Early adopters and Silicon Valley are the easy way to failure

I’ve been wondering about the way many of the new startups in Silicon Valley (and other parts of the world) seem to be executing the same roll out scheme. A typical startup probably writes code, creates a Beta for invites only (wasn’t that just called an alpha version in the pre-web 2.0 days?), then gets into contact with all A-list tech bloggers that matter using some PR agency to get the buzz going. With any luck a few will actually write about the startup and their service which will lead to a spike in visitors count. And after that? Silence.

I’m guessing that well over 50% doesn’t even make the first round of A-list bloggers, but the ones that do are pretty soon forgotten again. Life goes on. The tech community moves on another bandwagon and the startup is left to try and keep this attention cycle going.

In my opinion this is pretty much a fail scenario. The startup fails because it went to build a cool tech solution for a problem that didn’t really exist. They get a gang of early adapters on their service which gives them the attention they think they need. It leads to traffic and usage spikes that gives everyone a feeling they’re on a roll. It leads to service improvements to fit the needs of the savvy social media early adapter and pretty soon the new service not only solves a problem that didn’t exist, but it comes with a ton of extra cool features no one was really waiting for.

This is fine if your market is the tech early adopter crowd. You can make an honest living doing just that. But that’s obviously not the case for most startups. They want to rule the world, just like Google or Facebook did before them.

What happens next is predictable. The startup gets caught in what I referred earlier to as the Silicon Valley Vacuum. The startup gets trapped within the boundaries of that vacuum, boundaries set by eager investors who demand more success after the initial tech hype, and a useless service optimized for one type of early adopter that only exists within this vacuum. Moore calls this crossing the chasm, I feel it’s in most cases a recipe for disaster. When I wrote abut this vacuum, Robert Scoble replied with a post called Early Adopter Angst. His main point was that you will always need early adopters. True enough, I believe that too, but my point is that the early adopter you really need just isn’t isn’t always located in Silicon Valley.

The temptations for such a scenario are high. You get to be a start (for a day), attention from all the major tech blogs, the A-list blogging crowd, and with a bit of luck even your first 25-50K users.

Do you see the problem with this scenario? There isn’t a single mainstream user problem or value being addressed. It is the path of the quick win, the easy fix. The Silicon Valley approach comes with a pre-defined recipe, no need to think. It’s a shortcut to success and getting out there.

Unfortunately Silicon Valley isn’t the end goal for most startups. By taking the shortcut they deprive themselves from the hard work and thinking that is needed to enter any mainstream market. It isn’t difficult to get this industry to pay attention to a cool new tech service, as it is precisely what this industry gets paid to do. But it provides you with a false sense of security. What is really difficult is to understand the mainstream market you are trying to address and to convince your mainstream target users to give your service a try. These are your true early adopters.

You are better off with early adopters that aren’t asking for cool new features, but instead tell you about their experience to try and integrate your service into their daily patterns. Going mainstream or crossing the chasm isn’t about the best set of features, it’s about providing the user value, as simple as possible.

There are no shortcuts, there isn’t an oiled PR machine that will get you there. The web might have brought us technology that makes it dead simple to start a new company. But being an great entrepreneur hasn’t become any easier just because there is all this cool technology. It’s hard work and a whole lot of luck that gets you there in the end.  And in my opinion it is best to stay far away from Silicon Valley and the tech early adopters. For the first round, go to your mainstream audience and get yourself some early adopters there. They are much harder to find, less tech savvy, but they are out there. Develop the service with them and then you can always visit Silicon Valley and claim victory after you have created a service that mainstream users actually want. It might sound crazy to do, it might take longer than expected, but it’s a better strategy in the long run. Maybe that’s what makes Meeboo the most underhyped Silicon Valley Success according to Robert Scoble.

Early adopters can make or break a new service. I guess it comes down to finding the right early adopters to be successful. Be careful for the early adopters in Silicon Valley. They may be the easy way to failure.

