Getting Earlyvangelists the Easy Way
One of The most important thing for businesses is to get customers for its products and/or services. If you don’t have customers paying your for your products or some other way of generating revenue from your creation of value, then you don’t have a business. At best, you have an expensive hobby. Adherents to the Customer Development and Lean Startup approaches to building a business know that the top way of reducing business risk is to make sure you have good product/market fit and an established offering of value by iterating conversations with customers very early in the cycle and learning as much as possible in the least amount of time through Minimum Viable Products and other approaches.
One of the components of this fast-to-market approach (not the first-to-market) is the identification and recruitment of earlyvangelists. For those companies just starting on this path to Epiphany, finding and getting earlyvangelists can be a very tough proposition. In this post, I’d like to share with you what we learned about the challenges of getting earlyvangelists and some of the methods for doing so.
What’s an earlyvangelist?
Clearly, the term “earlyvangelist” combines the concepts of early and evangelist. But what does that mean? Simply put, an earlyvangelist is a company’s first tentative customers who can do two things for the company: provide early feedback and guidance on product and company direction, and serve as an evangelist to help recruit other, similar customers. Here’s Steve Blank’s definition of an earlyvangelist:
Let’s examine the components of this, tackling this from the bottom up:
- Budget - That is to say, this is a real customer, someone with both authority and money to make a purchasing decision. They’re not just some time-wasting horn-blower, but rather someone who can make something happen.
- Cobbled something together – This is a primary indicator that they have a real pain point that they are already actively trying to medicate. The more cobbled together, the better: an unpolished solution shows that they are willing to sacrifice their time and money to solve the problem. Give them something more efficient and elegant, and they should readily jump over to your solution.
- Has been actively looking for a solution – If they’re doing this and have a cobbled together solution, this means that they are not happy with what they have. They have an active pain and their self-medication is not working. They are looking for a cure, doctor!
- Know they have a problem - It’s one thing for companies to have a problem. It’s another for them to know it. If the problem they have is not causing pain, or if they aren’t even aware they have a problem, you’re not going to get anywhere.
- Have a problem - There is a concrete, identifiable problem that bears solving because in doing so, it eliminates a cost, reduces a liability, increases revenue, or otherwise impacts the bottom-line. The problem might also be an “emotional” one: need for greater visibility, credibility, standing among peers, competitiveness, safety, or any other problem people are willing to put money behind to solve.
In other words, as I was taught at prior business, these folks have “NUBB“: Need, Urgency, Budget, and Buying authority. The five elements of the earlyvangelist comprise one or more of those requirements. Without any of those things, not only can you not make a sale, but they can’t be earlyvangelists. But it doesn’t seem that these five requirements are enough. Evangelists are more than just customers — they are people who have the willingness and capability to broadcast your solution to their problems to their peers.
The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Customer Development adds more color to the earlyvangelist definition:
“Passionate, early users of new technology or products who understand its value before mainstream markets. Acquiring early adopters is important to jumpstart product adoption.”
It is important to make a distinction between earlyvangelists and early adopters. While the above video and text conflates these two, these are really different concepts. Sure, earlyvangelists and early adopters are early customers for your product. But there are far too many companies that get hundreds of early adopters to try their product, only to find that they never return. These early adopters are clearly not earlyvangelists.
The folks from Social Matchbox put it well in their Don’t Play The Customer Shell Game post:
Perhaps the more important distinction is between Earlyvangelists and Early Adopters. The early adopters are people who will try anything interesting or new vs. people who really, truly, benefit from the Pain relief that you are bringing to their web browser.
Steve Blank adds more color in his Perfection by Subtraction post:
These Earlyvangelists are first buying the vision and then the product. They need to fall in love with the idea of your product. It’s the vision that will keep them committed the many times you screw up. You’ll have bugs, your product will eat their data, you’ll get the features wrong, performance will be bad, you’ll argue about pricing, etc.
But Earlyvangelists will stick with you through good and bad because they share your vision. In reality Earlyvangelists are now part of your team. If you’re selling to a business, your Earlyvangelists will end up using your slides and metrics to help sell your product inside their own company!
So, now we know what it is, but as a new company, therein lies the challenge: how do you find these highly valuable, business-critical people?
Earlyvangelists are closer than you think
Most of the time, these earlyvangelists are probable you know or within your circle of contacts. Gabriel Weinberg’s interview with Sean Murphy for his traction book is particularly insightful here and worth a full read:
skmurphy: Most of the time it’s going to be somebody that either they know or that knows somebody they know, or somebody that we know or knows somebody that we know. For the most part our clients are going into a market that they understand with technology that they have developed. We help them make a list of every project they’ve worked on and everyone they’ve worked with. They reach out and say, “Here is what we are doing, do you know somebody we should talk to that makes sense? “
…People who’ve developed expertise by working in a field for a while are typically able to get an initial meeting–cup of coffee or lunch, these kinds of things. Sometimes we encourage them to shift to a different market because we find out that the technology has more applicability and offers more value there.…Let me try and zoom in just a little bit more: one of the first things we help them with is to put together what we call a lunch pitch. This is a single piece of paper that has five to ten bullets and a perhaps a visual that helps them focus the conversation making sure they understand the prospect’s problem. The early conversations are all about exploring the prospect’s problem and pain points.yegg: So it is pretty rare that the first customer is from a cold lead?skmurphy: I haven’t seen it. The challenge with a first customer for new software is that big unknown in the prospect’s mind is if the team going to perform.
What if you truly have no friends?
But what if the founding team doesn’t have experience or sufficient contacts in the industry area? Back to the interview with Sean Murphy:
skmurphy: … It’s not a requirement that everybody has worked in the field you are trying to sell into, but if no one on the team has worked in the target industry or field then you may be missing so much basic context that you just can’t get there…
Two to five people, engineers or scientists that have got relevant work experience in the domain or the industry that they are trying to sell to. It’s okay if only one of the two or two of the five, or one of the five has got domain knowledge because sometimes bringing people from different fields is useful…
As a startup trying to make your early sales in a new industry, I think the credibility problem can be very, very challenging. The only way we’ve seen that work is where you are able to very quickly ask the right questions and demonstrate some capability that people can see the benefit for themselves…
Ordinarily we suggest people start with something they know pretty well, and then branch out. Now, the other way to do that is to bring somebody else onto the team that knows the domain you are going after really well. So, just to be clear, I am not saying that the entire team has to have deep domain expertise, but if no one on the team does, it can be very hard.
Sounds like without access to experience, you might be screwed. At the very least, without that access, you’ll be hobbled. However, all is not lost. John Gannon writes an interesting article on how you can find earlyvangelists outside your experience area:
Try to get a warm intro through a mutual friend or acquaintance to these folks. People are much more inclined to engage if you come through a trusted source. LinkedIn is a great way to identify these mutual connections.
He also suggests approaching trade show / conference speakers as they tend to be already evangelists and also identifying them through competitors’ or similar product or service company press releases. These are interesting ideas.
What I find most interesting is that there’s very little support for getting earlyvangelists through typical customer acquisition approaches, such as Google Adwords or other Search Engine Marketing, SEO techniques, and other outbound marketing communication. The general consensus is that earlyvangelists need to be found and recruited through a personal connection. That’s the easy way. Everything else is the hard way.
How have you found your earlyvangelists?