There are techies (if you are reading this blog you are almost certainly one of them) and there are mainstream users – some people call them “normals” (@caterina suggested “muggles”). A lot of people call techies “early adopters” but I think this is a mistake: techies are only occasionally good predictors of which tech products normals will like.
Techies are enthusiastic evangelists and can therefore give you lots of free marketing. Normals, on the other hand, are what you need to create a large company. There are three main ways that techies and normals can combine to embrace (or ignore) a startup.
1. If you are loved first by techies and then by normals you get free marketing and also scale. Google, Skype and YouTube all followed this chronology. It is startup nirvana.
2. The next best scenario is to be loved by normals but not by the techies. The vast majority of successful consumer businesses fall into this category. Usually the first time they get a lot of attention from the tech community is when they announce revenues or close a big financing. Some recent companies that fall in this category are Groupon, Zynga, and Gilt Group. Since these companies don’t start out with lots of free techie evangelizing they often acquire customers through paid marketing.
(My last company – SiteAdvisor – was a product tech bloggers mostly dismissed even as normals embraced it. When I left the company we had over 150 million downloads, yet the first time the word “SiteAdvisor” appeared on TechCrunch was a year after we were acquired when they referred to another product as “SiteAdvisor 2.0″.)
3. There are lots of products that are loved just by techies but not by normals. When something is getting hyped by techies, one of the hardest things to figure out is whether it will cross over to normals. The normals I know don’t want to vote on news, tag bookmarks, or annotate web pages. I have no idea whether they want to “check in” to locations. A year ago, I would have said they didn’t want to Twitter but obviously I was wrong. Knowing when something is techie-only versus techie-plus-normals is one of the hardest things to predict.