Selling to early adopters is no easy thing. By definition, an early adopter is someone who:

  1. has the problem (unmet market need) you are focused on solving;
  2. knows they have the problem; and
  3. is already investing (time and/or money) to solve it.

But even if all three criteria are met, that doesn't mean someone will buy what you are selling. To get an early adopter to adopt, you not only have to know your customers, but know where they began, how they buy, and the key triggers that run their days. These keys are found using a startup tool called the customer persona, sometimes called a buyer persona. 

What is a customer persona?

Developing your customer persona is about developing a fictional, generalized representation of your ideal customers, based on real data, so that you have a sense of who your customers are and what characteristics they share. A customer persona is an amalgamation of all the customers you hope to sell to. For many startups, the first customer persona focuses on early adopters, since it generates insight into what your prospective customers are thinking and doing as they weigh potential options that address the problem they want to solve. 

In order to build up your customer persona, focus on the following three things:

  1. Behavioral drivers (why they buy). You want to know your customers' motivations to buy products. For instance, you want to know if your customer will buy a certain product because it looks better, saves more time, or simply because it is less expensive.
  2. Obstacles to purchasing (why they won't buy). You want to know why customers don't purchase products or what deters them from paying for a solution. Is it because it's too expensive, or simply because they don't know it exists?
  3. Mindsets. You want to know how your customers feel about buying new things. What are their expectations, preconceived notions, and emotions associated with buying? Are they tech savvy and love new products, or are they resistant to change?

How to create a customer persona

Pamela Vaughan, principal marketing manager at HubSpot, shared some practical methods for gathering the information you need to develop customer personas:

  1. Look through your contacts database to uncover trends about how certain leads or customers find and consume your content.
  2. When creating forms to use on your website, use form fields that capture important persona information. For example, if all of your personas vary based on company size, ask each lead for information about company size on your forms.
  3. Take into consideration your sales team's feedback on the leads they're interacting with most. What generalizations can they make about the different types of customers you serve best?
  4. Interview customers and prospects, either in person or over the phone, to discover what they like about your product or service.

Why it matters

Spencer Lanoue, a former marketer at, believes that customer personas can help a team do the following things:

  1. Develop a deep understanding of customer needs and how to solve for them.
  2. Guide product/solution development by targeting features that help them achieve their desired outcomes.
  3. Prioritize which projects, campaigns, and initiatives to invest time and resources on.
  4. Create alignment across the organization and rally other teams around a customer-centric vision.

As a result, after creating your customer persona, you'll be better equipped to serve your customers and deliver a superior experience that keeps them coming back for more.

Users versus customers

It is important to know that a user is not always a customer. A user is a person who will use your product, and a customer is a person who will pay for the product. The users of Facebook, for example, are all the people who have free Facebook profiles. They are the people who are constantly signing onto the site and using Facebook to connect with people worldwide. However, Facebook's customers are the advertisers who pay Facebook to use their data to target key customers through advertisements on the Facebook platform.

If your startup happens to have both a user and a customer as separate entities (like eBay, which has buyers and sellers, or Uber, which has drivers and riders), you will need to build a persona for both sides of the market. You will need to know the wants and needs for each side so you can find them eventually and identify them. Then you will need to pursue both simultaneously, since you need customers to make money and users to get the customers to pay you. If the person who will use your product is the same person who will pay for your product, then you only need to build one persona.

Putting it all together

While a customer persona isn't a real person, it is still very valuable to have an image and understanding of your customer so you can internalize who you are trying to serve and keep that as your primary focus. 

Keeping all this in mind, let me ask you: who is your customer persona? Do you know them well enough to convince them to adopt your innovation while still in development? If not, then use the templates and guidance herein to go deeper, to generate more insights and most importantly to increase the probability of adoption by early adopters.