You can’t skip over early adopters

I recently ran across yet another situation where an entrepreneur was reluctant to launch early. He had two urges. He wanted to continue polishing the UX to make it more mainstream-ready. He also wanted to add more features and options to appeal to a broader range of customers.

Here was my advice:

1. Face the fact that you are guessing

No matter how much domain knowledge you have, if you are innovating you are inherently making guesses as to the specific manifestation of the need and the solution. If this wasn’t the case, you wouldn’t be innovating. The longer you wait to find out if your guesses are on the right track, the more risk you take on. Every team has to decide when their product is “early-adopter-ready” (or in lean-speak, how minimal is the minimal viable product) but it is *always* a lot earlier than our perfectionist tendencies desire.

2. You need your product to be used in the wild

Qualitative interviews and usability sessions are necessary but not sufficient. They are still artificial, and it is really unhealthy to let this be your only data point. I have no problem with private betas in the right context, but you don’t want to keep them too small for very long. You can only measure progress if you are in the wild, i.e. if people are using your service naturally.

3. Polish or not, you need early adopters before you get to the mainstream

The classic book Crossing the Chasm popularized the notion of the technology adoption curve, which states that there are early adopters, mainstream users and laggards. Startups often hit a “chasm” when they need to leap from early adopters to the mainstream. The chasm is a real challenge, but the answer is not to attempt to jump over early adopters directly to the mainstream.

Mainstream users don’t just want a more robust and polished product. They also want social proof, i.e. they want to know that other people are successfully using the application. Thus I argue that delaying being live in the market while you try to design for mainstream users (again: you are guessing) adds lots of risk and cost to your project without delivering much in return.

4. It is fine to fail on a small scale

Failing is fine as long as you learn quickly, iterate quickly, and do it in relative obscurity. Having your product used in the wild is not the same thing as doing a big marketing push. This generally conflicts with the desire to grow as fast as possible, but I’m a believer in building confidence in product-market-fit before doing a lot of marketing.

5. Do one thing well, rather than a bunch of things with mediocrity

Almost every new product has one “hook” that drives early adoption. You don’t always know what it is going to be. I sometimes like casting a wide net with early, super-lightweight testing but when it comes to building product you want to be focused, focused, focused. It is good for speed, for cost, and for helping the customer understand what you are offering. Your initial task isn’t to convert everyone, but to convert an enthusiastic set of early adopters that will be your foundation. Lack of focus is a startup killer. To reiterate, you can’t get to second base without rounding first.

Of course, it is a separate question altogether whether my advice will be taken. I’ve come to lean startup after years of hard-won experience. Humans do have a tendency to need to feel the flame before they believe the danger.

  • I was tempted in my brain to package these thoughts into “new startup only world” advice. But, actually, it resonated with me for the truth it holds in existing business and products in the market.

    I’ve found it’s oh-to-easy easy to release a new product to existing customers and either a) assume they’re ALL along for the ride because you’ve already selfishly claimed them as customers, or b) forget that you need some of them as the early adopters for the new customers that you can acquire. As you say above – trying to skip over the early adopters.

    I think what I’m trying to say, is that where a market established business is trying to behave as a startup from a product development point of view – it’s pointless if you’re not also using those same principles of lean/startup with your existing and new customer base. There’s a disconnect.

    Thanks for the thought provoking post.

    • For me the difference is not whether you are a startup or a big company, but rather whether you are working on a new innovation or an incremental improvement to an existing product/market. “Lean startup” concepts are very useful for both, in that they force you to focus on results and validation of ideas, but when I wrote this post I was really thinking about innovation efforts.