Do Founder/Users Expand Moore's Chasm?

by Jonathan Enav

In many LTV classes we discussed Geoffrey Moore’s Chasm and whether it is a benefit or a hindrance through the lens of startups following the lean methodology.  However, we never discussed what can make the “chasm” shrink or expand.  Moore’s theory is that there is a “chasm” that separates the innovators and early adopters of a new technology from the mainstream, and that technology companies often find it hard to cross this chasm and grow beyond their core user base to become a widely adopted medium. 

Crossing the chasm is not easy and often requires pivoting your product away from your core early adopters towards the mainstream.  The lean methodology offers guidelines to achieve this; pivot early, pivot often, form a hypothesis, test it, pivot again until you find product/market fit.  So why do so many startups fail at this stage?  The lean methodology tries to make crossing the chasm easier by effectively making the chasm smaller.  However, some founders seem to, unknowingly, make it bigger.  Why does this happen and can they steer away from this pitfall?

Fred Wilson from Union Square Ventures said that his favourite founders were those that use the technology that they are building.  This makes perfect sense.  If a founder makes a startup for travelers, you want him to be a frequent-flyer as much as you want the founder of an online nappy distributor to be a new parent.  The founder of a startup must be passionate about his technology, believe in its benefits, and be a peer of the early adopters.  The founder can then follow his intuition and be hunch-driven when there are not enough customers and not enough resources to be data-driven.  If a founder is his company’s own best customer, one can expect him to think like one.  So what’s the problem?

This founder/user is great at rallying early adopters.  He thinks like them, blogs to them, already has a reputation amongst them, which helps the startup grow at the early stage.  But when it comes to crossing the chasm, is he able to alienate these peers and pivot away from how he envisioned the product and redesign it into one that his mother would want to use?  As he follows the lean methodology, and tests his hypothesis with his customers (remember, all his first customers are early adopters), they will confirm the hypotheses to pivot deeper into the obscure and away from the mainstream, thus expanding the chasm!  Since our founder/user has a vision that is confirmed by hypothesis testing, the lean methodology does nothing but entrench him further from his goals.

How can a founder/user avoid this?  By listening to external advisors like VC’s and board members.  The advisors must sober the visionary with a stiff dose of reality from the mainstream, hopefully dampening the “reality distortion field” clouding the startup.  This can be in the form of a different hypothesis, e.g.  “Dropbox is too hard to install, I had to call my son to help me install it,” which must be tested with a peer group completely dislocated from the early adopters.  Still, for the founder, abandoning his early users and peers is easier said than done.  Being called a “sell-out” is never easy, especially by people you respect.