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Technology Adoption Curve & PMF

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Mark Donnigan


January 4, 2023

The technology adoption curve is a frequently discussed marketing and sales framework in startups building something new. It is designed to give the disruptive innovative company a roadmap and tracking mechanism for how to build the market.

In part one, we look at the Innovators and Early Adopters, while in Part two, we’ll examine the early and late majority segments followed by the laggards.

The technology adoption curve defines five customer types/behavior profiles. (For greater detail, read Geoffrey Moore’s book ‘Crossing the Chasm’). Let’s take a look.

1. Innovation and technology enthusiasts: ‘Innovators’

Technology Adoption Curve - Innovators Innovators are the lifeblood of every early-stage disruptive innovation technology startup. These people will buy advanced technology even when it doesn’t entirely work, which is pretty awesome. All companies would love to have customers who will buy their product despite it not being ready for prime time. Innovators do this because they are infatuated with innovation and want a front-row seat at the party once the company finally ships version 1.0. 

In a B2B tech sales context, the profile for a typical innovation and technology enthusiast is a person who is mid-career and driven by knowledge and experiences. Innovators are typically engineers keen on staying on top of cutting-edge advances in their field. They are the first to appreciate the architecture of a product and how it can deliver a competitive advantage over what is in the market today.

Because disruptive technology is expensive before it becomes commercialized to the broad market, the Innovator is highly valuable since they are often willing to invest to be the first to test new solutions. This is good news for a seller of early-stage technology since the group does not have serious concerns about ROI as they can appreciate the high cost of developing disruptive technology. 

And being technically capable, the Innovator requires only minimal support. If you are looking for testers who will pay you, the Innovator is your dream, as the Innovator is typically quite good at communicating their needs, wants, and desires, which can be a godsend to your product team. 

The Innovator segment, though small, would be perfect, except that they have one fatal flaw. The group is not referenceable since an Innovator rarely puts an alpha or beta product into a mission-critical production environment. Because of the segment’s limited size and commercial application, there is rarely a business model that can survive selling only to Innovators.

Innovators often fill the role of a “screener” for technology companies that knock on their front doors. The question then is, what do they require? To begin with, this group is highly suspicious of “sales speak,” which means they want the truth. They do not expect a perfectly polished product but will expect access to technical resources. The Innovator will also expect you to disclose roadmaps and give them early access to alpha and beta versions of the product.

But, look out for this trap – many a sales executive has been seduced by the swagger and fancy title of someone filling the Innovator role for their company, only to discover after months of evaluation and discovery that the person hasn’t the first clue who can issue a PO.

I recall sitting in a meeting where we expected to get instructions on the next steps for the purchase order, only to have our Innovator technical sponsor ask whom we are talking to inside his company about an order. I replied, “well, aren’t you the right person to get us started?” To which the response was. “Oh no, they don’t let me make buying decisions, but when you find someone interested, feel free to have them call me. I’ll put in a good word for you.”

If this has happened to you, I am sure you can relate to the sinking feeling of “How could I have been so stupid to get this far only to find out our sponsor is a coach who doesn’t have buying authority and can’t tell us whom we should talk to!” It happens to the very best of us.

Because some tech startups don’t fully understand what is required to bring their product to market, there can be a disillusionment cycle as customers cancel pilots and express dissatisfaction with the product or features roadmap. At the same time, investors wonder what happened to all the early hoopla. “Didn’t you say customers would beat your door down? What happened? What changed?”

Companies facing the reality of having presold a vision must carefully analyze their early customers to determine who carries the highest probability for success over the short and medium terms. We are not only looking for a list of companies who will give us money today because many of these early customers will have specific feature requests or other integration needs that are not ready.

Likewise, don’t focus solely on companies that can provide you with a big win because you will likely die of revenue starvation before you get the first PO. Instead, you will want to turn the company’s attention inward on the existing pilots and evaluations with the highest chance of scaling into marketable and sellable solutions.

A $10k pilot with a high probability of scaling to $100k within 9-12 months, and in an addressable market of 1,000 companies you can reasonably reach, is probably a good place to start. Compared to a $10k pilot where the sales cycle is longer or less defined but in an addressable market of 10,000 companies where the revenue opportunity is unclear, it will be best to stick with the first customer/deal profile and expand outward.

