"Are we solving a problem that everybody has or are we building a product for Robert Scoble?"
Ouch! That may sting a bit, but that statement — written by Dare Obasanjo, aprogrammer and tech blogger — nails the emerging meme that early adopters are overrated and hurt the companies that woo them. It's no secret, of course, that I am one of these early adopters, or "passionates," who eagerly embrace new tools and evangelize for our favorites. But leave me out of it. This idea that the tech industry should focus on the larger group of "nonpassionates" to the exclusion of passionates is ridiculous.
Passionates are a new product's best friends. Scan the history of every advance in computing and communications, from the desktop computer to instant messaging to digital phone service, and you'll find a group of enthusiasts who loved, ICQ, and Skype — and ultimately got everyone else into the game. If Facebook had launched trying to appeal to everyone, it likely would have flopped and been long forgotten along with so many other me-too social-networking startups. But Facebook catered to a group whose passions run high — college students who appreciated how technology could enhance social relationships.
I can't tell you how many times nonpassionates have told me that their kids pulled them onto Facebook. In fact, I first heard about Facebook from my boss back at Microsoft, whose daughter said her friends were beside themselves about the service. Would Facebook have gotten popular by aiming at my boss first? I doubt it.
What's so dangerous about dismissing passionates is that it suggests that tech companies are actually hurting themselves by listening to them.Kindle e-book reader has sold an estimated 240,000 units in its first nine months. Passionates are the ones who will buy an almost $400 gadget sight unseen. But Amazon is using its Kindlemaniacs to win the masses.
Amazon has launched a See a Kindle in Your City program that lets you find a Kindle user near you and arrange for the passionate to show the nonpassionate what it can do. If Kindle is going to sell 4.5 million units by the end of 2010, as Citi analyst Mark Mahaney predicts, Kindle's first fans will be the ones whose feedback makes subsequent versions better and persuades rail commuters, frequent fliers, and vacationers to be customers.
Too many naysayers reflexively dismiss a buzzed-about new product by saying, "It's lame, and no one in the mainstream will use it." Look at a service like FriendFeed, which aggregates all the content that you and your friends create on a variety of social media. As passionate fans tout its indispensability, doubters charge that it's only solving a problem early adopters created for themselves.
But consider how much the world has changed in the past decade. When I started writing my blog back in 2000, professional athletes didn't blog to communicate with their fans. Millions around the world didn't post pictures on Flickr, because it didn't exist. New tools are getting adopted faster than ever. YouTube turns 3 in December, and Twitter, just 2 ½, has already attracted firefighters and members of Congress to use the service. We're finding more ways to express ourselves, more content to enjoy, and more ways to connect with friends. All of a sudden, we need FriendFeed to put these tools in one place. And that's the power of the passionate.
Go to FastCompany.TV for exclusive video of Scoble interviewing Tim Ryan, the Twittering congressman, and execs at Facebook and FriendFeed.
A version of this article appeared in the November 2008 issue of Fast Company magazine.