Early Adopters are the new Early Majority

by Ryan Kulp
March 27, 2018

Geoffrey Moore’s Crossing the Chasm, published in 1991, says companies must follow a set of natural laws to survive and thrive in today's high tech economy.

Namely, that 5 customer cohorts resemble a bell curve of relative buying power, and that this trend applies to every market vertical.

Enter the Chasm

First there are the innovators. This is a tiny group of “nerds” who live and breathe new technologies. They don’t care if it’s broken, and they’re happy to report or even debug critical product deficiencies.

Next come early adopters, who expect a slightly more polished product but still submit BETA applications on “coming soon” landing pages.

The 3 groups that follow are self-explanatory: early majority are teenagers with iPhones, late majority are moms with iPhones, and laggards are grandparents who bought a used iPhone 5c.

This is the world as Moore describes it.

Tipping Point

What’s happened in the last 27 years, however, has been an explosion of the early adopter segment thanks to tech publications, increased technical savviness in the median consumer, and a rising culture of “cool” correlated with in-the-know, aka buggy, inferior, complicated products.

Tech Publications

In the 1990’s, knowing which gadgets were coming required a physical subscription to Wired:

You probably paid annually for the membership, making spontaneous piques of interest rare or at least, inconvenient.

Nowadays television shows like Silicon Valley, publications like TechCrunch, and dozens of researched pundits are in your Twitter feed whether you want them there or not.

Tech, product, and marketing news isn’t even a cheap commodity, it's free. In 2018, staying out of the loop is what costs extra.

Savvy Consumers

Remember when parents thought you were a genius because you fixed the WiFi by toggling IPv4 and IPv6 checkboxes, not quite understanding how it worked?

Today, 13 year olds are jailbreaking iPads and discovering hidden features on Snapchat. They're hacking attendance records in grade school.

Do we really think consumers are afraid of products for being rough around the edges?

Product flaws have created the opportunity to stroke one's ego by subordinating friends without the same courage to try something new.

Bleeding Edge Culture

If you bought a new copy of Microsoft Office in 2008, inevitably there would be bugs and crashes. It could take hours, if not days or weeks, for a patch to be shipped to your machine.

But we don’t “do” disc installation anymore. With everyday tools now in the cloud, iterating and bug fixing is ongoing, 24/7.

Consider how often the following companies ship to production:

  • Amazon → deploys every 11.7 seconds
  • Etsy → 50 deploys / day
  • Sony → improved integration cycles from months to minutes
  • Netflix → 500 deploys / day

Not only are we (consumers) OK with broken products, we expect it. And this isn’t specific to software, either.

In retail, brick and mortars’ advantage is the “see it, touch it, get it now” consumer preference. But while buying online might be less expensive, not all consumers care about price. Hence: Warby Parker sends you 6 pairs to try, and Zappos includes 2 sizes with a free return label.

Wider technologies like Prime Now further eliminate consumer fear of making mistakes, arguably encouraging haphazard buying behaviors. Measure once, cut twice.

Bottom Line

The archetypal Silicon Valley SaaS company can grow to single digit millions per year in revenue selling exclusively to their neighbors in SoMa.

To test this, examine the growing block of successful companies building what we call “developer tools.”

Only 1 out of every 100 United States residents is a developer, yet the valuations of Rapid API, HackerOne, Docker, and a dozen other providers exceeds 100s of millions of dollars. That’s a few million dollars in software equity per developer, for solutions to problems that less than 1% of the population experiences.

In other words, we can ignore Moore’s urge of multilingual websites; Coca-Cola style print ads for each sub-culture; Privacy Policies with amendments for EU laws. Today, “going global” to reach your early majority is more a preference than a necessity.

This means two things for budding tech entrepreneurs:

  1. As Moore warns us, don’t skip to Early Majority until you nail the Early Adopters
  2. Early Adopters may be all you ever need