Critical mass begins with early adopters

Six months ago, I woke up to an odd email from one of the alpha testers on Hublished. It read essentially as follows:

“This site you have asked me to test is garbage. Nothing works, so it’s basically pointless to even critique the abysmal user experience and painful interface. However, I will continue to test this product and provide feedback so long as I fundamentally agree with why you are building it.”

Not sure whether to be horrified or jubilant, I sat on the email for a day before responding. On the one hand, it was somewhat alarming to discover that our product was so bug-ridden that it could not withstand minimal usage and that the design we had been working on for nearly four months was unnavigable. On the other hand, I was fascinated with the notion that people would test our product for no other reason than because they believed we were solving a legitimate pain point.

I ended up deciding on the latter, grateful for the tester’s continued support, and redesigned the entire site from top to bottom (obviously incorporating more than a single user’s feedback). Fast-forward to today, and the aforementioned user, as well as many others, are happy not only with the pain point we’ve targeted, but in the product we’ve built as well.

Anyone who’s familiar with the classic Diffusion of Innovations theory knows that for a product to reach critical mass, almost certainly some substantial percentage of the potential user base must have already adopted the product.  In other words, for user acquisition to reach a self-sustaining point, there must already be a bunch of users.

But what comes before all that?  What comes before User #1,000,000? All the hype and hysteria is focused around mass adoption when attentions should be directed elsewhere. I want to zone in on one user adoption category that I think is much more indicative of a company’s inherent value.

A quick glance at the Innovation Adoption Lifecycle will have you notice that two user groups must generally adopt a product before the product reaches the majority of users.Think about that friend who always heckles you about her new iPhone charging case or some weekly service that will deliver fresh and prepared ingredients for gourmet recipes. These people are innovators.

I’m going to ignore discussing innovators in detail for the sake of this article—not because these people aren’t awesome or that there isn’t a lot to learn from them as an entrepreneur, but because these people don’t matter specifically to your business. They are simply obsessed with the next craze (whether caused by your product or someone else’s), and typically have the resources to offset any financial loss incurred by time wasted on a fad. They’ll be gone as soon as the party’s over.

I want to instead focus on early adopters. These are the users who will spend an hour on the phone with you to discuss the infinite ways in which your product sucks. They’ll walk you step by step through the misery you hath wrought. These are the people your business should spend the vast majority of its resources and attention on. Early adopters won’t directly make you the big bucks, but they’ll introduce you to those who will.

Early adopters use your product because they believe in why you are building it. This is perhaps the single most important concept for entrepreneurs to internalize when striving for critical mass. Check out Simon Sinek’s Ted Talk to learn more about how putting ‘why’ before ‘what’ separates the most successful companies from those in a nosedive.

But aside from a catchy ideal, what does focusing on early adopters actually mean? In my opinion, it means primarily three things.

First, no one’s going to champion why you’re building something if you don’t or can’t articulate the reason. Startups need to be passionate about the pain points they’re solving. It’s the only way that passion can be reflected and amplified by users. Emphasize your ideology at every point of contact.

Second, be where your early adopters are. Don’t obsess with mass media or general enthusiast meetups. Sure—those are useful, but they won’t inspire your early adopters to action. Find your evangelists on niche blogs, meetups, conferences, and online forums. Aim for the people who would pay anything to use your unfinished product yesterday because they need it so badly.

Last, but not least, let early adopters know that user experience development is a 360 degree process. I could have ignored that stinging email and carried on building what I believed to be an assuredly beautiful product. But I didn’t because the blow to my self-esteem was more than counter-balanced by knowing that users would help us before we could help them. Tell your early adopters that their feedback directly correlates to product development, because your product is for them—for the pain points with which they are dealing.

And don’t ever forget about your first users.  You couldn’t have reached 1,000,000 and counting without them.