7 Reasons You Should be Thinking About Your First Pivot

August 10, 2016

The word “pivot” comes with a certain charm to it and at times, a certain mystique that alludes to a big, grand gesture for a startup or entrepreneur who has made a bold move into something fresh.

In fact, the word “pivot” is often used completely out of context, too.

I’ve done it myself – when we “pivoted” our startup idea Cavalry into a new idea, Pip™, we vehemently called it a pivot for a long time.

But it wasn’t a pivot – it was a complete stop on Cavalry and a brand new startup in Pip™.

Why did we call it a pivot?

Honestly and certainly on my part, I believe that it was because we were afraid of admitting that our baby, our idea, wasn’t going to work so instead, we “pivoted” into something else.

Saying that just made it easier; saying that made it feel like we hadn’t given up on our original idea.

It’s not the first time

I decided to write this tutorial for you as an early stage entrepreneur because as I think about it, my entire entrepreneurial career has been a series of actual pivots that didn’t feel like pivots until after the fact.

Being honest, they simply felt like logical decisions within my business – particularly here at our design agency, HACKSAW™.

They were results led; they were in response to circumstance or better still, opportunity; they were obvious at the time.

But there’s a problem: we’re entrepreneurs you and I, and we don’t take lightly to letting things go, even when we know that we’re letting go of something good in the pursuit of something great.

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What is a pivot and what are the two stages to a successful pivot?

Whether you’re an early stage online entrepreneur creating content, products and services for an audience, an early stage bricks and mortar business owner or the founder of a tech startup, a pivot is the same.

As defined by Eric Ries in The Lean Startup (a must read for any early stage entrepreneur), a pivot is:

“a structured course correction designed to test a new fundamental hypothesis about the product, strategy, and engine of growth.”

That’s a pretty clear description, but unless you’ve been embedded in the startup scene or have this explanation in context, it can be a little overwhelming.

When approaching your first pivot as an early stage entrepreneur, I believe it’s best to think about it like this:

“Keeping one foot firmly planted in your core goals, and changing direction to test a new method of reaching that set of goals.”

The beauty of the Lean Startup method, a method that can be applied in any aspect of business, not just a tech startup, is that although we often hear of companies undertaking these grandiose pivots, your own pivots can be subtle and incremental.

In fact, they should be.

A successful pivot must test something – “What results will I get from trying this versus how I’ve done it previously?”

A pivot isn’t big and scary – breaking it down

Ultimately, the goal of a pivot is to generate optimal results for your business, product or service.

Looking at the big picture of your own business as an early stage entrepreneur, there are only two fundamental considerations you need to make to undertake a pivot:

  1. If and why you need to pivot.
  2. If you do, what does this “relaunch” look like, how do you execute it and measure it?

When considering a pivot, it’s vital to understand that this isn’t something that you should approach lightly – it can fundamentally change the course of your business and pull you in directions that you didn’t expect.

This is very often a good thing, after all there’s a reason for taking that action in the first place, although it’s vital to make sure that you’re comfortable being in a business that could look a whole lot different to how it looked when you started it.

A pivot can only really come from one of a small number of places:

  • Poor results from the current input.
  • Unhappiness / lack of personal fulfilment.
  • Opportunity – a calculated analysis of “giving up something good for something great”.

In each of these circumstances a pivot can only be decided upon if you know exactly what the new version will look like, what tests you can place upon your assumptions to prove or disprove that the pivot is working and what those assumptions are, stemming from a “here’s what isn’t working right now” perspective.

The issue that most of us face is that often, it’s our gut that alerts us to the first signs of needing to make a significant change.

But our gut isn’t quite good enough.

I’m a huge fan of following that instinct, as I’m sure you are as an entrepreneur too, but there has to be something measurable to weight this against.

Without that, you run the risk of finding yourself in a similar, “gut based” position later on.

That may be completely natural and justified, but again – you need to be able to pragmatically analyse that feeling and prove that any action that you take based upon it, is completely justified.

