You're Stuck. Time To Pivot?

At times it happens in your personal life, other times it happens in your professional life.

It’s almost never an instant realization.

Instead, it creeps up on you like the flu until one day you find yourself in a cold sweat saying “Shit. This is not good.”

It’s the feeling of knowing you’re stuck. That something is not working, even though you’ve been working at it for so long, and giving it everything you’ve got.

"When your business, project, or career has hit a wall, the hardest part is admitting it. So I’ll say it first: I’ve been there."

Many times in fact. I’ve lost sleep over it, had anxiety, panicked, cried, gotten angry, forgotten to eat, then ate too much, and other knee-jerk reactions to realizing I wasn’t only doing something wrong, I was failing at what I was trying to do.

So what happens next?

Enter the “pivot.” The term made famous by Eric Ries, author of The Lean Startup, and a savior to all of us embarrassed by our mistakes. Ries believed that it was rare for a company to get it right from the start, and that most successful companies undergo a series of pivots before emerging as a success.

No pivot is the same, because there is no standard format. According to Ries, a pivot is “making a change in strategy, without a change in vision.”

So that change will be individualized to the problem you specifically are trying to solve.

For example, say you own a popcorn cart and your vision is to provide people with healthy, organic popcorn. Currently, you sell your popcorn on the weekends at a local theme park, but your sales are not enough to justify the cost of the permit fees charged by the theme park. You notice that your customers are always asking if they can buy your popcorn in retail stores. This may be the time to pivot and consider partnering with a local grocery store or cafe to sell your products instead. If you can double your sales by having your product carried in stores, while also reducing your expenses because you no longer have to pay the permit fees, you are still fulfilling your vision, just under a different strategy than originally planned.

The curse of being a passionate person is that you’re dedicated to a specific outcome (what Ries describes as a vision), and we’re usually afraid to veer off our predetermined course (making a change in strategy) for fear of not attaining our desired outcome. But it’s not impossible to make a large change without compromising your ultimate goal.

Below are the most important things I’ve learned when it comes to pivoting.

Signs You Need To Pivot

  • You’re not making enough money to justify your expenses, or personal output

  • Your business is not growing

  • You’re not getting referrals or new customers

  • Previous customers are not coming back

  • One of your services is underperforming compared to the rest

  • Your customers have verbally expressed interest in something you don’t offer, or dissatisfaction with something you currently offer*

*Complaints or suggestions by customers do not warrant immediate change, or even having to change at all. Make sure to keep track of every piece of feedback your customers give you, analyze that feedback, and watch for recurrences. If a specific piece of feedback stands out, investigate it.

Note: I purposely did not include external signs on this list such as competition, because I wanted to specifically focus on the internal data that you have knowledge of, and complete access to.

How To Investigate And Prepare For A Pivot

Look at your numbers.

Don’t ignore the obvious or avoid the data. The sooner you know the financial health and viability of your business, the sooner you can find ways to improve it.

Talk with other people in your industry.

Better yet, someone who’s doing exactly what you’re doing. I’m not asking you to take your competition out to lunch. Instead, find someone who lives in a different state, or someone who’s been in business 10 years longer than you. The point is to find as many people as you can who understand the exact struggle you are going through.

Ask your customers.

This is a must! Customers are your most valuable resource, don’t be afraid to talk to them and get their honest feedback and advice. Plus, I’ve found that customers enjoy talking to me directly because they feel valued that I asked for their opinions. You’re not a giant corporation, you’re a hardworking person who is looking for help. Your customers are people too. They will help you.

When Not To Pivot

  • Before having enough data to make an educated decision

  • Before charting out every possible scenario that will occur due to the change

  • If the change will create a new problem, or further aggravate existing problems

  • Without asking your customers “Would you use this?” “Will you pay for this?” “How much will you pay for this?” and if it’s appropriate “Will you commit to this?” (ex: pre-sales)

  • Without consulting a professional

  • Without consulting your industry peers and advisors

  • If you are not in a financial position to do so (ex: you can’t pay your bills)

  • The change goes against your ethics and values (a mission statement can always be revised, but your ethics and values should never be compromised)