Early Adopters: Be Picky About Who You Serve

October 08, 2020

Any successful founder will tell you that team, product, and market are the most critical factors to building a successful business. And you’ll probably hear many of them talk about being “customer-obsessed” or “customer first.” But one of the most underrated factors in their success is not just the customers but also the quality of their early adopters.

While we can all agree that early adopters are good, they are not all created equal. The wrong users can derail entrepreneurs, causing them to lose focus and solve the wrong problems. Like a bad team or poor product, the wrong early adopters can push a company towards failure.

You should be picky about who you serve, especially during the initial phase of your product development process. Finding early adopters should be an investment similar to hiring a team. Entrepreneurs should recruit, interview, qualify, and partner with early adopters that will help them become most successful. It’s not a simple process and shouldn’t be taken for granted.

So how do you find the right early adopters? That’s a difficult question to answer. It’s all going to come down to your market, product, and judgment. But here are some characteristics that you should look for.

They are in real pain.

The right early users are deeply affected by the problem that you’re solving. They know the problem exists and are hungry for a better solution. They’ve probably tried other solutions and yearn for something better.

Early adopters will be keenly aware of the problem. They will explain the problem in various ways and how it affects their ability to work, live, or perform some activity. They’ve probably even tried to solve it somehow, maybe using Excel, some no-code app, a third-party tool, or a manual process.

Their problem is very specific.

Users have all kinds of problems. Most of which you’ll never solve. Others might be in your roadmap but are not core today. It’s essential to focus on users with the specific problem that you are solving for. Problems can emerge from various systems, workflows, and integrations that have nothing to do with the core problem or your potential solution. Eliminate the users who are looking to solve all of their problems. Eliminate the users who want a different, possibly related, problem solved.

The best early adopters need to solve a specific problem. It’s vital to ensure that it matches your vision and product solution.

They are excited to help you.

The solution you’re offering them is going to alleviate a pain point, and the best early adopters are more than excited to help you help them. The more excited they are, the more pain they experience from the problem.

Early adopters are partners. They should be excited about working with you, helping you solve their problem, and providing feedback. They should also be excited that they will be using your solution before others and developing a competitive edge as well.

When you acquire great early adopters, they will be the ones sending you feedback often and with excitement. They’ll be proud to help you craft your solution and feel like their part of the team.

They are empowered

Early adopters must be empowered to make decisions quickly. Working with your dream enterprise customer sounds great, but if they can’t get approval, move quickly, or activate your solution, you’ll be at the mercy of their bureaucracy.

Working with early adopters is a partnership, not a transaction. It’s important that early adopters can take your prototype, beta, or product and implement it within their team or organization.

The person is as vital as the company. Are they authorized to make the right decisions? Can they dedicate the time and resources to the problem and solution? Are they empowered to help you create the right solution? If they can’t meet these criteria, you should find another early adopter who can.

They have a high-risk tolerance.

The best products are built with customers, through an iterative process of trial and error. Early adopters who experience the pain are not enough; you need a partner who can tolerate the risks involved in the product development process. Not only do they have a high-risk tolerance, but they should also be willing and able to engage in ongoing experiments throughout the process.

Experimentation is critical to the process. You need to ensure that you partner with a customer that recognizes the process is about learning and improvement, not a finished product.

When interviewing customers, you should be upfront about this process and ensure they are comfortable with it. It’s okay if a potential customer can’t commit to the process, you can keep in touch and invite them to the product when it’s a bit more developed.

Hire early adopters, don’t settle.

Don’t just settle for the first few customers that show interest in your product. Spend time doing market mapping to better understand the market, sectors, and potential customers. Learn more about the companies and find who the best possible contacts would be. Reach out and conduct interviews to learn more about their organization, how the problem affects them, and their goals regarding the problem and solution. Make sure to dig in and ask tough questions to assess their risk-tolerance, current solutions, and whether they are authorized to make the necessary decisions.

If a potential customer seems like the problem isn’t that big of a deal, you should move on. If they can’t focus on just the one problem, move on. If they aren’t authorized to make decisions, ask about their manager and see if you can work your way up.

You should spend a good amount of time learning about each of these customers and selecting the best candidates. Don’t hesitate to reach out multiple times and have conversations with them to build confidence in your decisions. These will be partners as you experiment and craft your solution, so ensure you find the best possible partners.

They’re all leads, too.

Choosing the best early adopters doesn’t mean that the others will not be good future customers. All of these customers are now leads. Some might be great customers once you hit a particular milestone and finish more features; others might be customers down the road. Keep in touch and share updates on the product and feature set.

Recruiting high-quality early adopters is difficult but vital to the success of a company. Spend the time upfront to say no to customers that don’t fit your current vision and mission. While the process is difficult and costly, it’ll be worth the investment as the product matures.