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Are Web 2.0 startups wasting their time with Web 2.0 early adopters?

Cookie cutter go-to-market strategies

I run into a lot of startups that have identical strategies for getting to market. When you talk to them, a lot of them will talk about the same questions:

  1. When are you launching?
  2. What do you do to get on Techcrunch/Venturebeat/DEMO/etc.?
  3. How do you think Twitter/Friendfeed/etc got their successful launches?

I think there are some big assumptions that go into the questions above, which we’ll discuss in this post. But let me first show you a very famous diagram.

The traditional “Crossing the Chasm” curve

The “technology adoption” curve above was popularized by Geoffrey Moore’s Crossing the Chasm book, and mostly deals with enterprise software. (I had the pleasure of spending some time with him while I was at Mohr Davidow, where he is a venture partner)

People often have the same image in their minds when thinking about go-to-market strategies for consumer internet as well. The general idea is to go through the typical flow:

  1. Get a bunch of early adopters (aka Techcrunch readers) excited about your product
  2. They blog, twitter, and promote your product to their friends
  3. Eventually this process will reach the mainstream and you’ll get the wider market

I also want to bring up the definition used by Moore to describe a market, which is a bunch of folks that reference each other when making purchasing decisions. In this case, it’s the bloggers and alpha nerds that are the market.

But what if this is NOT the starting point for your market? Who are the other early adopters and visionaries?

Redefining enthusiasts and visionaries
The major point I will make here is that Techcrunch and related blogs reach an audience of early adopters, but these may not be the earlier adopters that you want. After all, what’s the point of launching a music startup on Techcrunch, for example, if your startup is primarily for the teen mass market?

I want to point out a great article posted by Malcolm Gladwell (of Tipping Point) years ago, called The Coolhunt, which you can read here. The article discusses the emergence of bottoms-up “cool:”

Once, when fashion trends were set by the big couture houses-when cool
was trickle- down-that wasn’t important. But sometime in the past few
decades things got turned over, and fashion became trickle-up. It’s now
about chase and flight-designers and retailers and the mass consumer
giving chase to the elusive prey of street cool-and the rise of
coolhunting as a profession shows how serious the chase has become. The
sneakers of Nike and Reebok used to come out yearly. Now a new style
comes out every season. Apparel designers used to have an
eighteen-month lead time between concept and sale. Now they’re reducing
that to a year, or even six months, in order to react faster to new
ideas from the street. The paradox, of course, is that the better
coolhunters become at bringing the mainstream close to the cutting
edge, the more elusive the cutting edge becomes. This is the first rule
of the cool: The quicker the chase, the quicker the flight. The act of
discovering what’s cool is what causes cool to move on, which explains
the triumphant circularity of coolhunting

Where Gladwell uses the term “cool,” the people in the technology industry use the phrase “early adopter.” Within every target market, no matter how mainstream, there are early adopters or “cool” people who are more likely to uptake these new products and have friends reference them for decisions.

Where are your “real” early adopters?
And thus as a corollary, if your market is moms, there are cool moms that are likely to try out the new technology. And if your market is Asian immigrants, there are cool members of that group who are trying out new technology.

My point is simply this:

In 99% of all cases, the Techcrunch early adopter crowd is probably NOT the ideal early adopter crowd to go after – your target market lives somewhere else

The exceptions I’ll make to this are B2B tech startups like Gnip, or companies primarily trying to target VCs in their announcements.

So where are your early adopters you want to be going after? I don’t know, but that’s the kind of research that you should be doing to create a compelling, differentiated go-to-market strategy that anything but cookie cutter.

One last thing to think about… where did LOLcats and the FAIL meme start? Start by reading about 4chan. Also check out SomethingAwful, Genmay, Encyclopedia Dramatica, and all the other sites that expose some of the darkest underbellies of the internet ;-) Between these sites, Yahoo Groups, IRC, and other old-school communications platforms, I’m guessing a large number of internet memes are generated there by early adopters of some kind.

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