The perils of not making analytical decisions like this, even in the early days, is that frankly you just won’t know what’s working and what isn’t.

The issues that can stem from this approach are significantly more damaging to a product cycle and an overall business than any amount of pivots.

Aimless, directionless and ultimately immeasurable strategies & tactics inevitably lead to immeasurable and sub-standard results, purely because there is simply nothing to measure against.

7 Reasons You Should be Thinking About Your First Pivot

Before diving in here, I want to be very clear: a pivot, for all it’s grand implications, can be as small as testing a new target audience for your marketing spend and can be as big as transforming your entire business model.

Reason to pivot #1 – You Lost Interest

I’ve started with what could feel like a very, very flippant reason to even consider a pivot, but let me explain.

When you start in business you do so for a reason.

Typically, you’re driven by either lifestyle or solution based passion: you either pursue a certain version of life for yourself or you believe so deeply in a solution that you’ve formulated that you have no doubt that this is the thing for you, forever.

As an entrepreneur, you’re driven by curiosity – it’s one of the key factors in how I believe that entrepreneurial spirit can be defined.

As such, you’re often beset with new ideas and “shiny object syndrome”.

In itself, that can be dangerous – flitting between ideas typically results in none of them generating any results.

But what if you have generated results and have simply gotten bored of what you’ve been doing for such a long time?

After all, we all develop as people – time is the biggest healer as much as it is the biggest force for change.

Getting bored is alright. It’s fine, you’re doing nothing wrong by hoping to explore something new.

It’s about how you implement the new ideas – it’s not about trying everything, it’s about validating and acting on actual customer needs and customer desires, not simply following your own interests blindly.

Reason to pivot #2 – You Built Something That No One Wants

Speaking to that last point: following your own interests blindly…

Well, that can very often result in a product that no one wants; a product that doesn’t quite hit the mark.

For an online entrepreneur or content creator, it can lead to creating content, courses or otherwise that don’t sell.

This is a symptom of not surveying your current or potential audience / user base and the real challenge here is that actually, what you’ve created is probably really good.

You’ve put time, effort and perhaps even money in to creating the idea and yet it just will not sell. Despite your best marketing efforts and ongoing evangelism of your creation, things just never seem to “fall into place” for you.

This is, in my opinion, the most soul destroying version of a need to pivot, and the reason is simple: you can’t see the problem.

You’re at risk of believing that it’s you that just aren’t very good when the real problem is that, as good as your creation is, people just do not want it – it doesn’t solve a problem that matters enough to them for them to pay for it, or it’s not desirable enough for them to pull our their wallets.

I’m willing to bet that most entrepreneurs have created something like this in the past.

It’s a trial by fire and often gets re-framed as the oh-so-fabulous failure that goes on to define every “celebrity” entrepreneur’s later success.

Now, I’m off to buy a Sinclair C5.

Reason to pivot #3 – You’re Not Scalable

When I was training hard at the gym, I hit a plateau.

I’d gotten to within touching distance of my 200lb goal and could not quite get there – no matter what I did. I tried eating more, I tried training more and even harder than already and still, nada.

The problem I was facing was that my input was disproportionate to my output.

My results weren’t scalable.

This of course is a common trait in the tech startup scene, but what about you as an early stage entrepreneur, bricks and mortar service business or content creation business?

The general symptoms of this problem are simple: the harder you work, the less you achieve; the more you put in, the less you return proportionately.

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When considering a tech startup, this becomes easier to identify as you generate more data to measure and analyse.

But as an early stage entrepreneur with a focus on creating something either in your spare time or that is based on content, this can be more difficult to spot.

Invariably, piling more hours into the creation becomes the norm in an effort to generate more output. As a damaging by-product of that, you actually become less scalable – the results rely upon your time and if you aren’t careful, you work yourself into a position where systemisation and automation are pipe dreams reserved for “the successful people”.

Regardless of your situation, you should be expendable. If you aren’t, if the business relies upon you then all you do is build yourself a prison that returns disproportionate results against the time that you end up serving.

