A disciplined approach towards getting technology early adopters for your product startup

This post first appeared at Todd Defren’s blog PR Squared on Aug 3rd.

I was at a wonderful session with over 60 high energy entrepreneurs at Goa over the weekend. About 20-30 of them had recently launched their product or web service and were actively seeking early adopters. The discussions were about how to identify, interact with, engage and nurture early adopters.

A big part of the challenge, I believe is that most entrepreneurs are not clear and specific in the plan to target early adopters. They simply believe a blog post on TechCrunch, a launch at a startup event or a press article will get them all the initial customers they need.

Instead what’s needed is a disciplined approach towards the 3 steps in getting early adopters.

1)      Profiling and Identification: If you are a B2B startup, there are 4 important characteristics to profile and identify your early adopters. This step is usually termed as “persona” creation.

  1. Location (Early adopters in India tend to be from Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore, or from the West coast (Northern California) and East coast (New York) in the USA.
  2. Title of buyer: Revenue producing and customer facing titles at companies tend to be early adopters since they would like any edge over the competition to help them gain / retain customers. So, target a VP of Sales, Marketing, etc. instead of VP of HR or Admin / Facilities who are typically cost centers.
  3. Vertical industry: Technology, telecom and finance tend to be early adopters, whereas Government and Utilities tend to be laggards.
  4. Size of company: Mid-sized companies and a few large companies (in the above stated verticals) tend adopt new innovations faster compared to smaller companies.

For BuzzGain, we had put together a list of over 1023 people who fit that profile. We targeted mid-sized Public Relations firms in New York, Silicon Valley and focused on account executives who needed to spend more time with clients instead of building custom reports. We got a PR companies list from ODweyer to kick things off and spent about 12 work days researching the company’s websites, their customer list, their twitter handles and any information we could get about them.

If you are however running a B2C startup, there are 7 different characteristics to consider including age (younger people generally tend to be early adopters), location, gender, their monthly income among others.

2)      Interaction and Introduction:  The goal of this step is to make an initial connect with your early adopter so they are made “aware of your presence”. Usually one of three mechanisms work to get their attention:

  1. Engagement online: Following them and posting thoughtful (real human) comments (not spam or robot messages) on twitter or their blog.
  2. Events: Instead of presenting at a booth when your startup is not ready, demo your mockup or early version to them at events (as an attendee) to get feedback.
  3. Introductions from other early adopters. Early adopters know each other well and tend to be connected to each other well. They are usually open to sharing new, innovative ideas with other early adopters.

At BuzzGain, based on the identified list of people, it was relatively easy to find events that they would attend. Most of the interaction I did initially was via twitter, where I would follow them, read their background tweets and comment on their blogs. This process was done manually and not outsourced, so I could understand them better.

It usually took about 2-3 weeks to build a reasonable rapport so we could then offer to show them a 15 min demo to get their feedback. Our response rate was about 37%. For every successful connection with an early adopter, we would request them to connect us to 2 others whose input we would benefit from.

3)      Nurturing and Engagement: A big part of what drives early adopters is the ability to offer feedback and influence product direction. They also want to be the “coolest and hippest” among their peers. The goal of this step is to segment early adopters into 3 categories and focus on making your champions successful with your product.

  1. Champions: They like your product, think it solves a problem and are willing to provide feedback on what they would like, to make it better. Your goal should be to make these users the most happy with your service, be very responsive and introduce features they desire quickly. You can find them by looking at the # of times they return to use your service after the launch day.
  2. Bangwaggoners: They typically join since some other early adopter has joined who mentioned the product. They will come if the product is free, test it for an initial period, then will usually never show up until it is “more mainstream” or “many bugs have been worked out”.
  3. Naysayers: They have something negative to say about every new product, so while its best to ignore them, be thoughtful and respond to their feedback, but don’t focus on them a lot. They will highlight many features that you currently don’t have or plan to have. They are most likely to compare it to other solutions and in a negative light.

At BuzzGain, we had the 11% of customers, who were “champions” and they converted to being paying customers in 2 months, and about 7% Naysayers. The rest we tackled after the beta period, which lasted 3 months. We also provided extra features for the champions and profiled them on our website (we put their photo, published their testimonial and also did a case study on them). This early adopter customers approach BuzzGain, raised our revenue by 415% Y-o-Y, ultimately serving over 275 customers and selling to Meltwater in Jan 2010.

2 thoughts on “A disciplined approach towards getting technology early adopters for your product startup”

  1. Good post, albeit a bit too ‘deterministic’ IMHO. I mean, it would have been better if the secret sauce was presented as a framework, rather than as a playbook. Interestingly, neither the word ‘Viral’ nor the phrase ‘word-of-mouth’ is mentioned in the post. Is it deliberate? Also, would be great to hear your thoughts on how to target Innovators/Opinion Leaders, since they are likely to influence Early Adopters (Rogers, Moore…).

  2. Hi Mukund,

    Long time reader of your blog. I agree with your premise that ‘cultivating relationships’ is the key to success when a startup is looking to get early customers. By the way, I am curious about one thing – You mentioned that you had 275 customers when you sold BuzzGain but some other event I attended, you had mentioned that you had 2 paying customers when you sold your startup. Was that a different startup?

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