What is the Right Sizing for Early Adopters?

It's a lot bigger than you probably think.

It’s easy to see the perils of going too broad with a new product: When you try to market to everyone, you reach no one. This is why the customer segment box on the Lean Canvas is further broken into an Early Adopter segment.

Early adopters represent a sub-segment of your larger addressable market that are more motivated to use your product if it promises to get them closer to their desired outcomes.

Even Facebook, now with nearly 3 billion monthly active users, started with a very specific user in mind: Harvard University students.

But can you go too narrow on early adopters?

That’s the topic for today.

Your ideal early adopter segment needs to be a lot bigger than most founders think.

When most founders think of early adopters, they think of starting with friends, “friendly customers,” or a niche market. However, this often falls short of the ideal early adopter segment sizing.

Here’s why:

1. The 16% Innovators + Early Adopter Rule

Your early adopter segment should ideally be roughly 16% of your overall customer segment (your total addressable market). This number comes from the diffusion of innovations theory, popularized by Everett Rogers in his book of the same title.

The diffusion of innovations theory explains how and why new ideas spread, from innovators and early adopters to the early majority, the late majority, and finally, the laggards.

2. Avoid crossing the chasm too early

Most founders run out of early adopters quickly, but you should ideally be able to get to product/market fit with your early adopter segment. Why is that? To avoid crossing the chasm too early.

How you position your product changes with each group of adopters (visualized as breaks or gaps in the figure). According to Geoffrey Moore, the biggest gap is between early adopters and the early majority, which he identified as a chasm big enough to derail a startup in his groundbreaking book Crossing the Chasm.

This is because early adopters (and visionaries) have above-average motivation to be first. However, the marketing strategies that win over this group won’t work as well for the next group—the early majority—because they tend to be pragmatists and are risk-averse.

This is why you should ideally aim to get to product/market fit using your early adopter segment alone.

3. The 2-year Product/Market Fit Rule

Most products typically take two years to get to Product/Market Fit. And so, it follows that your early adopter segment should be big enough to last at least that long.

Putting it all together

We can superimpose the customer segment bell curve with the hockey-stick curve to visualize these three insights as:

Your ideal early adopter segment should

  • roughly represent 16% of your total addressable market,
  • get you to product/market fit, which is approximately a two-year journey,
  • leaving 84% of the market, roughly 6x growth potential before optimization.

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