Reason to pivot #4 – You Have Too Many “Features”

Are you like me? Do you get excited by all the cool things that you could add to your products?

I really struggle with this. Whether it’s Podcast Websites or even client sites at HACKSAW™, I get really excited about what could be added to make the output the “best” it can possibly be.

Through a lot of work and personal development, I’ve come to understand that actually it’s the most simple solution that wins, every time.

Without a doubt, solving one problem and solving that problem really, really well is a much more successful approach than cramming features into what feels like a more “complete” solution.

There are so many examples of this “in the wild”, too.

Instagram pivoted off their “fully featured” original idea ”Burbn” to focus on a very simple, highly-effective solution to one problem: allowing non-photographers to create and share stunning photos quickly & easily.

Online entrepreneur and founder of Smart Passive Income, Pat Flynn actually began his online journey in 2008 through the creation of GreenExamAcademy.com – a website that still focusses solely on helping people pass their LEED exams.

“Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.” — Steve Jobs

If pivoting is about testing a hypothesis against a set of results, focussing on one problem is perhaps the clearest way of understanding exactly what is and what isn’t worth testing – after all, solving one problem step-by-step is ultimately more measurable than trying to “shotgun” a range of problems at once.

Reason to pivot #5 – You Spotted an Opportunity

Although a dangerous liaison with serendipity if you’re not aware of the “shiny object syndrome” mentioned earlier in this tutorial, being presented with an opportunity that you weren’t previously aware of should always warrant consideration.

Even if the time isn’t suitable “right now”, nothing should be dismissed.

Yet sometimes, serendipity does play in our favour and we’re given a chance to make a change for the betterment of our business, product or service.

Surprise acquisition opportunities, user generated feedback that steers you away from a product issue you didn’t know you had, or a response to external factors ranging from political developments to the demise of a fierce competitor will very often force your hand, presenting you with the chance to face an opportunity that you weren’t aware existed yesterday.

Many of these types of opportunity are things that you cannot control, but as a startup founder or online entrepreneur, the one thing you most certainly can control is the amount of conversation that you have with your current user base or audience.

During a recent conversation with Ash Maurya of The Lean Canvas for session four of ”The Straight Talking Guide to Launching Your First Product”, we delved into how Ash would very often manually call up the prospects within his business to understand why they didn’t buy from him.

Honestly, this feels like a lot of work, but doing the things like this in your business that feel like they won’t scale very often leads to the most insightful feedback – think about the quality of information you’ll receive from simply asking someone:

Hey, just curious – what was it specifically that made you choose not to buy?”

As an online entrepreneur, especially one with an audience of any more than a few hundred people, you’re afforded the chance to literally ask what you can do for those people.

The answers may surprise you; the answers may lead to an opportunity to pivot into something even more profitable, powerful and ultimately better for your business than you would have ever considered yourself.

Reason to pivot #6 – You Just Aren’t Generating Any Traction (Money or Otherwise)

Traction is a word familiar to founders. As an online entrepreneur or content creator, the word may be a new addition to the arsenal but regardless, it’s a word that we should all be extremely conscious of.

Traction is the amount of compound progress that you make, week on week / month on month against the core metric(s) of your business.

For many bricks and mortar businesses, this may be as simple as measuring cashflow. For online creators this may be the number of email signups you receive each day. For founders of tech startups, it’s the single metric that proves that your startup is achieving what it sets out to achieve.

A fabulous UK startup, Chew.tv classes traction as the amount of minutes streamed week on week, month on month; where here at Excellence Expected I class traction right now as the number of new audience members ups that I generate per week; Podcast Websites measures traction as the number of one-to-one bookings made and converted to membership sign ups; HACKSAW™ measures traction as simply cash in the bank.

Of course, other metrics flow into these core measurements – HACKSAW™ can’t convert to cash in the bank without a stream of enquiries, conversions to jobs and fulfilment of those jobs – but if your core metric isn’t moving in the right direction, then something “beneath it” is broken.