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26 Responses to Early adopters and Silicon Valley are the easy way to failure

  1. Louis Gray says:

    The Silicon Valley mantra is that 9 of 10 startups will fail. It’s an accepted way of life. It’s also part of what happens when you take risks. When you take great risk, you can get great reward. The process of reaching out to early adopters is essential for technology products especially, who can help be your extended QA team, extended Marketing team, etc. before taking it to those who need customer references

  2. Meryn Stol says:

    “the early adopter you really need just isn’t located in Silicon Valley.”

    That’s is a wonderful quote, Alexander. It might go into the books. :)

  3. @Meryn that or I could be sent away tarred and feathered by an angry Silicon Valley early adopter mob ;-)

  4. @Louis, we agree on that. 9/10 will fail and early adopters are needed. But imo viewing all early adopters as equal is wrong. The early adopter scene in and around Silicon valley is very tech oriented. For example, Robert Scoble is the best you can get. But he is much more tech focused than myself in comparison. There are also many early adopters out there that are more user-focused. You need to select your early adopters with care. Once you are sucked into the Silicon Valley Vacuum it is extremely hard to break out again ;-)

  5. Meryn Stol says:

    @Alexander That’s why we’re strategically located a big land mass and an ocean away, no? ;)

  6. Romain says:

    “If you have to crash your company, do it fast”. The Silicon Valley is well sized to help you crash test your products. But before entering the game, be sure to be ready to battle. Otherwise, yes you may kill your product. And another one would take it and make it great, if it has what’s needed to become the next big thing.

  7. @Romain, true enough. But you could just as easily crash test it on your target audience, or at least 100 miles away from Silicon Valley ;-)
    I believe it is fine to let tech people evaluate a startup. But it would be better if it was balanced out by non-tech people that have a totally different view on what that product ought to do.

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  9. Benedikt says:

    Alexander, I guess that Silicon Valley early adopters can be just fine when it comes to a product that doesn’t need to cross the chasm. Early adopters must understand what the product is about and there are products that are solutions to problems that only arise in Silicon Valley. I elaborated a bit on this theme in my blog: http://blog.metaroll.com/2008/08/05/social-media-bubble-or-real-life/

  10. Alexander – Early adopters are a free and intelligent community for acid testing your start-up. I’ve been part of the community for years (with a few payoffs) and I’m not in the Valley or the ‘Alley’

  11. @Charlie good point. It was a bit of a figure of speech if you will to use Silicon Valley. It’s obviously a bit broader than just the location. But my point is relating more to the notion that even early adopters come in different types. I wrote a comment of Friendfeed just now that said: In my own experience, both startup and corporate, if your development cycle is driven by the early adopter crowd, then it is really important to get this right. Technologically driven early adopters for example are often (not always) feature driven. But if you have a service driven early adopter, he will be looking at integrating the entire experience into his life/work. Very different views

  12. I’m not really a good early adopter anymore, either. I look at all of you to tell me what is surviving on your machines. This is why I missed Evernote. I’m not going to be first to try things. There are simply WAY TOO MANY things to try (I have a folder of more than 1,000 things I haven’t tried yet). One of the reasons I use so many social networking services is to have you signal when something really is worthy and I’ll try those.

    This is why you shouldn’t just go for the A list, and should get EVERYONE to talk about your product. If you do that then the A list pays attention.

  13. @Robert, that may be so, but you still have a very powerful brand to get the word out. You prove that every time when you point people towards new services, blogs, or whatever. And that is very important too!

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  15. @Meryn, no, I just looked it up. Thanks

  16. Alexander,

    With every passing day the Silicon Valley bubble loses air. My problem with the early adopter mentality is that it has become its own self-perpetuating merry-go-round and it’s seemingly impossible hard to handicap the field.

    I agree with Scoble that one ultimately needs to follow the crowd to find success.

    As a PR person and strategist, I’m also about building brands across consumer or B2B landscapes by targeting the early majority crowd (Moore term) without relying on often temporary and unsticky “bounces” that early adopters and early adopter media may also enable.

  17. @Neil, exactly my point! Thanks for dropping by, it’s always good to get an opinion from experts in the field :-)

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