Four practical steps on how to identify early adopters and start getting traction for a new business idea. A proven process tested with thousands of successful business entrepreneurs.

Identifying early adopters for a new business idea is the key tool to achieve traction and validation. Contrary to the common definition we hear from the media, early adopters are not necessarily the customer segment keener to try out new tech gadgets or technologies.

Instead we like to look at early adopters as desperate people. They struggle so much to solve the problems you want to address with your business idea, and it matters so much to them, that they are willing to buy or use your product before others.

Even if a new business idea is targeting a broad market and has the biggest ambitions, the best way to kick it off is to start selling it to early adopters, because it’s easier, they are in need The more customers are in need of what you do, the easier it will be for you to sell it. It’s as simple as that.

Moreover, by focusing on early adopters with any early activity for your venture, you will save tons of money and time, because you will proceed accordingly to a plan you have prepared with the best information available, instead of going at random. Also, even if your ultimate plan is to go big and possibly serve the entire population of a country, you will never be able to do it at the beginning, so it’s better to start small and focused.

Early adopters are so important that, in an initial phase, the Minimum Viable Product (or MVP) of a new business idea will crafted around them, so that the business can get enough traction and validation with them and then scale up to attract a broader customer base. Launching a business is like climbing a very high mountain, you’ve got to make a first step. That first step is your early adopters.

Identifying early adopters is not an easy feat – who said entrepreneurship was easy – but luckily we have experimented the proven process below with hundreds of successful entrepreneurs.

1. BRAINSTORM CUSTOMER SEGMENTS

First of all, let’s start by making assumptions about the problems you are willing to solve with your business idea. Compiling a Lean Canvas might be a good starting point, read more about how to compile one here.

Problems always come first. The simple reason being: without problems, there is no business. Some problems are rational, some not, some are visible, some not, but behind any purchasing act there is ALWAYS a problem, a frustration or a need waiting to be solved and satisfied.

Once you have an understanding of the problems you are willing to solve, it’s time to make assumptions about the people affected the most by the problems you are addressing with your business idea.
As we said, we like to think of early adopters as nearly desperate people, who are on the verge of a personal or a professional disaster if they fail to complete a task because of the problems you are willing to solve.

  • for a B2B business idea, who do you think are the people that, if they fail to solve the problems you are addressing with your business idea, will be fired by the end of the year? Or who are they people that have to solve those problems in order to get their annual bonus? And for which kind of companies do they work for? Thinking of extremes might be of help here: for example, who is going to get fired because of those problems? Where do they work?
  • for a B2C business idea, who do you think are the people that, if they fail to complete a task because of the problems you are willing to solve, will face a personal, social or emotional disaster? Once more, thinking of extremes might be of help. Who is going to die if they fail? Who is going to face a divorce? Or bankruptcy? Or social exclusion and isolation?

The main reason behind thinking of extreme situations while brainstorming early adopter segments is simple: these people will be most in need of what you are doing. The worse the consequence of them failing a task because of the problems, the more in need they are.

And let’s be clear, this is not to take advantage of them: in fact these people are really in need of our help. They might be in distress, anxious or perhaps not sleeping at night. They need someone to jump in and do something. This is where entrepreneurship can become a force for good!

A way to make this exercise easier and maybe funnier is to get together with a few friends one night, perhaps some of them with business / startup expertise. It doesn’t really matter whether they are experts in your field or not, we just need their mindset.

Try to get together, and play this as a game: you explain the problems you are willing to solve, and distribute a block of sticky notes and a pen to each one. Then go around the table 10 times, and each one has to write a customer segment affected by these problems in turn.

2. RANK CUSTOMER SEGMENTS

Once you’ve got a list of customer segments, possibly even 50 of them, you’ll have to rank them and identify the top ones in order to define a plan of action.

The ranking process is based on assumptions (thing you know or you believe are true), as with brainstorming. We encourage you to embrace this uncertainty, because no one has written the book of how to launch your business yet. This is an exercise of exploration, full of things to be discovered. Starting from what you know and what you believe is true because that is everything you’ve got at this stage.

We normally use at least two criteria to rank customer segments: “level of pain” and “current expenditure“.

  • Level of pain is about how big is the damage if they fail to complete a task because of the problems you are willing to solve.
  • Current expenditure is how much they currently spend to solve those problems.

In terms of priority and plan of actions, you might want to consider starting with the customers with the highest level of pain and the highest level of expenditure.
And of course you can add more criteria if you want, depending on the business nature and specific conditions. Just try not to be repetitive by adding a criterion which is a nuance of an existing one.

3. MEET AND INTERVIEW TOP RANKED CUSTOMER SEGMENTS

At the end of the ranking exercise, you should have a few clear winners. Great stuff, your business idea is beginning to take a shape!

Now it’s time to do business, get out of the building and meet with them doing customer discovery interviews.

Here are a few tips on how to recruit customers to interviewhow to conduct successful interviews, and what to ask customers during the interviews.

One important thing: we recommend NOT to take a shortcut here and solve this by “doing a survey”. Read more about why a survey at this stage is not a great idea.

4. VERIFY IF THEY ARE EARLY ADOPTERS OR NOT

After a few meetings, you should be able to review the notes, and see which features (age, sex, job, salary, etc) are common among the ones that match with all the four elements of identifying an early adopter customer segment:

  • Early adopters have the problem. Among the people interviewed, they are the ones that positively responded to a problem description, and offered detailed examples of the last time it has happened.
  • Early adopters know they have the problem. This is crucial, as no startup will be able to educate their target customers about a problem they are not yet aware of. Early adopters are customers that during the interviews have demonstrated to be so much aware of a problem that they could tell the last time it has happened and how they solved it.
  • Early adopter have the budget to solve the problem. If customers are not able to pay for the service, it’s pointless to target them. By investigating customers’ current behaviour in the face of a problem, it’s possible to understand how much energy, money and time they are investing to solve it and use it as an indication of their willingness to pay.
  • Early adopters have already put together their makeshift solution. This is the most important indicator that a certain customer segment is the one that needs to be targeted first. These customers feel so much a problem that they have put together tactics, workarounds, operational processes, or use a combination of competitors’ services to solve it already. However, they are not fully satisfied, and you’ll do whatever it takes to make sure that your solution is doing a much better job. This is critical: you wouldn’t bother taking a train to work if your office was just around the corner. You might not be completely satisfied with it, sometimes you are even upset, but you take a train because you’ve got a problem: your office is 10 km away from your house. The simple fact that you are using a solution (train), is showing that you feel the problem so much (office is far) that you took action to solve it.

In case you realise after the interviews that the first customer segment in your priority list does not match the criteria, start interviewing the second in your list.

Discovering that the initial customer segment is not the right one might look painful, but it’s actually great news. You’ve just saved lots of time and money by not targeting the wrong customer segment and desperately trying to sell those customers something they don’t need.

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