CTO SmackChat: The Dreaded “Pivot”

Your startup is a success! Family and friends have seen you through to the point where an angel investor got excited, and your first alpha customer really likes where you are heading. The beta tests are under way and the feedback is coming in.

One customer says he would be interested in buying if your product could provide two additional capabilities not in the beta version. Another indicates her problem is not exactly the one you are addressing but she sees how it could apply by changing the domain slightly and taking some additional inputs into account. Some feedback says it seems similar to what they are already using. There is a request to show the output on a map background. And, your marketing guru says that several customers are really struggling to solve a problem that one component of your solution could make dramatically easier. Should you pivot, or stay the course? Add features or simplify? Expand to related problem areas? What feedback do you rely on to make those decisions?

A couple things are clear. As a startup your resources are stretched way too thin simply trying to address one market. Expanding to a second problem area before succeeding in the first one makes it much more likely that neither will succeed. The second notion is integrity of a core product offering. If every customer has a different set of implemented features, your business is really a service business built around customizing features rather than a product business.

But the harder trap for most entrepreneurial technologists is falling in love with your own ideas. After all, you thought it up, and your whole career has been built on confidence in your technical ideas. You probably know better than the customer what is really possible from a technical standpoint, and what the hard problems are that you know how to solve. In the end though, the right answer is always what customers will pay for. And in our example above I would be inclined to listen to the marketing guru who seems to be close to some potentially paying customers: perhaps it is time to change the product idea, get rid of a bunch of the features that are not helping differentiate it, and focus on the one core bit that could help several customers solve a critical problem.

There is no science behind when to pivot and when to stay the course. An important indicator is slow or flat sales (or interest) combined with some customer pull along a different development vector than the one you are following. As the divergence grows that market signal gets stronger that the pivot is upon you, but in the end you need to make a judgment call and work with your own company leadership to ensure it is the right one.

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