The word “pivot” has a bad rap. It’s become the buzzword to describe every next Facebook hopeful that raised too much money, then jumped from idea to idea until it ran out. Pivoting has become a signal of excess in our times.
But it isn’t that simple. Behind many pivots are start-ups that have to face a great deal of humility. And this humility often costs personal time and money.
But what leads to a pivot? You don’t just wake up one day and decide to do something entirely different. It’s a gradual process. And it rolls out something like this:
Step one. A seed is planted even before you launch your original idea. That person who is brazen enough to contradict your pitch—quite often an angel or seasoned entrepreneur you’ve gone to for advice—pipes up and says, “Hmm, have you thought about approaching it this other way?” You wave away the advice like a mosquito. That’s someone else’s start-up.
The problem is that you will hear dozens of these ideas and most of them are someone else’s start-up (or just generally bad ideas).
Step two. Your original idea launches and you have unexpected results. Users don’t understand the point or maybe they understand the point, but don’t use the product like you’d imagined. Or maybe different users come along than you expected, or nobody shows up, or everybody shows up, but nobody sticks around. Whichever way it rolls out, something doesn’t happen like you expected it to.
It could be your marketing or product or timing or all of the above. But most likely none of the above. You know deep down inside that there is a bigger lesson here, but you aren’t quite ready to learn it. You just need to stick with it.
Step three. A couple of months go by and your initial gut reaction starts to feel more right than wrong: Something is not working. You’ve thrown marketing dollars at it, responded to feedback, and improved the user experience. But that other start-up is getting all of the attention. You know the one. The one everyone is buzzing about but you can’t understand why. But you kind of do.
You are almost ready to concede. You become more apt to take in real criticism and start to return to those early seeds of advice.
Step four. You get smarter and take your ego down about 50 notches. You open up and listen, learning from users, returning to the people whose free advice you refused, and taking a harder look at how to solve your problem.
And that is where you will find your new, better idea. It may be focusing on the feature that your current users love while throwing out the rest (Flickr), or letting go of an ideal and embracing what users really need (Fab.com), or finding a much more elegant approach to solving the problem (Buyosphere), or even realizing that you are solving the wrong problem altogether (Like.com). But this time, you will approach the solution with a new openness and awareness.
Not every pivot leads to the winning approach and not every company has the freedom—financial or time—to go through one (or several, in some cases). But, in most cases, a pivot isn’t as trite as it is reputed. It requires a huge dose of humility and the ability to recognize the opportunities in your failures before it’s too late.