Saturday, February 8, 2020

Early Adopters and Inflection Points

Are you an "early adopter"? Did you know that the CEO of considers you to be one if you have already purchased a DNA test? And thus you—and multiple million others—have been lumped together into a group now considered to be early adopters in genetic genealogy.

Surprise. And you didn't even know you were so cutting-edge.

Actually, as the fast-paced world of technology goes, the term "early adopters" is quite old—reaching back to 1962, when communication theorist Everett Rogers wrote about the concept in the classic book on the spread of new ideas, Diffusion of Innovations. For an example of who might be considered an early adopter, think: first in line for beta testing a new product. The product is in its earliest stages of development, and the early adopter is keen to try it out—and, possibly, provide some candid feedback which can go towards helping direct the product's future trajectory.

If you were one of the first in line when DNA testing became available around the turn of the century, perhaps you could consider yourself an early adopter in genetic genealogy. Of course, back then, the first company to offer direct-to-consumer DNA tests—Family Tree DNA, which is still in the business—only offered an eleven-marker Y-DNA test and a limited mitochondrial DNA test; autosomal testing didn't show up on the market until 23andMe offered their test in 2007. (To put this all in perspective, I purchased my first DNA test kit in 2013—not exactly the first kid on the block.)

But now, in 2020, someone considers us to be the harbingers of things to come in genetic genealogy, by virtue of our early adopter status. And yet, that proposed inflection point—from the earliest days of this innovation's adoption—portends ominous developments. Realization of forensic applications have put people on edge despite the potential to be used for the good of the collective—pitting the scenario of seeing a feared, violent criminal still on the loose against the specter of Orwellian loss of personal rights. We're now seeing other warnings of impending doom with everything from the Pentagon's concern over security risks for military personnel to risks of unauthorized access to the stored DNA data itself. All on account of what happens after a little spit gets inside a test tube.

Is it any surprise that DNA testing numbers have plummeted in the past eighteen months?

Yet, with the past month's announcement of layoffs at DNA testing company 23andMe, followed by last week's repeat at, it seemed strangely out of place to see Ancestry CEO Margo Georgiadis portray the downturn as an issue of bridging the gap after running the gamut of those early adopters. If it were merely such a case, why wouldn't advice such as that contained in high-tech start-up advisor Geoffrey Moore's classic, Crossing the Chasm, do the trick? After all, isn't that the very position where Ancestry says it is finding itself?

To see one hundred people losing their position at 23andMe, followed by another hundred at, is painful. Yet, I can't see the offered characterization of the situation—at "an inflection point now that most early adopters have entered the category"—to be a reasonable stopping point.

It is in this "chasm"—as Geoffrey Moore characterizes that position—that specific action needs to be taken to bring the product's forward momentum to a second group of clients, a group with a far different set of requirements than those early adopters. Developing a path into another direction is far different than any inflection point in a purely forward-moving trajectory. Perhaps, reading between the lines, the real issue is not one of an "inflection point" but of a far more radical change in direction for each of these companies.  


  1. This is a fine post, giving real food for thought, if not alarm (yet). The "chasm" is not looking very inviting. If the early adopters have all been corralled, and there will not be enough of this type of customer in the future, then the big DNA testing companies will head off in search of "other" sources of profit. At best, the old doddering customer base will be left alone to wither away?

    1. Lisa, the encouraging counterweight--at least, from my perspective as I teach genealogy in community-based venues--is that the one topic within the realm of family history which seems to draw the younger set is that of DNA testing. Across the board, I've seen a wide spectrum of people interested in DNA testing, and each of these people are drawn to it for widely varying reasons.

      That said, Lisa, as I tally my own DNA matches week over week, it seems the only companies who have held their own have done so through a different marketing proposition. MyHeritage, of course, has the upper edge in that it is an international-based organization, and their multi-language reach enables them to penetrate into markets our English-speakers-only companies can't match.

      But it is 23andMe, oddly enough (given their layoff announcement in January), that may have a slight edge while we all go through this marketing chasm after saturating the early adopters. At least in my own--anecdotal--experience, I've noticed my numbers of matches at 23andMe seem *slightly* higher at their company than the same time interval at the other companies (excluding MyHeritage, which far outstrips the others).

      Then, too, I notice that 23andMe is the only one (that I am aware of) which markets direct to consumers through end caps at stores like Target, reaching out to capture the impulse buys from a very different audience than the committed online genealogy audience. That is the kind of different-thinking outreach to other markets that is needed, if these companies are truly bemoaning the scenario of needing to move beyond the penetrated early-adopter market.


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