Very often we spend time working “harder”, striving to work more hours because that’s what entrepreneurs and founders do, right?

Sure, we may need to pull some hours but if you find yourself wondering why the needle simply is not moving regardless of how much you put in to the business, there’s something fundamentally wrong.

Reason to pivot #7 – You’re Not Relevant Anymore

One of the most difficult things to maintain in any business is relevancy.

Are you truly providing what your audience or users need, and are you providing that in a way that suits their lifestyles right now?

Becoming irrelevant creeps up on us all, and I truly believe that this is where small, iterative pivots can really add great value to your endeavours.

At the beginning of the tutorial, I spoke of a pivot as being thought of as a huge undertaking but the relevancy conundrum, and its solution, are certainly more iterative when you consider that actually, all we may need to do to stay relevant is change our content delivery channel, for example.

A huge challenge for you as an entrepreneur is maintaining momentum with your audience on the platforms that they choose to use, whilst providing content or products that are continually useful to them.

In the early days of your business, you are always encouraged to create an avatar for your product, service or overall business if you’re niche enough.

But how often do you update this? How often do you make sure to check that you’re speaking to your avatar as they are right now?

How often do you check whether you’re talking to them in the places that they would like you to talk to them?

The symptoms of not maintaining your avatar and thus, your relevance, will often be clear too: a drop in traffic, user sign-ups or engagement.

Often we look internally as a first response to this and wonder what has changed with our product or service, yet when we find that the problem we’re solving still exists, we’re baffled as to why what was working previously, isn’t working right now.

The old adage of “be everywhere” is, in realism, not the way to run your business or your marketing.

Instead, ”being relevant” in both what you supply and where you supply it is vital.

To pivot or not to pivot?

Ultimately, the decision to course correct; the decision to test and try something new will feel natural – the key points above should provide plenty of questions for you to ask yourself and places to start looking if the results just aren’t flowing for you.

5 Steps to a Results Driven “Relaunch”

The word “relaunch” is a misnomer in this context, or at least it could be argued it is.

But the reason I’m calling the post-pivot actions a “relaunch” is simple: it’s going to feel like that to you.

Whether you’re pivoting your content, your product or your whole business, it will feel like a relaunch – and that’s not a bad thing.

As mentioned previously, this is a great way to revitalise all or part of your business and the by-products of that cultural shift can be just as satisfying as the more “measurable” outcomes.

Inevitably there needs to be a process to this relaunch, and in fact you can formulate this process around the five cornerstones of a pivot, which I believe are:

Step #1: Break Down and Grade Your Assumptions

Do you actually know what you think you know in your business?

How much of what you use to develop your product, marketing strategy or retention strategy have you really proven?

As a startup founder, you’re encouraged to do this.

As a solo or early stage entrepreneur, it may be something you never, ever think about.


It’s not ignorance, it’s not laziness – it’s purely and simply the fact that you created the thing that you created because, well, you thought it was the thing that needed creating.

During my revamping of Excellence Expected, I forced myself to face this fact. And I mean, really forced myself – it wasn’t easy.

I broke down my assumptions and then graded them according to how important they were to my business.

Here’s a sample of those assumptions, and how important that are (1 = very important, 10 = not so important):

  • Assumption #1: Early stage entrepreneurs know who I am and where to find my content – importance: 1 (if they don’t know who or where I am, what the heck can I ever do for them?).
  • Assumption #2: People want to consume my content in the form of a podcast – importance: 1 (this was my main marketing channel, based PURELY on an assumption).
  • Assumption #3: Early stage entrepreneurs want frequent, quick to consume content – importance: 3 (do I really know what people want, where or how they consume it and what kind of content they respond to?).

