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Early Adopters: Who They Are, And Why They Matter for Your Startup

Etienne Garbugli
Sep 8 · 10 min read

So, who should you contact for customer discovery interviews?

Who would most benefit from your innovation? Who would have the problem you’re thinking of?

You can get a first feel on your market assumption definition…

  • By reading up on secondary research (e.g., surveys, reports, etc.);
  • By researching the competitive landscape;
  • By analogy, looking at what happened in similar markets or industries;
  • By meeting with third-party analysts like venture capitalists and industry analysts.

Although I strongly recommend starting with a broader definition of the market, and narrowing it down as you learn, this may take time; time you might not have.

How broadly or narrowly you’ll target the market will depend on how well you already know the market or industry, and the amount of time you have.

Do you know the specific roles or people who might benefit from your innovation in the market?

You’ll want to start with a hypothesis and create the ideal customer profile of your early adopters:

What Are Early Adopters?

Early adopters have a great understanding of the technology landscape both inside and outside of their organizations. They also have a higher tolerance for risk and a greater ability to see the potential of new technology than most people.

We typically recognize early adopters by these signs:

  • They’re actively looking for a competitive edge;
  • They have the ability to find new uses for a technology;
  • They seek out and sign up for early trials and betas;
  • They like to be unique and share new products (it makes them feel good);
  • They exert some kind of technological leadership in their companies (although they may not be in a leadership position);
  • They will use a product which isn’t complete.

You’ll want to define a common profile of organizations.

The subtleties and differences in profiles will emerge as you learn and move forward doing customer interviews.

To get consistent data points, you’ll want to target a specific role within organizations.

As a rule of thumb, the founders are typically the best point person for companies under 100 employees. They act a bit like quarterbacks, forwarding requests, projects and assignments to other team members.

The best entry points for organizations between 100 to 250 people are at director-level. At this stage, functional leaders tend to have their own budgets and greater operational independence.

For larger organizations, you’ll need to uncover the start points via customer discovery.

Your target profile will be a hypothesis (maybe CEOs are the wrong place to start for your startup). We’ll refine these hypotheses as we move forward.

Note that the people you’ll interview can’t be friends or family members, and that if you can’t find early adopters, you can’t build a business.

If you can’t find early adopters, you can’t build a business.Trevor Owens, Lean Startup Machine CEO

How to Find Early Adopters

The first question to ask is whether you’ll be interviewing prospects face-to-face or over the phone.

Face-to-face customer interviews are always preferable.

With face-to-face interviews you’ll get undivided attention. It will give you the opportunity to learn about the work context and the organization. You’ll also be in a good position to start building relationships.

But this won’t always be possible…

If you’re not based in a prospect-rich environment for your target industry, you’ll need to get comfortable with phone or Skype customer interviews.

Although phone interviews are less effective than face-to-face interviews, they allow you to explore more broadly across countries and sectors.

Now, there are 2 main ways to find early adopters:

1) Via your professional network, asking for references;

In this case, you rely on other people to help you find good candidates. This tends to be less precise and might mean that some people will agree to speak to you solely based on the shared connections (remember Emma?).

2) Via expressed needs through online or offline watering holes, places where prospects gather for pleasure or for work.

In this case, you can be more precise with recruitment and have a higher level of certainty that those people care about the problem space. It might be harder to convince them to speak to you, which in my opinion is often a blessing in disguise as it forces you to refine your communications.

For this approach, you’re looking for pools of users. Where do the people that care about this problem space spend time?

  • At a conference around the topic?
  • On community sites like Quora, GrowthHackers or AngelList, depending on your target?
  • Maybe they can be found in directories of professional associations? I leveraged directories for both Highlights and HireVoice. For Highlights, we target the HubSpot agency directory. It’s just a list.
  • By analogy? People who care about X will also care about Y.
  • On forums? A friend of mine is a power user of Airliners.net. Everyday, he logs into the forum. Chances are, you’ve never heard of this forum, but if you work in aviation, that’s where you go to ask for help.

There are many ways to identify the folks you’ll want to reach out to for interviews. By far, the most effective way is to focus on places and platforms that will help you find targeted lists of prospects.

You can use the guide we created on finding early adopters to get started fast.

How to Recruit Early Adopters for Customer Discovery Interviews

So, why would influential business stakeholders want to speak to you?

They have time to kill?
They want to be nice?
Just ’cause you asked?

People are busy enough.

If you’re reaching out to managers, more meetings are generally not what they’re after.

A well-functioning organization will usually have 3 to 5 key priorities.

Depending on the internal structure, those priorities will be funnelled down to directors and vice-presidents. Those VPs and directors will then break down the objectives into tasks that managers and team members will be accountable for executing on.

Now, each person in the company hierarchy will have successes, challenges, and objectives unfolding from those top priorities.

If you’re speaking with stakeholders with the foresight to define their own solutions — early adopters — they’ll want to engage based on the promise of a competitive advantage or a way to solve their problems.

Although there might be a lot of other reasons for them to want to engage, this is the core reason you’ll want to focus on.

Once we know why they should care, and we have a list of 40+ potential early adopters, we’ll want to reach out and get started recruiting interview candidates.

Contacting Early Adopters for Customer Interviews

There are a lot of ways to connect with early adopters. You can call them, which can be fast and effective, you can use social media platforms like Twitter or LinkedIn, you can meet them face-to-face at conferences, or you can use referrals and warm introductions to get to them.

Although each of these approaches have their own advantages, I’m increasingly-convinced that, unless there’s a conference or event coming up, cold emails — direct emails — are the way to go.

