Man looks at wall with spreadsheets and charts. How do you find early adopters?

Successful SaaS business models rely on rinse-and-repeat customer acquisition with modular services that can be scaled cost effectively. However, before you scale from 1 to N, you have go from 0 to 1. You need early adopters to prove your concept.

At Talkative, we’ve learnt a lot of lessons while acquiring early adopters. While this post is focused on B2B selling, the principles transfer across to B2C SaaS.

One of the most important buying considerations for B2B customers is customer references. “Who else is using this?”. The rational explanation for this question is that customers want to understand how your service benefits similar companies. People want to be assured that your solution is proven in the real world.

Another explanation is that people within businesses tend to be herd-like, and look to external cues to dictate their own buying decisions. If a customer hasn’t heard of you, they want to see success stories with your other customers. People can be reluctant to take a risk on an unproven quantity. As the old saying goes, nobody gets fired for buying from IBM.

B2B sales is complex because of this human element, so having early adopters to reference is critical for scaling up sales.

The paradox lies in that you first need to recruit customers, without having reference customers.

Finding early adopters is both important and difficult for this reason, and requires effort and hustle.

Narrow Down Suitable Early Adopters
The customer should have an urgent need for whatever problem your SaaS product is uniquely placed to solve. A new startup company, should provide something new and different to the market. Refine this unique value proposition until you can describe it in a single sentence. Which companies would benefit most from this? Which companies have the highest propensity to spend? What is the easiest way to get these companies up and running? You should be able to write down the names of the 20 companies that would most benefit from your service. Peter Thiel states that every successful company should be a monopoly in their market. For startups, his advice is to dominate a small market first. What small set of customers can you uniquely benefit?

Prospect
Get in front of your ideal customers. Email, phone, social media, advertising, and forums are all valid ways of getting in contact with customers. However, nothing beats face to face. Make a human connection with your early adopters. Set up meetings, meet people at conferences, or get referrals. Be proactive, hustle, and do whatever it takes to get your service in front of customers. At Talkative we’ve relied on email and phone outreach to set up in-person demonstrations with companies we truly believe can benefit from our service. While having an online presence is vital, in the early stages it is important to meet customers. Similarly for B2C offerings, meet your target users, show them your service, and get personal.

Do Things That Don’t Scale
It probably isn’t cost effective to spend a day travelling across the country to meet just one customer. But cost of customer acquisition is not important at this stage. Airbnb’s founders famously photographed their user’s apartments. Paypal gave early members $20 just for signing up. Going from 10 to 100 customers requires different strategies and tactics from going from 100,000 to a million. What takes you from 0 to 1 may not appear to be cost effective, but there is no greater cost than not getting a core early set of early users.

Handle Objections
You should never lie to a customer. However, it may be in your interest to not overly promote the fact that you are small, new startup to large, enterprise customers.

If you present professionally, and handle objections well, and your product solves a real customer problem, a company may not even ask about customer references.

However, most companies will ask. Acknowledge the fact that you are a startup, and use this as a positive:

“I agree that it would help you to see reference customers. Because our service is new to the market, and can uniquely solve your problem, we are still onboarding our first customers. Being an early adopter, we will support you with far better service than you would get from with a large company. Being the first to adopt this product will help give you an edge over your competitors.”

If this does not suffice, try to find out if there is a real objection underlying this question. Below are just a few examples of things you can say to the customer to help them overcome their objection.

“We’ve extensively stress tested the service at scale, and we include an SLA that guarantees availability, or your money back.”

“The advantage of being an early adopter is that you can help dictate the product direction.”

“You qualify for discounted early adopter pricing for the first 6 months using our service.”

Early customer feedback will help you better understand your customers, and give you invaluable insight into how to better position your product, so the more contact you have with early adopters, the better. You must remember it’s a numbers game. Not even the best products have a 100% conversion rate. Persistence is the key.

Once you have early adopters, the next step is to scale up. Geoffrey Moore’s seminal work is required reading for all those that want to Cross the Chasm from early adopters to mass adoption.

About the Author: 
Felix Winstone is a co-founder at Talkative, a leading provider of website conversion tools. Cobrowsing and website calling allows companies to communicate with customers within their websites.