Pivots are a Trap

It's kind of common in Silicon Valley to meet up with someone you haven't seen in a while, only to find out that his startup has completely changed directions. Like it used to be all about selling catfood, and now it's all about building a better mousetrap. In fact, if you've talked to me in the past year or so, you've probably heard at least three different stories about what I'm building, depending on when we last talked. Over the past few years, the term "pivot" has entered the technology startup vernacular in a big way. The problem is that pivoting is actually one of the biggest mistakes that startups make.

So wait a second. Pivots are a bad idea? Why are pivots a bad idea? Well, I can think of at least two reasons. The first is that most startups pivot way too soon, and the second is that when you pivot, you are generally trading a set of known problems for a set of unknown problems.

Success Takes Time
I'm going to put it out there - most technology entrepreneurs fail because they don't stick to any one thing for long enough. Success is hard, and it takes time - a lot of startups take years to achieve even ramen-level profitability. So when I see someone building a completely new product every six months, I wonder whether they are giving themself enough time to actually validate their concept before moving on to something else (note that I've been as guilty of this as anyone else). It's super-easy to justify why your idea didn't work - "nobody wanted it" or "we didn't build the right product." Sure, maybe you didn't build the right product, but if you only spent a couple months trying to sell it, it's impossible for you to know that.

About a month ago, I was having lunch with an old friend who doesn't work in the startup space (it can be a good reality check to have a few of those). I told him that I was feeling dejected because no one wanted my product. After giving me a brief pep talk, he asked me how long I had been trying to sell this product. It turned out that it had only been about three months since I started actively working on this manifestation. He laughed, and said that it's pretty close to impossible to build a product and get paying customers on only three months. I realized that my expectations were unrealistic, and decided to keep going at it for longer. It's kind of interesting to talk to non-startup people - they always have a much different point of view than startup founders/employees. For example, my mother (who is an entrepreneur, albeit the old-school type) has been telling me for years that I need to stick with things for longer. It just took me a while to see things that way. Sure there are some overnight success stories, but most of the time it doesn't go that way.

Most successful people I know took several years to achieve success. I was recently hanging out with some people who were in my YCombinator class back in Summer 2009. They have been working on the same product for about three years, and didn't hit profitability until the end of year two. And that seems like it's about par for the course. My friend Gabi launched her food blog over three years ago, and just had her first cookbook published this month. Point is that this isn't going to happen overnight, and you need to give it time.

So I know - being an entrepreneur takes your entire working career and compresses it into just a few years (or at least that's what Paul Graham says). When you've been working on a product for three months, it's like a year of big-company time. The problem is that the outside world doesn't operate at the same pace. So, entrepreneurs often end up giving up way too soon, and move on, hoping that the next thing will be easier (more on that later). I know a number of really smart people who launch interesting product after interesting product. But the problem is that once they finish one product, they are on to the next before they truly see out the first.

For a lot of people, it's easier to build products than to make businesses work, so they default to building new things on auto-repeat. Now, they can just say "I pivoted," and all is good (except that it's not). Since this blog is all about self-discovery, I will admit to having made the mistake I warn you about. We built two products at our current startup that we abandoned. Both of them were reasonable businesses, and we abandoned them way too soon. We were hoping for some sort of magical adoption curve, and when it was hard to close our first paying customer, we paniced and pivoted. But I'm pretty sure that we could have succeeded with either one in the longer-term, and that pivoting was a mistake. But hey, hindsight is 20/20.

You Succeed By Learning
One of the nice things about startups is that you learn a lot of new and interesting things. In fact, if I had to pick one reason to start a startup rather than working at a big company, it might be that I would learn much more at the startup (assuming that I used the time effectively). You can immerse yourself in an entirely new industry of your choosing, and learn a ton about that industry in a relatively short time. The problem with pivoting is that you often throw out a good portion of that learning in the process.

Assuming that you have spent some time working on an idea, you have probably immersed yourself in the market, and have gotten to know the players. Maybe you know what makes them tick, or what their problems are, or even what they don't want (if you built a few products that they wouldn't buy). One of the ways to learn how to succeed is to methodically eliminate all the ways not to succeed. If you can keep the problem space relatively constrained, you can eventually work through it. But when you pivot, it is likely that you put yourself back at square one. This is a calculated risk you have to take, and sometimes it makes sense, but I think that people are too prone to doing it. Maybe, rather than picking a new target customer or going from B2B to B2C, you can figure out a slightly different manifestation of your product that would address your customers' objections. Since you've already spent time getting to know them, and it's probably easier to get them to buy than trying to sell an entirely new product to someone you don't yet know.

Success is About Execution
There's another elephant in the room, and it's that execution is the most important thing. Lately it has been in vogue to say that "ideas don't matter," and you know what, they really don't. The most important thing is that your team can execute (meaning some combination of building a product, getting people to pay you for it, and raising money). And, if you can't execute successfully on your current product, you need to ask yourself why you will be able to execute on the new idea. Nothing is going to magically change if you pivot. You still need to build the product and either get people to pay you for it or give you funding.

I find that, a lot of the time, "we pivoted" means "we couldn't execute." I will even apply this to myself. At my first startup, we had a tech-heavy team and were trying to build B2B products. Which require a long sales cycle, and we weren't able to stay motivated for long enough to execute. It's possible that we could have succeeded with a different product, but I also think there were a number of lessons we had to learn, and if we had been able/willing to stick it out for longer, we might have learned them (I'm only learning them now). If you want to figure out how to execute, you probably aren't going to do that by changing directions, but by figuring out how to get past your customers' objections. When you pivot to something new, you just mask the problem because building something new feels inherently productive. Instead, you should spend your time figuring out how to actually execute.

Wrapping Up
So, even though giving up what you're working on and building something else often seems like the best option, it usually isn't. Do something that you're willing to stick with for a long time, and then stick with each manifestation for long enough to make sure that it actually has time to work. Mark Pincus recently had a quote that I think sums it up pretty well:

One thing I learned is that while your vision should never change, you should keep trying different strategies until one works. If you can fine-tune your instinct and have confidence in it, then you can keep taking different bites of the apple and keep approaching the problem in different ways until you get it right.

But it's important to realize that taking different bites of the same apple is very different from biting into an entirely new pear or banana, and it seems like a lot of people are actually doing that. But, if you're willing to be honest with yourself, I'm pretty sure you will eventually figure it out.

10 responses
Good advice, thanks for that.

My comment is rather unrelated though. My eyes aren't what they used to be, and a larger font size would be much appreciated. Until then, ⌘+ (3 times) makes it work for me.

Great post and well articulated.

After reading this, I'd love to hear more about the specific lessons you've learned about execution.

Great article, and agree with bluesmoon about 3 times ⌘+ :)
Very good advice.

+1 to increase font size.

Very interesting article, thanks for writing it.
+1 to increase font size, I had to do ctrl+ three times to read comfortably.
Thanks for reminding me to keep going!
Dana, while I agree with your point, you're using the term pivot her to mean "completely change your business model entirely."

That's not what is meant by the term in lean startup although that is often how the term is used colloquially.

Eric Ries' original usage is here:

"I want to introduce the concept of the pivot, the idea that 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." - Eric Ries http://www.startuplessonslearned.com/2009/06/pivot-dont-jump-to-new-vision.html

You are arguing against a straw man by saying pivots are complete jumps and then trotting out Eric's own thesis by suggesting that startup should leverage their learning within a domain...in other words...they should pivot, not jump.

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