Are We Iterating When We Should Be Pivoting?

I think the unfortunate thing about caring about your job as more than just a job is exactly that: you care. You emotionally feel something for your idea or project that you are working on. When things change or don’t go well, you feel that too.

To be honest, this social business hub thing is a pivot and this is tough. I enjoyed a refreshing moment of clarity going home last week and spending time with my parents. They ask questions like “when is a startup not a startup anymore?” and just recently understood my job thanks to a news piece they watched on Fox News about Charlie Sheen. Far outside of the Boston startup/social media echochamber that I live in, they loved me when I was a waitress and don’t really care what I do when I grow up. I’m enough for them. I think a point of reference is important.

What is a pivot? I hear that word tossed around a lot and I wanted to make sure I was acurately diagnosing my experience. I researched a little and found this inspiring video. In this video, super angel Mike Maples outlines three different pivots he has advised and defines that pivots are not about product iteration, but business model. We’re not adding a couple new features; we’re re-drawing sales funnels, kids.

Yea, this is a pivot.

What does this feel like? I feel like the B2C, UberTwitter-loving Twitter App Store dumped me on prom night. And I loved that app store. It feels like a breakup. Like a Ben & Jerry’s, vodka and chick flicks breakup. I feel like this:

You fall in love with your original idea. You sweat and toil and commit to it. You’re quoted publically about it. You wear the t-shirt. You spend time away from other things, on the weekends holidays and nights, because you are working on this thing. Your passion for this idea re-prioritizes your life.

But then it’s not getting traction, so you have to breakup and make a change. Quickly. I’m not even a founder but I’m…sad. It’s the best way to describe it. (Don’t get me wrong: I actually love what we’re focusing on even more now. I just invested a lot into that original idea, and other people on my team who’ve been here longer even more so.)

I’m learning more about pivots. I found this post on Fred Wilson’s blog about Hashable. Did you know they used to be a company called Tracked? If you scroll down to their CMO’s fantastic comment, you can learn a little more about their process. It sounds like they considered simply focusing on a few good features of Tracked (iterating) but they ultimately chose to completely relaunch as a new site with mobile applications, Hashable. They pivoted.

They focused on finding product/market fit during the concept, alpha and beta stages and then once they had more confidence in their product, began to build buzz. (Although, they were never in “stealth mode.”) Will they be successful? It’s an interesting concept to me, almost like a “CRM for Twitter” in my mind and people seemed to be warming up to it at SXSW. And they have evangelists already. I know how tough it is to build community. I give them huge credit for that.

What I really give them credit for is making the big pivot. The big switch. Digging through research for this blog post I found a ton of Slideshare presentations on “pivot case studies” that to me weren’t about true pivots. They were about product iteration – which is important! I subscribe to the lean startups ideology and think you should iterate and iterate and iterate based on customer feedback until you find that thing that sticks. It’s about perfecting and not perfection. But what I’m wondering is this: How many startups out there are iterating too much? How much time are we wasting iterating on a concept that isn’t getting traction, when you should really make the big jump and target your business model?

I’m talking about mothballing that site you built while you missed your kid’s soccer game and moving onto something else. I’m talking about alienating half of a community you built because they aren’t in your target audience anymore. This is a difficult but necessary choice. I wonder if some startups don’t do this early enough and are left to wonder about the business model that got away.

This is my first startup and like I said, I’m not a founder. I just wish the Twitter App Store and I broke up at homecoming so I could take another business model to prom.

3 comments
Péter Kádas
Péter Kádas

Dear Janet, your post is awesome. You should teach entrepreneurs. I am one for 16 years now, founder of 5 companies already and currently working on a social media project for the U.S. retail industry. Allow me one amendment: In social media, the industry entrant fee is still low - in contrary to pharmaceutical or automotive industry for example. At the same time, social media is changing and developing very quickly, so product life-cycle is short. Ideas can be brought to fruition with very low costs, yet with huge risk of being neglected soon.This means, early stage pivoting makes sense but later on, iteration is a better choice. You got 20.000 users in 5 years but you estimated 2 million? Forget being a Forbes company then. Keep your users and make profit. If you haven't earned profitability in five years, you already missed the chance to pivot because you lose too much money. Iterate and don't let your users away, rather chose the hard work method and keep on working in hope of a lucky exit. However early stage pivoting is a powerful tool to show the crowd your chameleon abilities. And the most important question: how can someone know wether the instinct of making robust changes is a well-timed pivot or just the loss of faith in your idea? Well, to decide it, you'll need the real entrepreneurs' sixth sense for that. :)

I'm looking forward to your further posts, Janet.

Peter

Leon Widrich
Leon Widrich

Wow, Janet, what a post. I feel of being able to perfectly relate to your words since I am involved in my first startup too. What is interesting is that we have been iterating all along so far, because we received very good responses from our users. So we wanted to make a product better that people already liked. Even so, I am tempted to pivot and make changes in a whole new direction.
Oh and many thanks for your clarification too, I always got confused with "pivoting" and "iterating", you couldn't have made it clearer in your post.
As for your point about building a community and following to be the hardest but the most important - again, this is exactly my thinking and I am working hard on it every day. The best part? I love doing it :).

Hope to read more here soon Janet, you have a brilliant writing style. Let me Buffer this post :).

Janet Aronica
Janet Aronica

Wow thank you for such a nice comment. I love startups... :) Thanks for explaining the early stage pivot vs. iteration thing to me. I'm still learning all this stuff as I go along.