How to Find Early Advocates for Your B2B Startup

Early adopters are great for opinions, but they’re lousy for growth.

The best early adopters are also advocates or champions for your startup (“earlyvangelists” in the words of Steve Blank).

Advocates want to be first using a product and they like to brag about their discoveries. They’re in a position to benefit from fresh innovation and have the visibility and influence to bring your solution to attention.

Working with the right early advocates can substantially reduce the effort needed to sign your first customers, get case studies and convince other companies to follow.

Here’s how to find the influencers among early adopters:

At this point, if you’ve been doing your research properly you should have 50, 100 or more early adopters on a list and this list should look a bit like this:


Example of a list of early adopters

Since you’re looking for early adopters with the potential to become evangelists, you’ll separate the prospects that are setting the trends from the ones that follow them.

There are two aspects to this:

  1. Personal influence — how many people can this early adopter influence?
  2. Company (or employer) influence — how many companies can be influenced by a case study from their employer?

For each early adopter on your list, you’ll look at:

  • The number of followers they have on Twitter;
  • The number of followers of their followers on Twitter;
  • The number of contacts they have on LinkedIn;
  • The rank, role and network size of their contacts on LinkedIn;
  • Their activity level in groups on LinkedIn;
  • The number of articles or publications they have;
  • The number of talks they gave (# of SlideShare presentations);
  • The number of blog posts they’ve written;
  • The popularity of their blog (comments, shares, etc.);
  • Their visibility on search engines (# of links on Google);
  • The number of times other people have quoted them (e.g., Google search “James McCarron”);
  • Their Klout score;
  • The word-of-mouth in the industry; etc.

Although Klout scores are not a perfect measure of social influence, they capture a lot of these metrics for a fast assessment.

You’ll assign a grade from 1 to 5 to your early adopters, ranking them by their personal influence level. The more reach, visibility and references your prospects have, the higher their grade should be.

You’ll also highlight the most influential companies on the list. The actual grading is not as important as the priorities you assign to your prospects.


Example of a prioritized list of early adopters

Armed with your prioritized list of early advocates, you’ll be able to focus on recruiting from the right companies for problem interviews and get the right influencers to work with you.

How to Go From Targeting a Market to Finding the Buyers

Startups are often selling too low… they get to people who live the pain they solve, get lots of feedback, but the people they try to sell to don’t understand the needs of the whole department and don’t end up buying. Try to target top down or middle out.Jeff Ernst, SlapFive Co-Founder and CEO

Target markets are good, but they don’t tell you whom you should speak with first.

Even if it remains just a hypothesis, you must narrow down the kind of customers or buyers you want by defining an ideal customer profile; you can’t just talk to anybody in the organization.

You have to identify the customers you’d like to sell to, approach them and take it from there.

The ideal customer is someone that:

  • Has a problem;
  • Is aware of the existence of the problem;
  • Has already tried to solve the problem;
  • Is unhappy with the current solution to the problem;
  • Has a budget to get the problem fixed.

But, how do you find your ideal customers?

Steve Jobs famously said that people don’t know what they want until you show it to them. But, if no one knew what they wanted until others started using it, how would new solutions get traction in the first place?

In 1991, Geoffrey Moore’s Crossing the Chasm introduced marketers to the five customer groups that constitute any market. Although Steve Jobs was right in saying that most customers won’t know what they want until it becomes popular, two of these groups will.

Crossing the Chasm

Early adopters and innovators know what they’re looking for. They can see the value in an incomplete solution and have the potential to help you find product opportunities in the enterprise.

As leaders, early adopters have a great understanding of the technology landscape both inside and outside of their company. They also have a higher tolerance for risk and a greater ability to see the potential of new technology than most of their colleagues.

Working with the right early adopters can substantially reduce the effort needed to sign your first customers, get case studies and convince other companies to follow.

This is why early adopters are your first lead into finding the buyers in an organization.

How To Contact Early Adopters For Customer Development Interviews

Customers don’t care about your solution. They care about their problems.Dave McClure, 500 Startups Founding Partner and Investor

As you prepare to engage with early adopters to validate your target market, it’s important to remember that you need their help and, not the reverse.

To be successful, keep in mind that:

  • It’s about them – You need to speak to their ego and make them feel smart and esteemed. It’s about their expertise and interests and it’s on their terms.
  • Their time is important – It has to sound like it’s a short meeting. Twenty minutes means half an hour and 30-40 minutes means an hour.
  • You’re not selling – You have to build a relationship before you attempt to sell anything. Think how much you like receiving cold emails from random companies…
  • It’s not for them – You’re solving the problem for other members of the industry, not directly for them. It also has to be clear from the start that you’re not in the business of creating custom solutions.

At the time of reach out, early adopters will do some kind of background check on you as a person and your company.

If you haven’t done so already, you should build a smoke screen site or a landing page that contains, at a minimum, your value proposition and a way to get in touch with you.

Sophisticated landing page tools like Unbounce and LaunchRock have options to capture email addresses, manage social sharing and score referrals, but at this point, a simple landing page should do.

If you have professional and personal social media accounts (you should) on LinkedIn, Twitter or other websites, you should also make sure that they are up to date.

The critical thing is to make sure that the story, profile and messaging you tell early adopters is consistent with what can be found online.

