Part of the process: How and when to pivot your business

Very few successful startups have materialised as the original business plan brought to life. Every founder has to iterate, assess, and pivot – often several times – before hitting product market fit. But psychologically speaking, there’s no such thing as a painless pivot

Present Elon-related state of affairs aside, Twitter is one of the most successful businesses ever built. But it didn’t get there without a couple of pivots. 

Originally a podcasting company, an SMS-based social update service, then – as late as the 2010s and following several huge tech overhauls to cater to capacity – an online social media platform.

It morphed through several stages based on user feedback to become the centre for the world’s conversations, enabled by the introduction of hashtags and the doubling of the character limit. 

Groupon pivoted from a charity-oriented social platform. Nintendo started out making playing cards.

Often, pivoting will go against all of your instincts, expectations, and a number of unhelpful cognitive biases to boot – overconfidence bias, sunk cost fallacy, planning fallacy, and ostrich bias to name a few. 

If you are not growing according to expectations, you might need to go back to the PMF drawing board, define your core customers, work on your growth models, or adjust your price point. 

It’s a healthy and often inevitable shift in a startups’ life.

But the decision to do it might be one of the most agonising processes you’ll go through in your career as a founder. 

Adapt or die

Pivoting can mean a handful of things. 

Your product might be sound but it needs to be marketed to a different audience. Your audience might be right but you might need to make adjustments in product. Both might be right but your price point could be off base. Or your branding might not match up with your offer.

It might be that people like your product, but they don’t love it. Value is proportional to the pain you’re relieving. If your user base is satisfied comma ambivalent, conversion will be harder, churn will be higher, and you might not have found strong enough PMF.

It might be a feature thing – a case of dropping or fixing what doesn’t work, or building an add-on that does.

You might discover the ocean you’re operating in is redder than you thought

Or it might be that everything runs like a well-oiled machine in local markets. But your operation has no scaling power. 

Either way, there are few ways to make the likely instance of a pivot less agonising.

Pain of the pivot 

Never stop collecting as much qualitative and quantitative feedback as humanly possible. Good feedback in the beginning doesn’t mean good feedback forever. You’ll invariably need to chop and change as you scale and address new markets. You’ll (hopefully) always have new users and new segments to keep happy.

Keep design and branding efforts generic until you find a niche need to solve. Then brand according to your discovered market in order to penetrate it.

Build lean from the start. Under the lean methodology, the startup exists to repeatedly review, innovate, iterate, and pivot until you hit PMF. The only danger here is analysis paralysis. You can get so far into the weeds you won’t recognise PMF when it’s staring you in the face. 

Align your expectations by comparing with similar startups with similar funding and team size.

Look for the minimum adaption with the maximum impact possible to keep the costs of pivoting down. If you’re several pivots in and you’re writing whole new business models each time instead of making tweaks, you might be throwing good money (and time) after bad. At this point, it becomes about knowing when to quit

Remember: it’s good to pivot. When you’re seeking angel or VC funding, you will likely be asked not just whether you’ve pivoted but how many times, as a measure of your self-awareness, willingness to listen, and ability to make tough calls.

On the question of whether you should pivot, the answer is yes, if you’ve lost faith in what you’re doing. 

Even if it’s profitable, pushing forward without passion is a recipe for burnout, disillusionment, and further problems down the road. You can move away from what you started, but don’t lose sight of why you started. 

On the question of how you should pivot, the answer is in response to what your customers and the wider market are telling you – no matter what your original dream was. 

This means leveraging your data and relationships with your customers to garner deep understanding of their needs. 

On the question of how often you should pivot, the answer is as many times as necessary.

The sooner you bite the bullet, the sooner you can gain momentum on the next phase of your moonshot.

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