Finding the right early users can make or break a startup. If you find the wrong people, they will either waste your time with irrelevant suggestions or could easily send you off in the wrong direction. Here are a few suggestions on strategies to find the best early users.
1. Articulate the real target customer in as much detail as you can (I use a Mindmap to do this and have written about the process here). Try to expand with as many relevant customer attributes as possible, then generalize into a “Persona” that you paste up on the wall as the “target customer”.
2. Take the key attributes and build out a Survey Monkey or Google Form survey. This is designed to collect structured and relevant data about people you want to use the product. In addition to all the normal attributes, try to understand how the target discovers new services and which related services they use today. Here’s the one we did for Gist (a company I started in 2008). From the time we announced the closed beta until the time we actually opened the site, we had over 6500 responses to this survey and a sweet group of users to choose from!
3. Develop a few marketing messages that you think will get people excited and are provocative. For example (around Gist) we might use something like – “wanna make Outlook social, sign up now for an early look” or “does your CRM system suck too much of your time, we are building a solution, sign up now”.
4. For a simple approach, skip to step 6. For a more complex, but powerful solution, sign up for Launchrock or Waitlisted (newer solution) and build out “landing pages” for the key marketing messages.
5. As part of the waitlist process include the link to the Survey (response page and email confirmation) and try to collect responses there. Tell people that they need to fill out the survey AND share to others if they want a chance to get into the beta. You should be building something they value so ask for some effort!
6. Start promoting the marketing messages and launch site via social media with a focus on places where your target users hang out (e.g. LinkedIn for bizpros) and with some focus on key bloggers/twitter stars. You can search on Klout or BuzzSumo (find good blog posts/authors) for people of topics and @message these key players telling them about your plans/product and asking for input.
If your messages are good, people will promote and some portion will fill in the survey. These are the people who are likely to a) really want a new solution and b) likely to do real work and give you real feedback on the product. As the results come in, you can easily group people by relevant attributes (via survey responses) and then focus on releasing the product to a finite number and with a focus on the right people.
Tim Ferriss, of “4-hour work week” and “4-hour body” fame has also written about related ideas here and it is well worth the read. Finally, the master of customer development, Steve Blank has a great post here on the relative value of users vs. valuable users and 1000 True Fans by Kevin Kelly is a good reference too.