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by • September 8, 2010 • Lean startup metaComments (0)25

The permanent pivot and other problems

I’ve noticed 3 flavors of problematic pivots — premature, perpetual, and public. The solution to all of them is basically the same: write down what you believe, document what you learn, and then pivot hard & fast to a new plan.

The premature pivot is when you change direction too often, based on too little evidence. There’s an extreme version of this where founders pivot based on no evidence by simply talking themselves out of it. It’s a problem because those early false negatives cause you to abandon promising opportunities that are difficult or non-obvious.

It’s exacerbated by caring too much about the opinion of just a few people. This can be because you didn’t speak with enough customers, or because you over-value certain voices. The latter case happens a lot with investor rejections, which founders too often interpret as divine damnation.

The perpetual pivot happens when you’re permanently learning about a space without ever putting a stake in the ground and saying “THIS is what I’m doing!” It causes you to spend a bunch of time on stuff that loosely relates to work without being able to actually point to your top risks & validate them.

When someone says “We’re in the middle of a pivot” at a networking event, that’s the public pivot in action. It loosely translates as “We are so confused.” I’ve come into the opinion that you shouldn’t talk to anyone (apart from the founders & board) while you’re still deciding where to pivot to. All external conversations are marketing and you’re just hurting yourself by getting out there while indecisive.

(Spoiler alert: the solution isn’t to lock yourself inside for a month — it’s to choose a new direction as soon as you disprove your current one.)

"There's a metaphor in here somewhere. Also, confidence is important."

Traction begets traction. As people’s [admittedly arbitrary] opinion of your business declines, doors start closing. Fewer introductions are available and media coverage dries up. People tend to be awful at judging the worth of business ideas, so they rely on a combination of traction, social proof (“TechCrunch? Funding? Wow!”) and the founders’ confidence.

When you pivot, you’re typically abandoning short-term traction to go after a more promising long-term goal. And you don’t exactly come off as bubbling with confidence when you’re all questions and no plans.

(An aside: that inability to talk about risks is a broader problem with startup culture — we still lack the vocabulary & conventions to discuss learning in an exciting and/or high-profile way.)

Write stuff down, then pivot hard & fast — a homeopathic cure-all

Rejection seems a lot less personal when it’s just a row on a spreadsheet. If you keep the data in your head, you can convince yourself that “everybody hates it!” when that’s simply not the case. Writing down customer feedback cures the premature pivot by making irrational and/or imulsive decisions harder to justify.

On a related note, writing down your business model helps alleviate the perpetual pivot. As soon as you disprove a key piece of your business model, you should come up with the next plan. You’re already an expert in the space whose been talking to customers about what they need — you ought to be able to take your new learning and come up with a better plan.

When first starting a company, people tend to have a pretty concrete plan. Even if it’s wrong — which is likely — it gives you something to mobilize around and eventually disprove. You need to give your new ideas the same tangibility.

Pivoting is an action, not a state. Don’t linger.

Once you know you’re wrong, you pivot. Right then. You don’t keep pivoting. You do it, which results in your next business model or plan or whatever, and then you go try to prove it wrong. Always having a concrete set of beliefs resolves the problems of both perpetual & public pivoting.

There’s often a sort of trepidation after several pivots. You anticipate future wrongness and want to protect yourself from it by never planting a flag in the ground. But that sort of indecision does nothing but waste your money. Failing to form an opinion is worse than failing to test it.

(PS: Do you know what your business model is right now? Perhaps you should write it down.)

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