The Power of the Pivot: A Primer

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the new thing you’re going to try will be an improvement, something that builds on what you’ve learned about your current product or business model.

There are two extremes to avoid here. You don’t want to wait too long to pivot, or you’ll become one of what Ries calls “the living dead”—companies that are “still expending energy but not really making progress, always hoping the next new feature will cause traction to magically materialize.” But if you change things too often or too much, you’re in danger of turning into “the compulsive jumper”—“never picking a single direction long enough to find out if there’s anything there.”

So, don’t be afraid to take the leap, but look before you do it. Below a few ideas, gleaned mostly from startup gurus like Ries and Steve Blank (one of our speakers today), that can help you land safely. At today’s event, you’ll hear more ideas, directly from the startup veterans who’ve tried them.

• Really, truly get to know your customers and their needs, and be honest with yourself about whether your product as currently configured is really meeting those needs.

• If it isn’t, ask whether your existing product might solve similar problems for a different set of customers.

• Or ask whether you might be good at solving a slightly different problem for the same customers.

• Be unafraid to throw out the work you’ve already done, however beautiful it is. But in the process, take advantage of what you’ve built or learned so far (e.g. why customers didn’t like your old idea). A pivot isn’t starting over, it’s recognizing that the next step is possible only because of what you’ve learned from previous steps.

• Don’t change the value proposition or the fundamental features of your product first. That’s really traumatic and should only be a last resort. Try changing other stuff (revenue model, pricing, customer segment) first.

• Test out new ideas as quickly and cheaply as possible. If you can prototype and test your product using Post-It Notes, do that. As Caroline O’Connor and Perry Klebahn have noted, “An early pivot is exponentially cheaper than a late one.”

• Be honest with yourself. Has your product attracted passionate fans? If not, it’s probably time to pivot.

I’ll leave you with an extended quote from the Eric Ries essay that started the whole pivot meme, back in 2009. It’s important because it reminds us that a successful pivot is about continuity as much as disruption; it’s an experiment guided by vision and learning.

“Successful startups change directions but stay grounded in what they’ve learned. They keep one foot in the past and place one foot in a new possible future. Over time, this pivoting may lead them far afield from their original vision, but if you look carefully, you’ll be able to detect common threads that link each iteration. By contrast, many unsuccessful startups simply jump outright from one vision to something completely different. These jumps are extremely risky, because they don’t leverage the validated learning about customers that came before.”

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Wade Roush is the producer and host of the podcast Soonish and a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @soonishpodcast

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