Finding Early Adopters: The Mechanical Pencil Challenge

Finding Early Adopters: The Mechanical Pencil Challenge

Entrepreneurship students often struggle getting their first customers interviews because they lack a functional definition of Early Adopters.

This exercise uses mechanical pencils, and a 10-minute competition between students, to introduce Early Adopters in a way that not only contrasts them with Early Majority and Late Majority customers, but also demonstrates where and how to find a business model’s Early Adopters.

We are very proud that this exercise was a finalist in the prestigious USASBE 3E Competition, which recognizes the best experiential entrepreneurship exercises at the USASBE 2019 Conference!

The key questions this lesson plan answers are:

  1. Who is the target for our customer interviews?
  2. How and where do we find people for our customer interviews?

Prepare Finding Early Adopters Exercise

You’ll need to bring four mechanical pencils to class – one to represent each of the four sections of the Diffusion of Innovations curve:

You’ll need to bring four mechanical pencils to class – one to represent each of the four sections of the Diffusion of Innovations curve:

  1. One with several full sized pieces of led in the body of the pencil (Laggard)
  2. One with a single piece of led inside (Late Majority)
  3. One with several small (½”) pieces of led (Early Majority)
  4. One with a single piece of led that is just barely too short to be usable. Here’s a quick video on how to prepare it. (Early Adopter)

Introducing Early Adopters

Introduce and define each of the following Diffusion of Innovation adopter categories to students: 

  • Early Adopters: the first people willing to try your product or service. There are a few of these people, but they are vitally important to the success of your business. These people are so hungry for a solution to their problem they’re willing to try anything…including an unproven product like yours.
  • Early Majority: this is the larger influx of people who will make your product a success. These people have a problem you can solve, but they’re not desperate for a solution like the Early Adopters. They’ll need some convincing (by an Early Adopter) before they’re willing to try your product.
  • Late Majority: just behind the Early Majority, the next wave of customers will sustain your business over time.These people have a problem, but they don’t know it. They need to be educated that they have a problem before they’ll become your customer.
  • Laggards: this group is generally not interested in your offering, or may join the party very, very late in the game. Typically they don’t even have a problem, so they’ll only reluctantly become your customer.

Next it’s good to walk through the worksheet below, so students better understand how to identify and find early adopters.

Finding Early Adopters

First hypothesize a problem, such as “I’m afraid of losing my dog”, and the customer segment would be new dog owners. (Note: when working through this worksheet, remind students that their success will come from winning over their early majority as customers, but to get there, first they need to acquire their early adopters.)

Early Adopter Behaviors

Next, hypothesize early adopter behaviors, which are actions someone would take to solve the hypothesized problem. Ask your students for examples of Early Adopter behaviors for the hypothesized problem “I’m afraid of losing my dog”. Potential answers:

  • Get dog obedience training
  • Buy “invisible fence” dog collars
  • Get chip implanted in dog
  • Buys engraved dog collar with contact info
  • Searches google for ways to keep dog from running away

Confirm behaviors offered by students are related to the hypothesized problem. For example, “Goes to the pound to look for their dog” is more likely the behavior of someone who has already lost their dog, not someone who is “worried about losing it” in the future.

Externally Observable Early Adopter Behaviors

To validate there are Early Adopters for their problems, students will actually talk to people trying to solve the problem. In other words, they’ll need to actually find these people and ask them about their problems.

In order to do that, they will need to find people already trying to solve their hypothesized problem. To find people trying to solve the their hypothesized problem, your students will need to come up with Externally Observable Behaviors for their Early Adopters.

Externally Observable Behaviors are similar to the Early Adopter behaviors they’ve already written up. The difference being that an Early Adopter Behavior could be an action that someone takes alone at home that your students would never know about, so they won’t be able to find them taking that action to talk to them.

Externally Observable Behaviors on the other hand are actions people take that your students, personally, can observe so they’ll know where to find those people to talk to them.

For example…

  • Having trouble controlling dog at a dog park
  • Buying invisible fence dog collars or engraved dog tags at pet store
  • Asking on Reddit how to keep dog from running away

Finding Early Adopters: The Mechanical Pencil Challenge

Note: You will need four volunteers for this exercise.

Have the four students come to the front of the room where you have a desk setup for each of them. On each desk, place a piece of paper, and one of the mechanical pencils you prepared before class. Note: Place the “Early Adopter” pencil in one of the middle seats that everyone can easily observe.

Ask your volunteers not to touch their pencils until you’ve told them to do so (you may need to remind them of this several times 🙂 

Ask your volunteers to sit down, and ask the rest of the class to stand up and join you around the four volunteers.

Now ask the class to imagine you were starting a company serving “students who take tests” and the problem you hypothesize they face is,

“I love mechanical pencils because I can erase my mistakes, but they always break or run out of led in the worst possible moments.”

To solve this problem, tell your students you’ve created a new, more reliable, high capacity pencil that holds 4x as much lead as a normal mechanical pencil.

