Accelerating Early Product

with Amy Jo Kim

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Early Adopters

Finding early product users

Amy Jo Kim

Game Designer, Social Architect, Startup coach

Lessons Learned

Innovation diffusion theory shows how new products spread through existing communities.

You need to capture and delight a small, passionate market first.

If a customer needs social proof, they are early majority, not early adopters.


Lesson: Accelerating Early Product with Amy Jo Kim

Step #4 Early Adopters: Finding early product users

Innovation diffusion theory is a data driven model about how new products spread through existing communities. It was created in 1961 by Everett Rogers and the book Crossing the Chasm by Geoffrey Moore, which many people have heard of, was based on that model. All his categories came from that model.

The more innovative you are, the more it matters. This theory says that if you're doing something innovative, your first customers will be innovators and early adopters, not early and late majority. The reason that that’s so important is both for when you're before the chasm, which are the innovators and early adopters, and after the chasm, to use Geoffrey Moore's term, which is more of your early and late majority.

What that theory says is that you have to capture a small passionate early market first, before you can go on to the later market if you're doing something innovative. It can be very hard to get across the chasm if you've captured an early market, you have a marketing issue. How do I then reach my majority? That's what Crossing the Chasm was about. It was about going from the hobbiest market that Apple computer had captured into the mainstream, which eventually they did successfully after a lot of twists and turns.

What a lot of entrepreneurs do now, especially when they take venture money, is they think, “Oh, I can just skip right to the early majority because I have a great idea and I have a big market. Sure, I'll say they’re early adopters, they use technology, but they don't really find and delight that small passionate early market, and if you're just launching another brand of potato chips, if you're not innovating, if you're doing something that's maybe a copycat or just interesting but not innovative, it doesn't matter very much. You can go that route, go for the majority, but if you're doing something innovative, more often then not you will fail if you do that.

The reason it's important is that successful innovations start by capturing that small early market. They don't start going for the majority. That mistake has caused a lot of start-ups to fail and a lot of investors to lose their money.

I've had 30 or 40 projects. About seven or eight of them turned into really big hits. I was always there right at the start. I specialize in early product design. So I've looked hard and said, "What was different about those? What practices did the team do? What were the habits and principles that were driving those teams that led to that success?”

Then also, equally, I've worked on projects that I thought were sure winners. Great teams, doing a lot of the right things, lean practices, all of the great stuff, and they failed. I've also looked for the pattern in those failures. What I'm talking about here, not truly really targeting a small early market when you're innovating explains so many of the failures, but it's also the common theme that all of the successes I've ever worked on had within them.

First of all, there's no one right answer. There's also once you've done it, that doesn't guarantee success. That takes market timing, high execution team, now there's the manage to get along, great VCs, all the things that success takes, all the factors. But if you don't get that early product market fit and you don't find those early adopters, you can't even get the chance to do the other stuff.

What I found really helps is, one, to be clear about the early majority and the early adopters. It's very hard to tell the difference. One of the things I work with with every client I've ever worked with, is helping them tell the difference. Then I also believe in doing a lot of guerrilla style user research that is focused on testing your key hypotheses about your product iteratively. I very much believe in lean iterative design. Done that before it was called lean design. We called it iterative prototyping and game design where I come out of. Getting something small going first, and testing that and shaping it based on reactions from customers, this where the key thing is — which customers?

The innovators, you need them but they are the few that are just like out there and they want to be trying the new latest thing and they think of themselves as innovators. Many of them might be your colleagues, that's an interesting category. Early adopters are the important category, 13.9% of the population. They're not early adopters because they like gadgets. They're not early adopters because they ride Segways.

They're early adopters because their need for the thing your product solves, the delight it brings or the problem it addresses. Their need is so great that they will put up with ridicule or friction or trouble to get something that will solve that problem. Early adopters really need what you're doing. They don't need to wait for social proof, which is a key mark of an early majority. “Who else has used it?” says someone. Immediately you know they’re early majority. That's really useful and I have lots and lots of those tricks for how you tell the difference.

Almost everyone around you, your VCs, they’re going to be early majority. The early adopters are the people, they’re harder to find but they really, really need your product and when they come across what you're doing in some form through your testing or conversations or interviews, they'll say things like, "I've been looking for something like this. You know, I have this problem, I wonder if this could solve it?" That's what their focus is going to be. That's how you know if someone's an early adopter.

If you can find 10 people like that and they're excited, and they say things like, “I've been looking for it. This can really have an impact on me,” you’re really on to something. It's more important to quickly find a small passionate early market than a bigger market.

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