I often tell people before we begin working with them that we do the easy part. Sure, writing code and building a functioning app is a skill that most people don’t possess, but it’s what comes after development that almost everyone underestimates. The ability to attract your core group of power users is going to define your early success. Most startups fail miserably with this. Here are the 3 best techniques I’ve ever used to attract early adopters.

Best Buyer Strategy

What it is:

The first thing you need to do is figure out who your core user is going to be and how to market to them. Often times, entrepreneurs think that they can just put their app out there and their users with magically find it. This isn’t fairy tale land. You have to do everything in your power to convince these power users that you have the solution they are looking for.

If you are going after enterprise clients, you need to create a list of your 100 “best buyers” and a plan to bring them on board. This plan must include a lot more than just a cold email. If you are a consumer play, then you need to figure out what group of people will most benefit from your solution (i.e. hipsters, moms, car owners). Then get real specific about your earliest adopters. Perhaps it’s hipster moms from Brooklyn who own a car. Once you have your best buyers, you go all in to bring them on board and make sure they have an amazing experience.

The Best Buyer Strategy was introduced to me by the late Chet Holmes who used it double sales at his division of Berkshire Hathaway 3 years in a row. Here’s what this looked like when we implemented the Best Buyer strategy for the inaugural NY Tech Day.

How we implemented it:

When we decided to do the event, we were selling an idea. People had no reason to believe us, we had no credibility, and when we started, we didn’t even have a date or a venue. But we decided early on that in order to pull of a massive “science fair” for startups, we first needed to signup our best buyers.

We called our Best Buyers “Featured Startups” (they really liked the idea of being “featured”). We created a list of the 50 most popular startups that we’d love to have at the event. We figured if we could get 5 Featured Startups for our inaugural event, we’d be in good shape. The first two startups on board were GetGlue and Lot18. We were thrilled. We included them in all of our marketing as Featured Startups and they loved it. So did we. By the time we were done, we had 12 Featured Startups including Tumblr, Buddy Media, AppNexus, Twilio, Boxee and Meetup. Our inaugural event pulled in 200 total startups and 4,000 registered attendees. Great success.

Moving the Free Line

What it is:

Once you’ve identified your earliest adopters, you have to figure out how to bring them on board. There are two techniques that have been particularly helpful for me in this department. The first is called “Moving the Free Line” and was coined by Eben Pagan. Moving the Free Line is at the heart of the freemium model and is critical for attracting initial traction.

You start by drawing a straight line on a piece of paper. This is your customer timeline that you break up into steps to move this person from a prospect to a paying customer. If you’re saying that you don’t have a freemium model or that you just ask directly for the sale, you’re either a) doing it wrong or b) don’t know that you already doing some of this.

How we implemented it:

Here’s what one scenario of this looks like at Firehawk Creative. Each step along the way we are improving the relationship, and Steps 1 - 4 are all “free” (I say “free” in quotes because some of it does cost us time which certainly is not free, but that is all part of our process. We will meet with anyone to see if we are good fit. Give, give give, give, get, give.)

  • Step 1: I meet people at tech events and have a introductory conversation with them (what they’re working on and what we do).
  • Step 2: They visit our website, understand our process, read our blog, and check out our resources section.
  • Step 3: We meet with them to continue that introductory conversation and start talking about the technical requirements, timelines, budget, etc.
  • Step 4: We show them past portfolio work and put them in touch with some of our past clients as references.
  • Step 5: We kickoff the project and the fun begins.

There are obviously many variations on this process for us, but this is how we Move the Free Line from someone who may potentially be a prospect into a paying client. We are constantly moving the prospect closer to the deal and adding value every step of the way. We are very selective about the clients we work with, so we can afford to “invest” in our prospects. If you’re trying to attract massive users, you can still successfully use the Free Line technique, you just need to understand the customers long-term value and how much you can invest in them.

Stacking the Cool

What it is:

This is probably my favorite technique for attracting early adopters created by the Internet Marketing genius that is Frank Kern, and yes, it really is just what you are thinking. In Frank’s (incredibly extreme) example, he is selling a Honda Civic. He launches a buy now campaign that says if you buy a Civic today, we will throw in a Lamborghini. And then a boat. And so on and so on. So that by the time you get back to the idea of purchasing a Civic, it is a no brainer because you are going to get the Lambo and a boat and a plane.

I know you’re thinking that this is crazy and could never work in the real world and you’re right that giving away a Lambo with the purchase of a Civic is crazy. But here’s how we made this work at DigitalOcean and then with Tech Day.

How we implemented it:

DigitalOcean is a cloud hosting provider. When I was doing Biz Dev with them, we had to figure out how to attract our core user base. We had one feature that we knew every developer would love — a beautiful control panel to make it incredibly easy to interact with your server. On top of that, we let customers deploy a new server in 55 seconds (a minimum of 2x to 3x faster than the closest competitor). On top of that, we offered customers a cheaper option than any major competitor. And then on top of that, DigitalOcean started adding SSD drives standard as part of their hosting plans. If you’re a developer, you know that the cool has been sufficiently stacked.

At our Tech Day event this year, we wanted to double the size of the event from the first year. Ambitious, but we knew we could do it if we sufficiently stacked the cool. So, from a startup’s perspective, we told them we were bringing in thousands and thousands of people for the event. Add in an exclusive Press and Investor hour. And we know that hiring is tough, so we’re bringing in developers and students from all over the country looking for jobs. Oh yeah, and we’re throwing an exhibitor Pre-Party so you can meet all the other startups. Oh, and one last thing, it’s only a few hundred bucks as opposed to similar events that charge thousands. Boom. Done. 200 startups the first year. Over 400 for Year 2.

Don’t make the fundament mistake of thinking that your product is so amazing that it will instantly go viral and everyone will share it with their friends and suddenly you’ll have a million users. That just doesn’t happen on Day 1. You have to work for every early user that you can get. There are plenty of other techniques you can use to get that initial traction you need, but these three are my favorite and have worked with incredible success for me in the past.

P.S. I have no formal sales or marketing background whatsoever but have learned all this stuff along the way. I realized how important these skills are to success and have been studying the game ever since.