What’s the bit of your business you’d never give up? The reason you started it in the first place? The impact, the vision, the lifestyle, the invention, the team, or whatever else.
That’s your unconditional. When you hit a wall and need to change what you’re doing, you pivot around both your learning and your unconditional. It’s no help to get stuck in spreadsheet-strategy-land and make abstract decisions that make sense on paper but tear out your heart.
I started my first company to make playful creative toys for kids. We ended up building advertising tools for brands. It was a pivot that looked great on the spreadsheet but which, once made, gutted our passion. Our day-to-day feelings became dependent on externals (profits, traction, press) instead of internals (doing something we cared about). We kept going thanks to the momentum of obligation to each other and to our investors, but it was a different company. And not a company any of us would have considered starting.
It’s okay to make sub-optimal decisions to protect your unconditional. Startups are made up of people and powered by excitement. The spreadsheet never tells the whole story. You started the company to make your life better, not worse; to enable your dreams, not deny them. In some cases this might even mean shutting down (or at least handing off) a company that could still work, if it can’t work in the way you wanted it to.
This sounds like a bit of a downer, but I don’t see it that way. I see it as permission to keep chasing some of the stuff you started this thing for, even when it isn’t what a robot would do. I don’t know if I’m correct, but I certainly believe that letting yourself get ground down and burned out is unproductive martyrdom. This is hedged with the fact that chasing your dreams 100% while ignoring all reality is also a terrible idea. But a path exists where you respect both sets of constraints.
 This article is meant to be about strategic decisions more than about shutting down the company, but since we’re on the topic, I once got obliterated by an angry crowd in Latvia after saying something like this a few years back. They were angry because they thought that I was being cavalier with the fates of the employees who depended on me. But protecting your own values is not exclusive with protecting your people. As a founder, you’re in the best possible position to find every single employee a new position well in advance of shutting down. Imagine how elated another business owner is going to be when you call them and say, “Hey, I’ve got to shut down my company, but I’ve worked my socks off for the last few years building a kick-ass team. Can we meet for an hour so I can tell you about them and see if any would fit in with you guys?”Read More »