Why Research Matters in B2B Customer Development

For any of the markets your startup will explore, you’ll need to do enough preliminary research to 1) figure out whether the opportunity is worth pursuing and 2) be able to have engaging discussions with the people working in the industry.

Your objective is to avoid one of these quick dismissals when contacting prospects:

  • This has never been a problem for us (problem is too specific).
  • We don’t need to do that (company doesn’t fit the identified process or doesn’t exist).
  • You don’t know ABC Inc.? They do just that (comparatives and competitive landscape not understood).
  • With the current freeze on expenditures, we don’t have the budget for new technology (timing and company reality not understood).

These dismissals are the signs of insufficient research, or that the problem you’re trying to address doesn’t exist.

With LinkedIn, Twitter, industry-specific databases and analysts at your disposal, doing a minimum of research on a prospect’s market is expected.

Markets can be understood from the outside in three ways:

  1. Reading up on secondary research (e.g., surveys, reports, etc.)
  2. Understanding the competitive landscape (who does what)
  3. Meeting with third-party analysts (Venture Capitalists and industry analysts )

Do your research or you might never get a chance to truly validate (or in-validate) the market you’re exploring. You need to get through the door first if you are to succeed.

What to Expect From Cold Calling (or Cold Emailing) in B2B

Cold call efficiency has dramatically decreased over the years. Nowadays, with the increasing drive to inbound marketing, cold calling has a 1 in 10 or 1 in 20 success rate with cold emailing getting similar results.

The more proximity and influence you have when contacting prospects, the higher the likelihood you will get an appointment. Great references beat fast fingers.

It’s not because you don’t know the person that you have to cold call them. There’s always a connection to make. Going through five people to connect with a prospect is better than selling directly to them.

Some of the entrepreneurs interviewed for Lean B2B recommend paying for early adopters’ time. This approach certainly leads to a higher response rate and is respectful of people’s time, but engaging prospects as consultants doesn’t establish the same kind of relationships with prospects. Getting early adopters to help you for free is validation in itself.

As a rule of thumb, you should be spending more time researching prospects than doing actual calls or sending messages. The early phase is about understanding early adopters, not blasting people with emails.

How to Leverage Your Personal Network to Find Early Adopters

It’s important to know where you want to go and build a network in this direction. – Martin Huard, Admetric Co-Founder and CEO

Your personal network can help you gain credibility with early adopters.

Contacts are in no way a replacement for having personal credibility — you will eventually need to interact with prospects — but convincing people who have influence over your prospects to make an introduction can give you social proof.

LinkedIn is a great tool to find out how prospects are connected with your current connections. It can also help you understand which connections would be best suited to make an introduction.

The best introductions always come from the people who have the most influence over your prospects.

This influence can be a mix of:

  • Fame – Is this person a known influencer or a well-respected figure?
  • Power – Was this person ever the manager of your prospect?
  • Longevity – How long have they known each other?
  • Proximity – Do they play golf together? Do they have many mutual acquaintances? Do they interact frequently?
  • Trust – Do I trust that this person has my best intention at heart?

The more influence your contact has over the people you want to reach, the higher the likelihood that that person will agree to meet with you.

It’s not a wasted effort if your contacts can’t help directly. The momentum you’ll create by telling everyone the type of profile you’re looking for will create new opportunities. People are generally willing to help.

Time to get the reach-outs cranking!

Why Selecting the Right Early Adopters is Key for Startup Founders

If you can’t find early adopters, you can’t build a business.Trevor Owens, Lean Startup Machine CEO

Marketing has traditionally been concerned with demographics — quantifiable and measurable statistics of a given population — like gender, age, ethnicity, knowledge of languages, income, employment status, etc, but these broad categorizations make it difficult to target customers.

Do all mid-sized insurance companies’ marketing departments have the same needs?

In the last decade, marketing research has evolved towards psychographic targeting (activities, interests, opinions, attitudes, values, behaviours). Combined with demographic data, psychographics are a much more precise way to look at prospect profiles.

Early adopters are a sub-group of your target market. To be able to choose the appropriate people to engage with, you need to create an ideal customer profile.

Looking at the five to ten most influential early adopters on your prospect list (assuming you have one), what do you find they have in common?

  • Are more of them male or female?
  • What is their typical job title?
  • What is their common academic background?
  • What interest groups do they share?
  • What are some of the content they enjoy?
  • What are some of the goals they have in common?
  • What is their common approach to social media?
  • How often do they publish quality content?

This information is the basis for the creation of your ideal customer profile.

Looking back at your list, if you’re unable to find a lot of early adopters for your ideal customer profile in your target market, you might have to do one of two things:

  1. Revise your ideal customer profile. Make sure you’re not being too restrictive.
  2. Reconsider the target market. Was it segmented properly? Is it of sufficient size?

Early adopters have a significant role to play in the beginnings of your company. It’s essential to carefully select the voices your team listens to.

You may wish to start with a broad group of early adopters to get a full understanding of the opportunities and needs of your target market, but you’ll soon need to focus on the voices that matter most.

Early adopters are a necessary step on the way to convincing the pragmatist customers your company needs to sign on. Your early adopter customers should be companies that help you get references to sell to your ultimate target market.

Be sure to use the right kind of customer success stories for your case studies when you start selling to pragmatist customers. Landing just about any kind of customers is self-defeating.