The elusive early adopters

It’s accepted wisdom in the startup space that you begin by testing your product on early adopters and over time you work to expand to the mainstream users in your market. But if you’re struggling to bridge this gap, maybe what you thought were early adopters are actually just mainstream users in a small niche. The people who are using your product first may not be the beginning of a larger opportunity.

How do you tell the difference? I was curious about this myself and last week I had a chance to talk with Steve Blank. I asked him this question and he shared some insights that clarified my thinking. This is what I took away from our conversation (these are not Steve’s words).

You start by talking to a random group of potential customers in your target market. A small number of them are willing to try your product and the rest of them have some reason for saying “No.” You need to focus on the reason that some customers say “Yes” and some say “No.” What are the attributes which differentiate the adopters from the decliners?

Are these attributes temporary conditions which will cease to be relevant over time? Or are they attributes which will keep you relegated to a niche market.

For example, maybe your decliners like the value your product offers but want backwards compatibility, validation from other high profile customers in the space, SLAs, or time to get comfortable with the idea of change. Your adopters agree these extra details would be nice but they are willing to use your product without them. This is a classic case of early vs late adopters. The extra requirements of your late adopters will naturally be addressed as your product evolves while catering to your early adopters.

But if your decliners don’t feel like your product addresses a pain they have or are indifferent to the idea whereas your adopters are excited by it, don’t make the mistake of framing this as early vs late adopters. You don’t have reason to expect that your decliners are every going to come around and you may just have a product that caters to a small niche.

👋 Hello there. I’m the Co-founder & CEO of More about my background can be found on This profile picture is public (CC0).

👋 Hello there. I’m the Co-founder & CEO of More about my background can be found on This profile picture is public (CC0).