Ramesh Sambasivan of Silicon Glades for their review and comments on earlier drafts of this post.
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