The Curse of the Early Adopter

(courtesy of Wikipedia)

Trying products early in their lifecycle is a rush. You get the thrill of access before a crowd, you feel like your feedback makes a tangible difference to the future of a nascent product, and you just feel … special. It’s almost like that feeling of finding a band or an athlete on the cusp of stardom and being able to share the knowledge selectively with a friend.Until the product you like (and maybe even love) changes inexplicably in response to the actual customers the company found in the market. Two products have made me think about this paradox recently – the Mailbox email app and Twitter – they have changed in different ways in response to their users and in response to the market place.

Early adopters are great because they help you get initial signal in the market, but they don’t necessarily correlate to the continued availability of those users at scale. Put another way, when you find early adopters there is no guarantee you will find more people like them. Focusing on the end goal and adapting the end goal and benefit to more people will probably alienate the people who gave you your first feedback.

When I found Mailbox, I was excited because it offered a novel way (since copied by, Gmail, and others) to dismiss mail by swiping and visually simplified the problem of dealing with a lot of mail in your inbox. Mailbox even had the clever idea of showing you a reward – an image that displays in your mailbox when you reach #zeroinbox. Mailbox failed to monetize its users by asking them for a small payment, instead using the free model of distribution. But as it turns out, Mailbox was a feature instead of an app and was quickly acquired by the Dropbox team to sell more storage.

Mailbox died as a product (yes, it’s still in “leave the lights on mode”, but doesn’t appear to be getting new development) because the team stopped focusing on the benefit (make email easier and more beautiful to manage) and focused instead on mass distribution. The original users who loved the product were productivity geeks, and bringing a niche email service to the masses proved to be a harder task than they thought. Perhaps acquisition was their goal all along.

Twitter is a strange beast. No one seems to know how to use it – which is paradoxically the reason it has been so successful among its power users and so much of a flop among “normals” – and it is almost a blank slate for sharing information. When I started using Twitter there was no “right” way to use it and I found that the people I followed had radically different ways of consuming information.

Twitter thrived among early adopters because people used it to find patterns; they used it to tell jokes; and they pushed the limits of the 140 character format to be clever. Explaining why Twitter was and is excellent is sort of like trying to explain the reason why a great cocktail party or a spirited discussion is good – you meet people and ideas you might not otherwise encounter and you end up enlightened in some way.

Recently Twitter announced “Moments” – a curated method of standardizing the Twitter experience to be more like the other forms of media people enjoy. A packaged meme is easier to share, and if you only have a few minutes to review a service then having a ready-to-eat set of “Moments” is a clever way to appeal to the masses. But it’s not the service we grew to love from Twitter (presumably because the classic way that people use the free Twitter product doesn’t make any money).

So what do you do as an early adopter? Clearly you’ll keep seeking out new and different products – it’s what you do. But it would be nice if more products had more modest ambitions, so that they could maintain their identity and amazing utility with a small subscription fee or another method of gaining payment. This might mean that more early products would perish more quickly, which I think would be ok. It would also increase the chance that developers and product designers focus more closely on the problems that people have and deliver solutions to address those problems and provide ongoing (and not just transient) value.



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