What Is an Early Adopter?

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What’s the picture in your mind when you think ‘early adopter’?

Is it some rich kid surrounded by a ton of state-of-the-art gadgets?

I’m sure he’s got the latest VR headset and an Apple watch. His fridge can tell him the moment his Chobani yogurt expires. If it has the word ‘smart’ in the name, he’s wearing it, holding it, or surrounded by it.

For me, the picture was Phil Dunphy, the dad from Modern Family. I particularly remember an episode centered around the new iPad release. He absolutely had to have it that day.

But, as oft happens with sitcoms, circumstances got in the way. He found that he had to wait a whole week to get his new tech, and that infuriated him.

Such anger over not getting the product must make him an early adopter, right?

Wrong. Maybe he’s an Apple early adopter, but he’s probably not a startup early adopter.

And this article is for startups.

They Need to Need

Phil wanted those toys for bragging rights. They were cool, and he wanted to be the one to tell everyone all about them. But he didn’t need them.

His old iPad served him fine. He was looking for incremental change, but a startup early adopter needs to be looking for a revolution. More than that, they need to need that revolution

Here is the dirty little secret of startups. Our tech is not good. Our software is buggy. Our hardware is shoddy.

The big players have hundreds or thousands of people looking for and patching bugs. An early startup has a handful of people that are also busy doing 3000 other things.

Reid Hoffman, the co-founder of LinkedIn, once said: “If you’re not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late”. And he’s right.

During my tenure as CTO of a startup, I released at least a dozen bugs so bad that I had to patch them that same day. But releasing was the right answer because finding the bugs would have taken 10x as long if we hadn’t.

The Phils of the world would rage-quit over such platform-crushing programmer errors. Software is no longer cool when the cursor slows to a crawl or the page keeps crashing.

That’s why you need early adopters that aren’t in it for the cool factor. They don’t want to be the first for bragging rights. They need to be the first because they are desperate.

If they don’t have your product, they face bankruptcy, unemployment, public embarrassment, or some other dire situation. When they are that desperate, any number of bugs will still be better than the alternative.

And you aren’t taking advantage of their desperation. Far from it. They need a problem solved, you need someone to test whether your product solves that problem. They aren’t your victims. They are your customers. And they rise to an even higher status than that.

They Are Your Partners


Yes, they are customers, but you are going to be working so closely with them that they will feel more like partners. All those bugs that you didn’t have the resources to find? They’ll find them. Those case studies you needed for your sales efforts? They’ll participate in those.

The primary goal of this partnership is to achieve problem/solution fit.

You don’t fully understand the problem you are solving yet. They probably don’t either. But each of you has a piece of the puzzle. And you both have strong incentives to solve the puzzle.

They Are Your Voice

You’d be hard-pressed to find an industry where word-of-mouth is not the cheapest, most effective marketing method. Fortunately, Early adopters are also evangelizers.

Your early adopters may not be the loudest voices in the industry, but they are sure to have a few ears they can bend. And often they will do so for free, which is every startup founder’s favorite word.

If you have properly solved their problems, they will have nothing but praise for you. The problem was important enough that they probably talked about it with others, whether face-to-face, on a forum, or in some other way. During that process, they likely found more people with the same problem.

Those people didn’t have a solution for your early adopter. If they did, your early adopter would have just gone with that solution instead of dealing with your buggy software.

But now your early adopter can go to these people with your solution. Thus begins the spread. The more common and painful the problem you are solving is, the faster news will spread.

They Are Your Future

Finding the right early adopters is crucial to a startup. I know this because I’ve worked in a company where we found the wrong ones.

No matter how many features we built, it didn’t do any good because they didn’t need our product. We got money from them, but it didn’t matter because we didn’t learn about the problem.

In the end, we wasted too much precious time because we did not understand what made a good early adopter. Don’t make that same mistake in your own startups.

But if you find the right early adopters, you are on the fast track to understanding the problem you are solving and the market you are addressing.

Your partnership with them will help you achieve problem/solution fit.

Their evangelism will help you achieve product/market fit.

They are your future, and you are theirs.

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