Step #2: Take the Biggest Assumption and Test It

The assumptions that I stated above based on my own rebranding, repositioning and new content strategy are all things that I’ve either tested, or that I’m in the process of testing right now:

  • Assumption #1: I ran Facebook ads based SOLELY on my name and personal brand to check how people responded to me. The answer: people who knew me through one of my ventures or associations went ahead and took action, barely any one else did. Hardly a surprise, but it then informed the next stage…
  • Assumption #2: If I’m to increase my personal reach, then I must test the assumption that people want to consume my podcast over all other types of content. I was podcasting because I liked doing it – and that’s fine – but it wasn’t doing as much for me as a wider strategy could. So, I paused podcasting and carefully measured the effect on my website traffic, Facebook through-put and ultimately my email sign ups.
  • Assumption #3: I began creating and promoting much longer form content with content upgrades and much more longevity / evergreen potential. And then I began to measure that against the previous content that I had created, marketed and tested.

Step #3: Plan Exactly What You Will Measure – What Does Success Look Like?

One of the key things that many startup mentors will tell you is to find your single biggest key performance indicator (KPI) and use that as your measure of success and traction only.

During our time on the Ignite accelerator, Pip™’s ONLY KPI was active users – users who were actually using us as a service.

Everything else fed that KPI.

This is reiterated by Ash Maurya during our session in “The Straight Talking Guide to Launching Your First Product” as something that he works closely with startups, online entrepreneurs and content creators all over the globe on.

What really matters to your business? What is the ONE thing that you should measure to genuinely gauge whether or not you’re moving forward successfully?

The answer is different for everyone, and the question I encourage you to ask yourself is this:

“What is the one thing, such that if I didn’t know it accurately, would mean that I didn’t know if I had a business or not?”

That sounds very harsh, but if you aren’t positively affecting your core metric every single day, what have you actually achieved?

That isn’t to say that you need to increase that metric every day, what it speaks to is the fact that every task you undertake every day should have a positive effect on that metric.

Step #4: Of the Actions You Currently Take, Map What Takes the Most Time and Returns the Lowest Results

Time is the only thing that we cannot get back. It is our most valuable resource and should be invested in actions that return the most against that investment.

Are you “busy” or genuinely effective in your business?

This may not feel like such a big deal – of course, you turn up every day and churn out what you feel you should turn out.

But against your key metrics defined above, are you really investing your time as effectively as possible?

The issue with productivity is that it develops, changes and is affected by your mood and outside pressures. The only way to remain focussed on positively improving your key metric is, to quote Martyn Davies, MD of Ignite:

“Focus on tangible shit.”

In reality, that’s not easy – demands on your time are inevitable so as with any other expendable resource, the only way to really stay on top of this is to measure it.

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Figure out exactly where your time is going and begin to understand what matters in terms of your daily actions.

Step #5: Set Fresh, Attainable and Focussed Goals

Just like personalities and products, goals develop the more that time passes.

Are the goals that you laid out when you set your business up the same as they were last month; are the goals from last month the same as the goals from last week; are last weeks goals todays goals?

When undertaking any kind of pivot, you’re testing something to prove whether or not it works.

It’s impossible to refer to an old business plan, check your business goals as they were and try to measure what’s happening today agains those goals.

More realistically, you must lean on that single KPI that I keep referring to and use that to set small, tangible and timed goals that contribute to the overall focus of that core KPI, whilst also remaining flexible enough to account for any opportunities that may arise or problems that may vex you.

No relaunch can be properly measured by simply understanding what your goals are, rather you should look at why you set the goals that you set, what they bring to the overall business and whether they really matter to the longer term vision.

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In Closing

A pivot doesn’t have to be a daunting undertaking, nor an insurmountable challenge.

Nor should it be a thing to fear. In business, you have to keep moving towards your goals and each opportunity to test something new that could contribute to the greater good should be approached with a healthy mix of excitement and pragmatism.

You solve problems for other people, focus a little on solving your own, too.

Don’t forget, the more you expect from yourself the more you WILL excel!

Mark Asquith

That British podcast guy, Mark is co-founder of Captivate.fm, the world's only growth-oriented podcast host. A Harvard, TEDx, Podcast Movement and Podfest speaker (amongst many more!), he's a wildly approachable Brit and Star Wars/DC Comics geek.

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