Customer Discovery: How to Find Early Adopters
Maximizing the value of early adopters can help your brand succeed
When former Connecticut Innovations portfolio client Open Solutions was ready to introduce an entirely new server-based computer platform to the banking industry, it faced a challenge common to most startup businesses. Nobody in the market was positioned to take advantage of their products.
In fact, in the highly regulated, risk-adverse banking industry, protocols worked against the Open Solutions product. “Everything at that time was mainframe,” noted Mike Nicastro, then senior vice president and senior marketing officer of Open Solutions. “Our product was not only something no one was using at the time, but regulations cautioned strongly against using untested software.”
However, Open Solutions was fortunate, according to Nicastro. “Simsbury Bank was at the time a startup in the community, and their management had the attitude that if they were going to be a new bank, they couldn’t think like an old bank,” he said. “They found us. They became our early adopter, and overnight, we had a product.”
Pairing up as innovators
Open Solutions and Simsbury Bank worked closely together to continue to develop the product. The benefit to both parties was clear. Open Solutions was able to turn to investors and say, “We’ve got momentum,” and Simsbury Bank could position itself to its customers as a problem solver – a great asset to the banking community.
Finding this type of mutual win is the key to identifying early adopters. Every industry has its “Simsbury Bank.” Such companies like to tout their risk-taking attributes and, when you let them share in your success and allow that success to become their career builder, you’ve got loyalty for life. This is what you want in your early adopters. They are not only your first users. They are potentially your cheerleaders and endorsers for the long term. It’s possible that these early adopters will even become your investors.
Where and who the early adopters are
The challenge to finding these customers isn’t lost on anyone. The scenario that Open Solutions found itself in cannot be counted on, so where do companies with no as-yet-established brand recognition turn to find reputable users of their new products? Peyman Zamani, CEO of LogicBroker Inc., a Connecticut Innovations portfolio company, has this advice: “Use the reputations of your people.”
You have put together an expert team of product developers and executives, and they all have networks. At this point, your company’s greatest asset is most likely in the people who conceived of it. “They have relationships and respect within your industry,” Zamani noted. “Use their contacts.” This will help minimize the extent to which you will have to scour the market landscape just to find one user of your product. Odds are, as a startup, although you have some money to invest in marketing, most of the venture capital is in the product at this point. Tapping personal networks becomes key to finding people who will invest their trust in you.
“This approach got us some good partners, and the industry started to notice us,” Zamani added.
Find the gaps in the market
Ted Russell, vice president of sales and marketing, ZetrOz Inc., another Connecticut Innovations portfolio company and maker of a small, efficient, low-cost, portable/wearable ultrasound system for the treatment of pain in humans and animals, points out that early adopters will be experiencing their own gaps and bottom-line stress. In the case of ZetrOz’s market, the company went after a small portion of the medical community who were not getting reimbursed for all of their services by insurance companies.
“The types of medical practices and healthcare providers we targeted needed something to offer as a point-of-sale item to boost their profitability,” Russell explained. “Our product enabled them to plug that gap and also offer something that distinguished them from their competition.”
When looking to find these types of gaps, here are some considerations:
Look for customers who can find new and unexpected ways to use your product. Early adopters like to guide development, so use this for mutual advantage. In ZetrOz’s case, chiropractors and physical therapists offered the product as part of an overall pain-management system.
Solicit feedback. Open Solutions used Simsbury Bank, its early adopter, to help identify or confirm why the server-based platform offered enhanced security, value and flexibility for end users. Encourage your early adopters to offer ideas on what features could be enhanced or changed to improve the value proposition.
Go after the thought leaders. Every market has its users who drive the conversations about what is needed to address specific challenges. Finding these people as early adopters is a good tactic for growth, establishing your own credibility and getting traction more quickly. These thought leaders can be a great source of promotion.
Be cautious about enlisting “big users.” They are certainly attractive as early adopters, but they also come to the party with big demands. These demands come in the form of specific requirements on your systems, time and production capacities. They also come with a need for special customization or development. This is different from enabling early adapters to help you enhance your product. Unless you are targeting a niche market, you don’t want to get into the custom-design business too early.
Some additional tactics
Although most startup cash flow is invested in development, it is wise to reserve some for marketing, even in this earliest phase. Raising capital is traditionally focused only on the product, but underestimating the need to build marketing firepower to sell the product can be the difference between concept and having an actual company.
Having said that, here are some tactics for boosting your visibility among early adopters:
Look for flatter organizations
Companies with strong hierarchies often protect their decision makers. You want to find the companies whose leadership team is close to their day-to-day operations and their markets, where decisions are made quickly and with minimal bureaucracy. This gives you an entree to sell a holistic solution readily.
Launch a launch page
You can’t do anything in today’s market without having an online presence. But this presence goes beyond your company website. Set up a launch page for your product that has the capability to “go viral.” Social media can make your product a household name. The landing page should contain details such as your company name and email, and it should generate a URL for the user to share among his or her social community. Consider including a free gift or coupon, depending on your product, for the most active referrer.
Introduce yourself to bloggers
Getting attention through traditional media channels can be especially challenging as news organizations continue to downsize and streamline their newsrooms. As an offset to this reality, bloggers have taken on an increased and more influential role. Use this to your advantage. Contact bloggers and give them early inside access to your company and its development activities. Bloggers often follow trends and issues based on their own interests, so be sure to identify who is who within your market sphere of concern.
Attend trade shows
You can pitch early adopters at trade shows as you build visibility for your brand. Everyone who comes through the door at a trade show, including other exhibitors, is a potential early adopter.
NOTE: Special thanks to those who shared their insights for this article:
- Mike Nicastro, Senior Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer, COCC
- Ted Russell, Vice President of Sales and Marketing, ZetrOz Inc.
- Peyman Zamani, Chief Executive Officer, LogicBroker Inc.