The good, the bad, and the ugly side of your early adopters [2022 updated]

The good, the bad, and the ugly side of early adopters - the mobile spoon

As startups building new products, our primary goal is to move from 0 to 1

In the effort to onboard our first customers, we will do whatever is necessary to engage with them, attract them, and turn them into hard-activated users

As your product starts to see its first wave of users, it's important to remember that these users are not necessarily your ideal customers. In fact, they probably fall into the category of early adopters, which means they are very different than the majority of users. 

A product cannot exist without early adopters, and yet, it’s crucial to understand how they differ from the rest because you're about to base your next product decisions on their behavior and feedback in your quest for a product/market fit, and you don't want those decisions to be based on biased information.  

Let's start with who your early adopters are: 

According to Everett Rogers: early adopters belong to 2 small groups that represent 5%-15% of your customers:

1. The innovators (2.5%) - tech enthusiasts who look for innovation.
They are excited about finding new ways of doing things and willing to take some risks and try out new technologies.

2. The early adopters (13.5%) - influential and thought leaders. 
Those are the visionaries. They are often very active on social media and leave their mark on the market. 

early adopters - diffusion of innovations model

I relate to both groups as “early adopters” because they have a lot in common:
  • They have a high social status 
  • They feel comfortable spending money on new technologies 
  • They feel comfortable using early-stage (half-baked) products
Early adopters are the first to download your app when it's half-baked, the first developers to embed your SDK when it's not yet scalable, the ones who bought the first iPhone when it was compared to a piece of stone, the first ones to buy Bitcoin, use their Bored Ape as their Twitter avatar, and buy a username with Ethereum Name Service

What characteristics do early adopters have? 

And how do they differ from the majority of users? 

1. Early adopters are less sensitive to product limitations and bugs 

Because they often use products in their early stages, early adopters are more tolerant of product limitations and hiccups.

Early Pebble (RIP) customers were willing to compromise on functionality and design aesthetics in order to be the first to own a smartwatch. I did the same thing with the Microsoft Band, knowing that I’m getting an experimental (and very limited) wearable, but I was anxious to explore it. The same goes for foldable smartphones that are definitely cool but heavy, uncomfortable as phones, and half-baked as tablets.  

Similarly, early crypto adopters had to deal with clunky workflows and techy challenges to hold some bitcoins, but they were willing to do so because they saw potential.

We are all doing it these days with OpenAI's DALL-E and ChatGPT.

A limited MVP might be enough for the early adopters but the mass market usually has higher expectations.
A limited MVP might be enough for the early adopters but the mass market usually has higher expectations

The feedback from your early adopters might make you think your poorly designed MVP is ready for prime time, but beware: the mass market isn't as forgiving as your early adopters.  

The mass market isn't as forgiving as your early adopters.

2. Early adopters are less sensitive to the price

Buying the latest and greatest is an expensive hobby. 
I'll pay $800 every year to get the latest Apple Watch Ultra just so I can brag about it and explore the latest sensors.  

Early crypto adopters paid outrageous transaction fees, and early NFT enthusiasts spent millions on owning the most famous NFTs out there.

early adopters are tech savvies and less sensitive to price

Early adopters are willing to pay this price in order to maintain their unique thought leadership position and keep exploring new innovations. 

Now, this may lead you to think your pricing works, while the majority of users might think it's not. You're going to find it out when you scale.

3. Early adopters are often biased

Early users often come from inner circles such as friends, family, and company stakeholders. That can lead to over-positive feedback, resulting in a confirmation bias

Other early users are either entrepreneurs like yourself, tech-savvies, or power-users that may not represent the majority of customers: they often seek innovation and knowledge rather than benefits and ease of use

In extreme cases (and I've witnessed that more than once), they might even ask for more sophisticated features that add complexity to the product instead of simplifying it. 

The result? Bad product decisions are based on biased feedback and too much focus on product features that are not on your critical path. 

4. Early adopters generate better KPIs

So you've launched your product and the first users are using it. Now you start tracking everything they do and produce your first product KPI reports - but be careful, as those KPIs might be a little bit too optimistic. 

4.1. Higher conversion rates 

Early staged products are packed with issues: limitations, bugs, and unpolished onboarding, but early adopters are keen to try out new things. They'll find their way around occasional hiccups and product limitations and invest more effort to try out the product than regular users would ever do.  

While they are experimenting with your product, you might think they are adopting it

The result is an over-positive conversion rate that doesn’t necessarily represent future performance. 

In fact, I've witnessed cases where early & clunky product versions had better conversion rates than late versions with superior UX. 

4.2. Better retention rates 

To maintain their unique leadership status, early adopters will keep using new products even if they suffer from immaturity issues like limited functionality, bugs, and high costs. 

This typically leads to a higher retention rate for the first few cohorts, something that cannot be matched with larger cohorts at a later stage.

4.3. Lower acquisition costs

Early adopters are vocal and active on social media. They'll share your product with their followers, promote themselves using it, and brag about it as a status symbol that would preserve their influencer status (check out Twitter avatars in the past 1-2 years to witness that phenomenon).

This behavior brings more organic users and lowers acquisition costs, but as you scale, later-stage users will not create this viral effect. The average number of organic users per paid will decrease and the CAC will go up. 

The above 3 metrics are dramatic when calculating LTV and unit economics. 

Tips for working with early adopters

Here are some points that might help during the early adoption stage: 
  1. Understand the differences between early adopters and the majority of the users 
  2. Identify and mark down the first cohorts in order to later separate them from the rest of the cohorts (user segmentation is key. here's a short guide about how to prepare your data for user segmentation). 
  3. Treat the early adopters as an asset. Embrace their feedback, but take it with a grain of salt
  4. They are motivated to share their feedback, but they represent a very small group compared to the mass market 
  5. Measure measure measure - numbers represent behavior and that’s much stronger than words 
  6. When measuring - distinguish between early cohorts with later cohorts
  7. Later cohorts are the ones you should focus on, to validate the product assumptions with, calculate retention, LTV, and unit economics
  8. Always be doubtful about your product/market fit even if the business grows nicely and the early adopters are providing positive feedback. Expect more problems to come at a later stage when the majority of users come - they are slower to adopt new products and harder to convert
  9. Validate your assumptions with non-early adopters: what might be enough for early adopters, will probably not be good enough for the mass market
  10. Don't commit to your early adopters too early. You might want to change priorities when mainstream users join, and you don't want to be stuck with the wrong commitments. 

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Gil Bouhnick The Mobile Spoon
Amit said…
I wonder how long does it take to finish the "early adoption" phase...
Gil Bouhnick The Mobile Spoon
igorlir said…
I suspected some of this is happening to us as well:
High retention for first few months, different survey results...
Gil Bouhnick The Mobile Spoon
Anonymous said…
Useful article
Gil Bouhnick The Mobile Spoon
nmtool said…
Always be doubtful about your product/market fit even if the business grows nicely and the early adopters are providing positive feedback
Gil Bouhnick The Mobile Spoon
gig8 said…
Scary stuff.
So basically all new products should expect an incline after a while?
Gil Bouhnick The Mobile Spoon
Anonymous said…
Early adopters will provide the first review/feedback about the product and help it sailing against its competitors into the star-maturity stage through sheer word of mouth and endorsement. When the product reach the star-maturity stage then you need to innovate to reach and embrace the early majorities so that the product can reach the cash-cow-maturity stage