Early Adopters – Wonderful but Dangerous

May 5, 2023

Early adopters are magnificent people. Just don’t bet your house on them.  

With the constant pressure around innovation and product development, you will often be in a position of having to ship out that product or launch that start up, before it’s perfect – anathema to many.

But if you don’t get it out and test market reaction, you could be building something no-one wants and so the validated learning process, popularised with The Lean Start Up methodology, is a necessary hazard en route to getting it right.

But as Reid Hoffman (founder of Linkedin and host of Masters of Scale) says “If you are not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late.” 

So the product gets shipped into the hands of the innovators and the early adopters, as defined by this famous innovation bell curve. 

The innovators are the true pioneers, handling your early stage, minimum feature produce, perhaps as early as the prototype or MVP that helps you understand and address any obvious issues with the UX or functionality et al.

Next wave are the early adopters, defined as “people who start using the product or technology as soon as it becomes available.  In theory, they help to spread the word and move your product towards that ‘kerching’ moment of hitting the mass market.

They are wonderful for helping to drive innovation and change and traction and confidence.  Products generally don’t exist without them and they become central to your next stage marketing strategy and influencing the early majority, the people who want complete solutions and convenience, to buy.

Early adopters are less price sensitive, less worried about bugs or an unpolished onboarding process (warm thanks to all those CTO Academy innovators who put up with our own ‘unpolished onboarding’).

There is however, risk with early adopters. You can get very excited about their arrival but they should come with a health warning. Inhale too deeply and you’re at risk of heading towards the start up critical care unit because they can be too kind, too supportive and too forgiving of issues that could fail at scale. 

They can give you a false sense of confidence with conversion rates and churn, data your CEO will be using to extrapolate into forecasting future growth but it’s data at risk of being corrupted by an early adopters more forgiving attitude to new products. The mass market will be much less forgiving.

You might have designed something that works well at pilot but stumbles when migrated into a whole product solution based primarily on that early adopter feedback.

You need early adopters to kick start a product but you should have mitigation measures in place to avoid over reliance and building products with flaws embedded that disable your ability to scale.

This Forbes article suggests the solution is with Knowledge Workers the author Brad Sousa saying ….

“As a CTO who focuses on collaboration and communication, I’ve learned that successful production rollouts depend on pervasive adoption. To accomplish this, the solution we provide must be easily consumed by knowledge workers who care more about completing their tasks than learning a new technology”

Some further thoughts that might help you navigate the early adoption stage;

1. Understand the difference between early adopters and the majority;

2. Consider early adopters as a stepping stone but in need of further checks and balances;

3. Measure everything. Then question the measurements. Then measure against earlier measurements;

4. Avoid complacency and challenge every step of what you believe is a product:market fit. Can it deliver value at scale? Where are the potential pinch points with mass adoption?

Recommended Further Reading

That famous bell curve diagram comes from an iconic book, Diffusion of Innovations.

The diffusion process consists of a few individuals who first adopt an innovation, then spread the word among their circle of acquaintances—a process which typically took months or years (certainly in the days when that book was first written) but which, with the internet and online connectivity, can spread far more rapidly today.  

We’re writing this in the middle of Pandemic 2020 and about to start a Zoom call. Zoom is perhaps the classic example of how quickly modern products can break into that early majority. 

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