Fashions in entrepreneurship: the pivot versus persistence

threesThe headline says it all, really. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the idea of the pivot and the idea of persistence. In previous eras, before the networked, coded world, targeted, two-way communication was so hard. You could do focus groups or surveys, you could interview elders or spy on the competition, but short of having a tilt at an actual product release, there was no way of knowing whether your new venture or product was going to succeed. There was no ‘stealth mode’, because it was hard enough to get the word out to the right people at the right time; stealth mode is a feature of hyper-networked, niche markets and people who talk too much on social media. (Stealth mode isn’t really a thing for most women and people from migrant backgrounds, because we just don’t get taken seriously in the first place. So intellectual property protection is pretty cheap for us in the initial parts of building something grand). The idea of the pivot – taken from the combination of agile development and market-driven product development – is brilliant and liberating. When I wrote a style guide for a large telco in the year 2000, its rallying cry was based on the Cluetrain Manifesto, which at the time was radical for promoting the idea that markets were “conversations”. Nobody really believed it, but the execs at the telco thought it sounded great and suited the tastes of their target market, so they went for it. It took the practical implementation of message boards, email, social media, advanced and stable ecommerce and cloud computing generating accurate data for consumer marketers and their ugly cousins, tech entrepreneurs, to get to the stage where the feedback necessary for the pivot was available cheaply and easily. So now, in principle, instead of coming up with a product and hoping everyone likes it, you can just get to know your market really well and expose your ideas to it until you hit on something that really sings a song to them, that touches some need or some value. I came into adulthood in the late 80’s, when management and self-improvement books were beginning to boom. The lesson they taught, over and over again, was because you can’t really know in advance whether your idea is going to work out, you should hang in there. Never, ever give up. Surrender is not an option. Throw your hat over the wall. But the problem is this: how do you create world-changing products or services without making a series of wild guesses? Everything is otherwise either derivative of something else that already exists, or created using the limited attention span and design skill of the customer. But it’s not the customer’s job to design products, it’s yours as an entrepreneur. Customers did not come up with the graphical user interface. Customers did not come up with flat pack furniture. Customers did not wake up knowing they’d like spending half their waking hours playing Threes. I think it’s my job as an entrepreneur to walk the line between the idea of the pivot (humility) and the ideal of not quitting (a kind of hubris). The only way to walk this line successfully is to be constantly learning – learning new technical things, and reading up about ideas – and being curious in the midst of it all. Imagine there are two lines on a graph. Measure 1 is the desires of the customer to have a particular problem solved, and my interest in solving it for them (respect for customer) and measure 2 is the inherent beauty or truth or rectitude of a design or concept (artistic/egotistical creation).The point at which the two lines cross is theoretically the sweet spot, where my care for the customer is neatly balanced against the creative energy required to come up with an answer. Not so much a compromise but a point at which the two strengths are at their greatest, in terms of the likelihood of a product succeeding. In the meantime, my customers say they want what I’m developing, but will they still love the idea when we push it out? Maybe yes and maybe no. In the meantime, I’m going to go back to the 80’s and say to myself “Quitters never win, and winners never quit.”

Update 23 June 2015. Just read a post by Steve Blank about whether pivots really matter – and they sure do. Anyway, here’s another take on pivots: Do Pivots Matter?

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