There is an art to nurturing early adopters. These people bring a unique mix of intrigue, patience and forgiveness to new products. And their motivation ranges from supporting a friend or underdog to basking in the glory of being the first to discover, use or share a new product.

Early adopters are essential to demonstrating early traction. They are also often to first to deliver detailed feedback that helps shape product roadmaps seen in seed phase pitch decks.

The reality is that startups fall into two camps when it comes to early adopters.

There are those who genuinely nurture early adopters and those who, well, pay them lip service. And it’s easy to tell which startup is which.

If you have ever been on the receiving end of an email from a startup which starts with something like ‘it’s been a while since our last update, we’ve been heads down working on product…’

This is a lip service email.

I have sent those emails and I don’t anymore because they are a cop out.

It might be true that a team has been busy working on product and everything else that needs to get done. But it also suggests they are disorganised and don’t value the investment early adopters make in signing up to support their journey.

In contrast, look at startups that nurture their early adopters. They create community, trust and a sense of ownership and evangelism, all of which are key ingredients to growth.

How they achieve this level of buy-in is based on a simple algorithm designed to nurture.

Its implementation takes a little effort but the payoff can be enormous. I say ‘can be’ because while the underlying product or business model may not resonate or hit the mark, the voice of early adopters may help the founders realise that there isn’t a there, there. As a result, they can kill the idea quickly and move onto the next idea. Without that input, startups are likely to miss these important cues and keep drinking their own Kool-Aid until they run out of cash.

Of course, if the Kool-Aid is flowing thick and fast there is a good chance that excuses for not engaging with early adopters will also be in large supply.

Objections or excuses?

One or a mix of these objections usually gets raised when starts ups fall off the early adopter nurturing wagon.

  • We don’t know what to say because we don’t know what’s next and don’t want to appear vulnerable or miss delivering on expectations
  • Early adopters don’t have time for what we’re sharing
  • We can’t commit to a schedule of communications
  • Competitors might have signed up and were worried about giving away trade secrets or momentum
  • There’s only so much value an early adopter will or could bring to product development
  • We haven’t communicated with our community in a while so why start again now

Each of the excuses above has one thing in common. They demonstrate how insular the company is thinking. And I’m willing to bet there is a strong correlation between the speed at which a company learns and how well they nurture and engage with early adopters.

Whenever I hear these excuses I say this: First, early adopters wouldn’t have signed up for your mailing list or backed you on Kickstarter if they weren’t interested. Until they tell you differently, they are invested in your journey.

Second, early adopters have supplied you with their attention for free. At the very least, and to create an exchange of value to grow the relationship, you need to demonstrate that their investment was worth it.

Third, early adopters can help you solve problems. There are very few people who will step up to help solve problems when you are a young company. Apart from your team, family and investors (if you have them), who else are you going to ask for help?

Finally, if you are worried about the competition learning about your progress from a regular email update, you are worried about the wrong things. The way that one startup defines and solves a problem is usually very different to another. In any case, you are in motion on your business model and regular updates to early adopters don’t include a startup’s secret sauce.

The nurture algorithm

Nurturing early adopters and trust share a similar foundation. They require consistency over time. And in the universe of factors that startups cannot control, the consistency with which they engage with early adopters IS one they can control.

The nurture algorithm I use involves seven components.

  1. Habit – Updates are sent using a precise and regular tempo, a bit like how this post arrives every Sunday at 0800 AEDST. This develops an expectation and habit in early adopters’ minds. This step alone is remarkable i.e. people will talk and refer to people who are consistent because it is often hard to find companies (and people) who maintain a tempo and consistently deliver.
  2. Humour – Updates are clever and/or don’t take themselves too seriously. They understand an early adopter’s life isn’t solely focused on their product and use humour to reacquaint people with their product or circuit-break and awkward or unexpected turn of events.
  3. How to use – Updates overtly remind early adopters on how to use a product. This is not only useful to remind people to restart using their product but also reinforces the startups understanding that their product may only play a small part in the early adopter’s life.
  4. Today – Updates highlight features or products that have been released and what they are designed to accomplish
  5. Lessons – Updates reflect on what’s been learned since the last update. This may include lessons gleaned from other early adopters, changes that have happened in the industry or lessons that have been uncovered from history that affect the startup
  6. Tomorrow – Updates note what’s coming and provide early adopters with an inkling of what’s to come (even when the startup isn’t 100% sure it will be delivered)
  7. Help – Updates make a specific ask (e.g. give us your opinion on a feature) alongside the request to share the product with one other person.

Scaling the nurture algorithm

I think about deploying this algorithm in two ways. In other words, I think about what’s scalable and not scalable when communicating with early adopters. Email is scalable. Having a phone call or face to face meeting with every early adopter may not be.

However, these options are not mutually exclusive. You can do or be ready for all of these options. It comes down to how you think this community will want to engage.

A large proportion will be happy to read and respond via email. Some will relish phone conversation or a Zoom meeting.

As a founder, I think it’s essential that we crave engagement through whichever channel an early adopter, user, customer or partner wishes to connect. So while email is scalable and you will often see the founder’s personal email addresses on an update, it is very important that we also make time to call and meet community members or ask that they send us a voice or video messages which we commit to responding to. It’s the only way to get rich insight.

Case in point – Seneca

The reason for writing about nurturing early adopters is that I recently received an update from a venture I have an interest in. It caught me by surprise because the update captured nearly all of the nurture algorithms components. The company is called Seneca and here is a link to the update.

One last thing…

When nurtured, early adopters are the ones who help you develop momentum, raise capital, hire great people and scale. Recently I wrote about how, as a startup, love is all you need. I was talking about the value that early adopters can create but I didn’t talk about how.

Think about early adopters as highly valuable people. Think about the nurture algorithm as an investment in unlocking that value and as a way of saying thanks to people who didn’t need to back you, but did.