In a nutshell, early adopters are passionate, early users of new technology or products who understand its value before mainstream markets. Acquiring them is important to jumpstart product adoption.

Geoffrey Moore, in his 1992 book, Crossing the Chasm, adapted and popularized the concept of the “Technology Life Cycle Adoption Curve,” whereby technology is adopted in five phases categorized by the type of buyer:

  1. Innovators — aggressively pursue new technology, often out of pure interest in technology
  2. Early Adopters — the first to pursue technology for its intrinsic benefits
  3. Early Majority — rely on the benefits of new technology but will wait for others to  work out the kinks
  4. Late Majority — not interested in technology per se; willing to wait for an  established leader to emerge, buys de facto standard
  5. Laggards — don’t want anything to do with technolog, thought they may use it  without knowing

The movement to each phase is hindered by a gap caused by the difference between product requirements and the buying habits of customers between the two phases. Moore’s book concentrates on the gap between early adopters and the early majority—a gap so wide and deep, it’s best described as a chasm. Startups in the chasm must cross the “Valley of Death,” whereby they succeed in converting early adopters, but subsequently fail to go mainstream. In other words, they get lost in the valley and die.

In The Four Steps, Blank further refines the concept by adding the characteristic of the evangelizer, which he calls the “earlyvangelist.” His point is that early on you should seek to sell not only to those who consciously understand the problem you’re solving and are seeking solutions, but those who will also act as a champion in your efforts to convert others. I’m not sure this is particularly relevant these days, simply because it’s so easy to share product experiences virtually that everyone might be a product champion.

Early adopters are important to startup companies, because they:

  • Seek out new technology to solve their problems, not just for the sake of owning the latest thing
  • Don’t rely on references from others to make buying decisions; while influenced by other early adopters, their main concern is in solving a known problem
  • They want to help you and want you to be successful; aspiring to be seen as problem solvers, you are helping them do that

It may be helpful to know that the technology lifecycle adoption curve is adapted from Everett Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovations, which described the adoption of new ideas (as well as new technology). This distinction is important in that 1) the curve applies not only to technology products, and 2) any new concept may be adopted following a similar pattern. For instance, launching a new innovation program within a large corporation will track along the same bell curve for the various stakeholders.

Finally, I don’t really see the point in concentrating on the “innovators” group at all. It was more relevant in the era of highly technical startups. It is important still, perhaps, when at the very earliest stages of testing breakthrough technology, but that’s a relatively rare and specific case.