A version of this article previously appeared in Forbes.
In an astonishingly short time period, the Comanche Native Americans progressed from a technologically primitive tribe (nomadic, little use of textiles, basketry or pottery), to becoming the most powerful society of the Southern Plains, controlling the Comecheria, a territory encompassing parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Colorado. Historians such as S.C. Gwynne cited the tribe’s adoption of horse husbandry as one of the most rapid societal transformations in recorded history.
As Geoffrey Moore points out in his classic book, Crossing The Chasm, identifying early adopters is critical to a startup’s ultimate success. Inherent in the breathtaking rate at which the Comanche people became the “Lords of the Planes” are some lessons for entrepreneurs searching for their early adopters.
Tech Absorption Within Your Target Market
Every market segment has a unique technology absorption rate. When selecting which markets to address, startups should consider the factors that will impact tech adoption. In the case of the Comanche Native Americans, a number of non-obvious factors aligned to result in the adoption of the horse as an improved means of transportation, trade and warfare.
When assessing potential target markets, take heed of the factors that led to the Comanche’s rapid adoption of the horse, including:
Most To Gain / Least To Lose – One of the most important lessons from the Comanche’s rapid technology adoption is that of all the plains tribes, there was little risk to committing the tribe’s focus to horse husbandry. Their social standing before the Conquistadors brought horses to America was among the lowest of the tribes in their region.
In contrast, the Apache Native Americans were a relatively prosperous, agrarian tribe. They too adopted the horse, but in a much less radical manner, using them to assist in farming chores. It wasn’t until they had been displaced from their farms by Mexican and US soldiers that they utilized horses for warfare.
Lesson: Search for markets in which users have the least to lose, as their switching costs will be low. If they also have the most to gain from your technology, they will likely become rapid adopters.
Don’t Dismiss Luddites – If you performed a market analysis of which tribes would take advantage of horses, it is doubtful you would have identified the Comanches as a promising segment, given their historically lackluster adoption of readily available technologies. However, their pre-horse, primitive lifestyle resulted in them owning few possessions, making the nomadic life on horseback plausible.
Lesson: Don’t overlook a customer segment, just because it hasn’t adopted prior technologies.
Doing The Same Thing, Only Better – It’s not surprising that the largely sedentary Apaches used horses to improve the productivity of their farms. Consistent with an agrarian lifestyle, they considered horses to be an additional domesticated food source.
Conversely, the Comanches were nomadic before the arrival of horses. As such, their transformation to a horse culture allowed them to become more effective nomads, carrying larger loads, greater distances. Horses became a measure of wealth, not an additional food stock.
Lesson: Consider how your technology will allow market segments to improve what they are already doing, as opposed to assuming that your solution will cause users to abandon their past practices.
Deep Adoption – Most indigenous tribes incorporated beasts of burden into their cultures. However, the Comanche were the first Plains tribe which also mastered the challenging art of horse breeding. They weren’t just quick adopters at a surface level. Their technological adoption was both rapid and pervasive.
Lesson: Seek market segments that will both quickly absorb your technology and become power users. Such segments will incorporate your solution into their daily routines and define new, unexpected use cases.
You can follow John on Twitter: @johngreathouse.
Image credit: JASON CONNOLLY/AFP/Getty Images