Even as you are working with Innovators who will tell you, “Don’t worry that your UI is ugly; I prefer command line.” Or, “We don’t know how we’ll apply this in our workflow, but I can see where it could have value.” Do not fall prey to an Innovator’s dismissive comments regarding weaknesses in your product.

The Innovator will never take your product into their production environment, thus they can dismiss gaps in your product’s reliability, stability, or usability. To have any hope of building a real business, you must scale beyond this early group, which is why it’s essential to understand the motivations and needs of the Early Adopter.

2. Tech lovers and visionaries: ‘Early Adopters’

Early Adopters- Technology Adoption CurveEarly adopters (also known as visionaries) consider themselves technical or “tech-savvy.” This group can peer into the future and match up technologies not fully baked with strategic opportunities or high-value problems.

In a B2B sales environment, assuming the entrepreneurial company leans towards innovation, the influencer to the sale will likely be a technology enthusiast who carries a manager or director title inside an innovation team. Likely new to the position, the early adopter or visionary will typically be your sponsor and may even be the economic buyer.

The motivation of an early adopter is to utilize technology to gain an advantage or solve a problem ahead of their competitor. The Innovator or technical enthusiast tends to be interested in technology for the sake of technology. Still, a visionary has a clear mission they want to accomplish. An early adopter will have some tolerance for product gaps and inconsistencies. Still, they will expect that the product is fully functional and can meet an SLA (service level agreement) at a defined time.

Often an early adopter will carry the title of Senior Technical Director or executive title bearing the words ‘Technology’, ‘Technical’ or ‘Engineering.’ This person will always be an early adopter, both professionally and personally. Innovation teams unsurprisingly comprise mainly innovators and early adopters. When selling to this group, you will want to approach the innovation or “labs” groups before approaching the production teams.

Innovation teams that early adopters lead or are senior members of generally have budgets for technologies that can provide significant advances beyond the current state of the art. It can be a good revenue source for any hungry startup seeking their first few deals. Without sponsorship from the innovation team, a startup with unproven technology will have difficulty being taken seriously by the production group.

If you can get $10k from an Innovator, you may get $50k from an Early Adopter since they’ll put your product into production where the value proposition can be realized.

One challenge with early adopters is their “pilot project” or POC mindset. For some industries, a pilot project is standard, regardless of the maturity of the vendor. Think of a pilot as “try before you buy.” Pilots should be paid. In most cases, pilots are “phase 0” before commercial implementation. A commercial implementation is nearly guaranteed if the POC/Pilot is successful.

One pitfall of a pilot is that it can turn into a series of custom projects and be highly disruptive to the product development process of a company that desires to optimize around a single product definition. Close attention to account management with your earliest customers is essential since managing relationships, often at the executive level, to ensure the relationship stays on track and expectations are being met is required. Only a founder can do this job, and you should not relegate it to your new VP of Sales, who, no matter how experienced, cannot own the internal decision matrix like a founder.

After a few key wins, the natural inclination is to “ramp up the team.” The guideline that says revenue is a function of the average productivity of a sales rep multiplied by the number of sales reps does not apply to a company that has not crossed the chasm. Until you have developed a base of referenceable visionary customers, refrain from investing in a large sales team. 

Early sales engagements will require compromise on pricing, product roadmap priorities, and other intrinsic business objectives. If the product-market fit is in question, you are not ready to flood the field with sales reps. Scaling the sales team prematurely, will lead to them spinning on a pipeline that never closes. 

The technology enthusiast (Innovator) and the early adopter are the first stop every disruptive innovation technology company must make on their go-to-market journey.

As key as the first two groups will be in honing your product and providing market feedback, crossing the chasm can only occur when the company moves beyond niche applications and custom adaptations to a universal solution that can meet the market need at scale.

In part two, I discuss the early majority, where the mass market begins to form, and the role of the late majority and laggards in building a vibrant market.

Want to know the secrets to growing a tech startup? Listen to this podcast interview to learn more of my business strategies.

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