Not only do cold emails allow you to target the exact person you want to interview, they also allow you to test and evaluate value-segment fit; how well your pitch resonates with that segment.

You’ll need 4 things to run effective cold email campaigns and get interviews:

  1. A template;
  2. A high-level value proposition;
  3. A lead-in;
  4. The right email addresses.

I’m able to convert 30% of my cold emails into interviews by adapting the following template:

Subject: International growth

Hi Max,

I enjoyed your 2-part series on employee retention. I had tried to find a job with startups in Hong Kong when I was living there and I know it’s not easy.

I’m contacting you because I have a software company trying to improve how businesses expand internationally.

I’m not looking to sell anything but, since you have so much expertise with international growth, I’d love to get your input to make sure we don’t build the wrong thing.

Can I schedule a quick call with you next week? Monday or Tuesday perhaps?

Let me know, thank you.

Etienne

By re-using a proven template, you get to control some of the variables, which allows you to better assess email response (or the lack of response).

You’ll need a value proposition / problem to capture the attention of prospects. What is this about? What are they trying to achieve? What problem do they care about solving?

In the early days, when both the stakeholder and the exact problem won’t be entirely clear, you want to start with a broad problem or opportunity definition like, for example, international growth.

This will let stakeholders imagine a solution if the pain point resonates; it will increase the likelihood that they respond.

I often use the problem space in the subject line of the email, which helps create curiosity.

Since you don’t want your emails to be perceived as junk mail — business stakeholders do get a lot of unsolicited emails — you’ll want to use personalization as a way to stand out in the inbox.

Use their first name, and create a personal connection with a personalized lead-in. This will help establish relationships and capture their attention.

Based on my experience, these are the types of lead-ins that work best, ranked by their effectiveness:

  1. Personal success (job promotion, award, achievement, etc.);
  2. Company news (related to them, their work function or a significant company achievement);
  3. A shared experience, acquaintance, hobby or interest (ideally, not something about work);
  4. Recent posts (on LinkedIn, Medium or on their blog);
  5. Recent LinkedIn or Twitter updates.

You can find this type of information from your prospects’ social media profiles, their company or personal blogs, or by doing a search for them on Google.

You can find email addresses using various tools like Hunter.io and Zoom Info. But by far my favourite is a Gmail plugin called Clearbit Connect. It has some of the most accurate data (97% accuracy according to YesWare research), it’s fast, and it gives you 100 free credits per month.

You just input the domain name of the organization, search for the specific person, and voilà!

Once you have emails, lead ins, a value proposition, and a template, you’re able to put it all together.

You can send the emails manually, or use a cold email platform like MailShake or Woodpecker.

Using a cold email marketing platform will allow you to get stats to monitor and improve your customer recruitment efforts.

I personally use Streak. It allows me to send mass-personalized emails directly from Gmail. Here’s a quick tutorial I created to show how I use Streak.

Once you’re ready, hit send.

The factors that will influence the response rate will be 1) your targeting, 2) how well the problem resonates with the prospects, 3) the template you use, 4) your subject line, 5) your business or personal credibility, and 6) the timing of your message.

You can experiment with many of the variables and see how they affect the number of customer interviews you get.

How to Schedule Customer Interviews

CEOs and executives live in their inboxes.

If you’re contacting them on weekdays, even evenings most times, you’ll be able to see many prospects open your emails.

You’ll usually get the bulk of responses within a weekday or two.

You’ll want to respond fast and make scheduling work on their schedule.

Be appreciative. Offer a few time slots and make it easy for them to respond and book a time.

Although in sales it’s common to do 7 to 10 followups, I wouldn’t recommend doing more than 2–3 followups for customer interviews.

Evaluating the Email Response

I used to think that cold email metrics and response rates were nothing more than that, metrics.

But in the past year, I probably reached out to 1,000+ business stakeholders for customer interviews.

The template I used for most of these reachouts was the email template you just saw.

The only parts that changed from segment to segment were 1) the people I was reaching out to and 2) the value proposition. Yet, the results were completely different from one series to the next.

Often times, the response I got to the emails was actually in line with the interest level I got during the customer interviews.

This is by no means a hard and fast rule, and it’s certainly not statistically significant but, when you have a benchmark for your value proposition or your target audience, these kinds of customer discovery metrics can be useful.

This is the value of controlling the variables with a proven email template.

How Long Does It Take to Schedule Customer Interviews With Early Adopters?

Getting a first feel for a market segment will take at least 15 to 20 interviews. That’s for the purely divergent interview phase.

The more precise the segment and roles, the fewer interviews you’ll need to do to get a clear picture of the pain points and realities.

Assuming a positive response rate of 20%, you’ll need to invite 75 to 100 prospects to get 15 to 20 interview participants.

Should you reach out to 100 people in one go and get it over with?

The short answer is: No.

Since we’re working with hypotheses, and those hypotheses can be proven wrong, doing 15–20 interviews with the wrong people can be a drag.

The shorter your evaluation cycles are, the faster you’ll learn.

To that end, it’s best to start with 40 invites, do 5–8 interviews, evaluate the fit, and re-adjust if need be.

It can go really quickly. You could send invites today and do 8 interviews within a week, no problem.

This will allow you to adjust (or move forward), based on data and interview quality.

If you’re starting out, you also need to take into consideration that some of your interviews won’t generate valid data.

This is, unfortunately, part of the learning process.

Keep at it, and keep looking for the right early adopters for your startup.

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B2B SaaS

B2B / SaaS / Startups

Etienne Garbugli

Written by

Lean B2B Author / Co-Founder of gethighlights.co / World Traveller

B2B SaaS

B2B SaaS

B2B / SaaS / Startups

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