Now tell your standing students that before them are four potential customers for your new product:  

  • A laggard,
  • a late majority,
  • an early majority, and
  • an early adopter

Have the standing students form groups of 2 or 3 and ask them, “If you were a new company selling this new high capacity pencil, and you only had enough marketing resources to advertise your pencil to one of the four people, how would you figure out which one to advertise to?”

Give them 30 seconds to figure out a strategy to determine which of the four is the Early Adopter. Ask several of the groups to offer their strategies. Then ask the standing students, can you tell which one is the early adopter right now?

Answer: No, because you’re observing your customers sitting there, you’re not observing them in a situation where they would encounter or attempt to fix the hypothesized problem.

Ask your standing students, how might we be able to tell which one is the Early Adopter?

Answer: By asking them to write something, particularly something in a high stress situation.

Tell your volunteer students that you’re going tell them a letter of the alphabet and you’ll give each of them extra credit if, and only if, they can write down 20 words in 30 seconds that start with the letter of the alphabet you’ve assigned them. When you say “go”, using only the paper and pencil you have provided them, they must write down at least 10 words that start with the letter “S.”

“Go!”

At this point all four of your volunteers should start feverishly writing, or at least trying to. The early adopter student should start behaving in a way that is clear their pencil is malfunctioning. This is exactly what we want. In fact, at one point the student may even extract the led, ditch the pencil body entirely, and try and complete the task while pinching the led between his/her fingers.

If the “Early Adopter” student asks for a new pencil, or complains theirs is broken, encourage them to try and fix the problem and complete the task.

No matter what happens, even if the Early Adopter student doesn’t get all 10 words written, consider giving them extra credit for participating.

Advanced Version:

You can add extra layers of sophistication to this exercise by trying to “sell” a solution to the Early Adopter’s problem by offering a working pencil in exchange for some percentage of their reward. For example, if you’re offering them 10 extra credit points, you can “sell” them a working pencil in exchange for one or two fewer extra credit points.

To see this modified version in action, watch this video:

Debrief the Finding Early Adopters Demo

With your class still standing around the volunteer students, ask them if they wanted to talk to someone about the emotions related to malfunctioning mechanical pencils which student should they talk to?

Answer: The “Early Adopter” student. The one who just experienced and tried to fix the problem.

Tell your class that there are early adopters all around us all the time; we just need to observe them in the contexts where they are experiencing, and trying to fix, problems.

Now ask your class, what do they think would happen if you had built your new pencil solution and tried to sell it to one of the other three students who weren’t Early Adopters?

Answer: None of them would have bought your pencil. We don’t buy products that don’t resolve an emotional need for us.

Use this example to emphasize why it’s so important to identify the right customers to target. If you can’t find the people who are trying to fix a hypothesized problem, you can’t find people to buy a solution for it.

Now ask your students what would happen if you sold your fancy pencil solution to the early adopter, and the next time one of the other three people’s pencils broke, our early adopter let them borrow their new fancy pencil solution?

Answer: The person with the broken pencil would now be experiencing the problem, and may be emotionally motivated to buy a solution to it, likely becoming your customer.

Emphasize to your students that this is how successful companies become successful. They don’t start by trying to sell fancy pencils to everyone. Instead, they sell to a small group of people experiencing an intense emotion – their Early Adopters. Then the company’s early adopters help the company sell their solution to members of the Early Majority, Late Majority, and the Laggards through referrals and social proof.

Ask your students, what if after several attempts of observing students using mechanical pencils, you never saw someone trying to solve problems with their pencils running out of led?

Answer: The time might not be right for a new “high capacity mechanical pencil.” Maybe pencils hold enough led as it is. Maybe students have other problems that are more pressing and deserve more attention than a high capacity pencil. This might not be the best business to build at this time – and it’s better to find that out before designing and manufacturing the new pencil, than it is after.

Drive home for students that just because you fail to find people trying to solve a problem doesn’t mean you fail. In fact, failing to find people trying to solve a problem is a faster way to succeed, because you won’t waste time trying to solve a problem that no one cares about. Instead, you can “pivot” to solving a more pressing problem, one that people will pay to solve.

Continue Defining Early Adopter Externally Observable Behaviors

Have your students return to their desks and continue with the Your Early Adopters worksheet.

Ask them where you might find people actively seeking a solution to their fear of losing their dog. What are the externally observable behaviors for your early adopters?

Potential Externally Observable Behaviors:

    • Attending dog training classes in the park
    • Buying invisible pet fence at pet store
    • Taking dogs to the vet for chip implantations
    • Getting dog collars engraved at pet store
    • Asking for advice on how to not lose your dog on Reddit

Note for your students how every externally observable behavior has a location where you might be able to find these early adopters.

If you want to help your students find the right people to interview, use an exercise that was a finalist in the prestigious USASBE 3E Competition by clicking below!


Get the “Finding Early Adopters: The Mechanical Pencil Challenge” Lesson Plan

We’ve created a detailed “Finding Early Adopters: The Mechanical Pencil Challenge” lesson plan. This exercise walks you, and your students, through the process, step-by-step.

Get the Lesson Plan

 

It’s free for any/all entrepreneurship teachers, so you’re welcome to share it.

 


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