Changing your business's direction is hard, especially when you love your current plan. It could be the difference between customers loving you and having to work hard forever without ever gaining acceptance.

While most people associate the term pivoting with entrepreneurship, listening to your market to change your strategy applies to many areas, such as

  • New product development
  • Proposals to your managers for a project you want to lead
  • How you present yourself in job searches

You may be smothering your chances of success if you don't listen to your market and adjust.

My search for a virtual assistant showed me someone change his business, keep his core value proposition, and meet customer demand so much better than his first implementation, I had to share.

The old business

As my business needs have grown, I've considered finding a virtual assistant but wasn't sure how. I've heard horror stories of assistants disappearing during crunch times and so on. A friend put me in touch with a guy, Tim Francis, with experience finding them.

I talked to Tim about finding an assistant. He told me about his experience, summarized on his blog post, "You're Absolutely Insane If You Don't Have An Executive Assistant" (there used to be more, but he reduced it after pivoting).

He told me that after making every mistake possible in finding and hiring virtual assistants, seeing the disaster of doing it wrong and benefits of doing it right, he was creating a course for people to get the benefits without risking the disasters.

Sounds great! It made sense. He would sell a course to create value and jobs. He even gave me a deep discount to take an early version of the course, which I did.

The "problem"

The course walked me through everything. The only problem was there was a lot. The steps were easy, but there were many, and I didn't do them.

Tim did what most people do: he asked me to evaluate his product and improve it. I told him the course was sound--an effective mix of explaining the reasons to do everything and simple steps to do them. I suggested small improvements.

Most of us spend most of our time improving our ideas incrementally. Most of the time, it's the best strategy and leads to long-term big improvements.

But taking his course wasn't leading me to getting a virtual assistant, which meant I couldn't recommend it, which meant his business wouldn't grow.

The solution

To his credit, before investing resources into scaling up the course, Tim looked for more market research. He summarized it at a mastermind group of fourteen entrepreneurs. He asked, "What would have to change about this course for you to pull out your credit card and buy this right now?"

He told me the room was silent for almost a minute. Finally, one broke the ice:

Tim, I love the outcome--an assistant. But I hate the delivery. I need the assistant because I don't have time. You're asking me to study your ten-hour online course, spend four weeks doing your method, take two weeks to train the assistant, and only then will I know if I've done it right.

The group agreed: "Don't teach us how to do it. Do it for us."

Daunted by the challenge, but seeing the potential, Tim asked, "Okay, say I scrap the course. Say I give you an assistant instead of the course... If you could have anything you wanted, what would it be?"

They gave him a laundry list:

  • Do the hiring and advertising for the assistant
  • Read the applications
  • Interview all top candidates
  • Kolbe test and match the finalists
  • Train them
  • etc

He had to go back to the drawing board, but he had much more enthusiasm.

How you know when to pivot

Pre-pivot, Tim would teach people a skill that they would make obsolete by using it. They'd never execute as well as he could, anyway.

Post-pivot, Tim would sell a service: he would meet with them to learn their needs and use his skills to deliver what they wanted: an assistant that met their needs, vetted, and trained to work with them specifically. He would also train the customer in putting materials online to delegate more, safely.

When his business grew, he would train new employees to become experts. His expertise would stay in house to help future customers, instead of disappearing to past customers, who had no value for finding virtual assistants once they had one.

Do you see how everything changed and fit in the new model? That's a sign to change.

He went from working hard and swimming upstream to satisfied customers, job creation, and business growth. And more fun doing what he was good at, enabling his customers to do the same.


I asked Tim for an update on the Great Assistant program. He wrote,

10 months later, I couldn't be happier. We've matched around 25 entrepreneurs and assistants, we've got another eight in the queue, with a waiting list of a couple dozen more. I just hired a program manager to oversee the program.

What you need to pivot effectively

A good but not great idea. It's hard not to love an idea you created. In business, you aren't the best judge, though. Your customers are. If they're listening to you and showing interest but not buying, you may have an idea or strategy worth looking at and keeping the core, but changing something.

Input from the market. The market isn't just customers. I was Tim's customer, but I didn't give him the information he needed. The market includes competitors, partners, and other stakeholders. His mastermind group included people who had marketed services like his, which I hadn't.

Sharing your ideas. People can't comment on what you don't share. If you're afraid people will steal your idea, you may keep control, but you may also never evolve.

Listening. Many people hear suggestions for change but don't listen. Listening and processing their suggestions costs nothing. It takes humility, understanding, and patience, though. These are properties of leadership.

Flexibility in thinking. How many different ways can you see the problem? How many ways can you see the solution? If you can only see one way, you're limiting how many ways you can solve it. Flexibility in mental models is a component of intelligence.

Flexibility in acting. Once you see the new solution, can you do it? How fixed are you in the old way?

Willingness to let go. The root of the word decide, -cide, means cut off or kill (like pesticide or insecticide). For Tim to decide to start his new business meant killing off the old one. He only started the old one because he had high hopes for it so letting go of it was hard. Can you let go of something you had high hopes for?

Put the customer's needs before yours. People don't buy products and services because you think they solve their problems. They pay for things because they think you'll solve their problems.

Tim didn't see the customer's needs at first. That's why he needed to change. To his credit, he listened to someone who did.

Early action. You can act as early or late as you want, but the earlier you act, the cheaper the change and the greater its effects. Note also that Tim asked the entrepreneurs what it would take to buy then and there, not just think about it. Five of the fourteen became customers.

Executive buy-in? As an entrepreneur, Tim didn't need his manager to approve the change. If you report to a decision-maker and can't approve changes yourself, you might think you need higher level buy-in.

I suggest you consider your idea to change a product, your boss the customer, and, if they listen but don't buy your idea, consider pivoting it.