STARTUP

You Can Pivot, But You Should Never Twirl

The lean-startup zealots are pushing terrible advice that can put your business in a death spiral. To avoid that, prioritize your customers over your product.
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I'll go berserk if I hear one more person pontificate about "pivoting." I know it's the biggest business buzzword of the past couple years (I guess "disruptive" will have to suck it up and settle for second place), but we don't have to beat the concept to death. It's not like it's a genius new idea or something.

I do get it. I've said it myself in many different ways for way too many years.  Sometimes, especially in a startup, you need to change direction. And sometimes, especially when things are going sideways, you just have to stop dead in your tracks (no matter how far down the wrong road you may have travelled) and start again. This is the First Rule of Holes: If You Find Yourself in One, Stop Digging. You shouldn't ever lose sight of your vision, but it's more than O.K. to alter your course. In fact, it's essential in today's rapidly changing world to constantly react to changes in your circumstances and in the competitive environment.

But here's the thing (and let me say right up front that I never really liked geometry that much): I think a pivot can't be more than 90 degrees. It's an adjustment, or a course correction, but only rarely a complete abandonment. You can pivot once, or maybe twice, but after that you've got a real problem. You've gone from a pivot to a twirl. If you're just spinning in circles and grasping at straws then you're wasting your time (and, most likely, someone else's money), and you need to give it a rest. This kind of frenzy might be the right way to roll at a weekend hackathon or in a brainstorming contest or competition, but it's no way to build a business. If you keep changing your UI, redesigning or repositioning the product or service before it's even out the door, morphing the mission and the mantra, etc., then you're missing the boat.

So sit down, catch your breath, and take stock of where you're at, what you're really trying to accomplish, and whether you're moving in the right direction. It's easy to get caught up in mindless activity. In fact, it's actually a pretty effective (albeit very temporary) cure for the anxiety and fear that every entrepreneur lives with. But it's not a solution or a strategy for success.

A second look at the "lean" scene

Don't get discouraged, though, because in a sense this pivot-mania is not really your fault. It's the fault of these lean startup zealots who have misled a whole generation of young technologists. They've got the horse behind the cart and it's really tough to make any headway that way. This MVP (minimum viable product) bull needs to stop.  It's actually not all right to have your first customers be your last beta testers. In this world of rapid reaction and instant abandonment you don't get a second chance to make a first impression,  and as a young business with limited resources you don't have the time or resources to hang in there until you get it right. Success depends on research and analysis rather than reacting to external stimuli and revising your story, your pitch, your product or your approach every few weeks. These days, getting it right at the beginning is the whole ballgame: The way you start the journey ultimately determines where you end up.

The truth is that you've got to find a need and a problem to solve before you rush ahead and start building the solution. This isn't fun, and it's hard to excite your engineers and your buddies about taking care of business before you starting building your bundle or your software stack, but it's what you've got to do. This is slow, nasty work where you have to go out into the real world and do your homework. You need to find and ask prospective customers and users what their pain points are, what problems they need solved, and, most important of all, what and whether they are prepared to pay for a solution. Then you can build a product or a service. We need to be talking about MVA--Minimum Viable Audience--aka "real customers." Then you can use the MVP methodology to iteratively build increasingly responsive offerings for them.

I say to hell with this "Field of Dreams" nonsense. The customers aren't coming. They won't find their way to your door because not only don't (and won't) they even know you exist, but they couldn't care less about you and your dreams, unless you've got something real, timely, and cost-effective that addresses a pressing and irresistible need they have--one that they acknowledge having. When you have something they can't find a reason or an excuse to say "No" to then you have a real product, not a fantasy.

Right now we've got thousands of business builders who have been told that it's all about the technology when the truth is that it's all about the targets, the real needs of real customers. This isn't something that you fix in the shop, it's something you solve first in the field. Stop pivoting, quit twirling, grab your hat, and get out of the office. Hit the road, ask the right people the right questions, and you just might find your way to a business worth building. 

Last updated: Apr 15, 2014

HOWARD TULLMAN | Columnist

Howard A. Tullman is the CEO of 1871--Where Digital Startups Get Their Start, and is also the General Managing Partner of G2T3V, LLC and of Chicago High Tech Investment Partners. He is a member of the Chicago NEXT & Cultural Affairs Councils and the Illinois Innovation & Arts Councils; an adjunct professor at Kellogg; and an advisor to many start-ups. He is the former Chairman and CEO of Tribeca Flashpoint Media Arts Academy. Over the last 45 years he has successfully founded more than a dozen high-tech companies. @tullman

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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