Joe Johnson, Ph.D.
Entrepreneur. Investor. Startup Expert.

I get it – your startup is your precious baby. You love the idea and you’ve invested tons of hours, gallons of sweat, and more blood and tears than you’d like to remember. But sometimes it’s necessary to move on from that initial idea and pivot in order to save your startup.

Steve Blank noted that many people didn’t really understand the definition of a pivot in his 2014 Entrepreneur article “Do Pivots Matter? Yes, in Almost Every Case.” He defines a pivot as “a substantive change to one or more of the 9 business model canvas components.”

These nine components include:

  • Key partners
  • Key activities
  • Key resources
  • Value propositions
  • Customer relationships
  • Channels
  • Customer segments
  • Cost structure
  • Revenue streams

A pivot isn’t a failure – it’s a commitment to finding something that works for you and your business. In fact, most successful companies have pivoted at one time or another. That said, knowing when to pivot and how may be part science and part art. Finding the right change to make can be difficult.

While often painted as a stroke of inspiration, most successful pivots actually happen because of hard work, ingenuity, and research. Although there are some factors that can indicate you’re on a sinking ship, there’s no guarantee that a pivot will be the solution.

You can have positive feedback from your customers, users, or clients – even amazing, shout-it-from-the-rooftops feedback – and still need to pivot due to a lack of need or desire for your services, the wrong business model or strategy, or a combination of factors. Or, you may just have slow growth and a lean team that’s barely hitting its numbers, but is attracting investors because of the strength of your startup idea.

Chances are, you’re somewhere in the middle and not sure which way you’re headed. It’s a scary place to be, with that ambiguity and uncertainty of the future staring you straight in the growth margin. While you may want to hold on to your initial startup idea for dear life, there will come a point when you need to be honest and commit to pivoting, staying with the initial plan, or scrapping everything.

Here are some indicators that may suggest it’s time to turn your business in a new direction.

The Results Just Aren’t There

Not every great idea sells. Whether the target audience just isn’t responding or it’s not quite the solution you thought it would be, poor results can be an indication that it’s time to change course.

By clearly defining the parameters of success for a product or service launch, you and your team can determine whether you’ve met your goal, and, if not, try to find out what part of the launch fell short. If the results aren’t there, it’s time to take your company’s pulse.

The Part is More Than the Whole

Sometimes in building a startup, you find that you and your team do something really well…but it isn’t exactly what you set out to do. For example, maybe the proprietary analytics system your team created to track user engagement on your app better serves today’s app designers than whatever else is on the market, but your latest app isn’t getting enough daily users. It may be time to focus on packaging the analytics and providing it as a service to other app designers, rather than focusing on the initial app.

Someone Beat You to the Punch



The iPod was the early 21st Century’s ubiquitous MP3 player. If you didn’t know better, you might think that it was the first MP3 player. First offered in 2001, the iPod wasn’t the first MP3 player to hit the market. Or the second. Or the third. In fact, it wasn’t even one of the first five. But Apple knocked it out of the park with great design and an easy-to-use interface that truly created – and cornered – the MP3 player market.

By the time Microsoft joined the party in 2004, they faced a long road ahead to try and make a profit from their Zune devices. Eventually, Microsoft pivoted, stopped producing the Zune in 2011, and focused on providing their digital media content through their Xbox systems. Apple simply did it better and Microsoft should’ve pivoted earlier vs. facing years of decreased sales. The moral of the story: Know when the competition has you beaten.

Your Heart’s Not In It

Running a startup is no easy task. If you aren’t excited to keep seeking investors or revising your product, then it may be time to take a step back. Sure, not every part of running a business is going to have you feeling energized, but if it’s frequently difficult to find the energy to do the things that need to happen to get the project off the ground, then maybe it’s not the right idea for you.

Often, the financial success of your business is interconnected with your excitement about your business, and vice-versa. So, if you’re suffering from the startup blues, whether the cause is financial or something else, it may be helpful to try to reconnect with your idea and to remind yourself what excited you about it in the first place. If you’ve lost that loving feeling, it may be time to pivot or start over.

Famous Pivots

You may be aware that some of the products and services we all use and love are the result of some pretty serious pivots. These entrepreneurs were able to read the signs and make a daring choice to change course. While it doesn’t always work, sometimes the payoff is exceptional.


Instagram
Instagram, the most popular iPhone photo app, went by Burbn and focused on letting people check into places, much like Foursquare used to, but with pictures and a gaming component. The whole thing felt too clunky, so the creators stripped it down. Instagram has remained popular and was acquired by Facebook (another great pivoting company) for $1 billion.

Starbucks
It may be hard to imagine the coffee behemoth ever getting it wrong, but, hold on to your mug, Howard Schultz actually started out selling espresso machines and beans. If he hadn’t pivoted to selling his own brews after visiting Italy in 1983, he may have had to close up shop decades ago.

Wrigley
William Wrigley Jr. was a consummate salesman and took to giving gum as a freebie with purchases. The popularity of his free gum got him on the right track, though, and he pivoted to create his own chewing gum including Juicy Fruit and Doublemint.

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When things aren’t working out how you’d like, it’s no easy task to take note and make changes. But doing so can save you from even more sleepless nights by attempting to pivot successfully, rather than going down with the ship.

If you’re still unsure whether you should pivot, stay the course, or close up shop, take a good, close look at the projections and how you and your team do what you do. Be honest and ask yourself, “Is this a feasible business model?” If this was someone else’s business, how would you advise them?

It’s easy to just keep going and hope things get better. But they usually won’t unless you make serious changes. Most of my startup successes have come as a result of a major pivot or several pivot steps that I had to take. Sometimes the pivot was very simple, while on other occasions it was more complex.

While it’s best to pivot when you still have options, sometimes we’re forced to pivot because no other good options exist. I’ve been there and it’s not an enviable position. But when the facts speak and say that it’s time to change or say goodbye to your business, you do what needs to be done.

Pivots don’t always occur when your back is up against the wall. With one particular startup, I knew that a serious pivot to a different business model would allow me to better succeed. I didn’t want to pivot because things were working fine, though they weren’t what they could’ve been. One day, I faced the facts and decided to go through the work of pivoting. It was difficult, but only three months later, it seemed like I had a completely different business. The pivot led to all kinds of new ideas and we went on to break records.

Whether it’s the only course of action, or just one of many options, a pivot at the right time can help you increase your odds of success. Don’t be afraid to pivot just because it’s difficult or time-consuming. After all, your pivot may turn out to be the next Instagram or Starbucks.

About the Author

Dr. Joe Johnson is an entrepreneur, investor, and startup expert. He is the founder and principal of GoodField Investments and the GoodField Foundation (www.GoodField.com).

Joe has a Ph.D. in Entrepreneurial Leadership and an MBA. He is the author of the upcoming book on The Science of Why Most Entrepreneurs Fail and Some Succeed.

Most importantly, he is the incredibly blessed husband of one amazing wife and father of six wonderful children. He resides in Bradenton, Florida. For more information on Dr. Johnson and his work, go to www.JoeJohnson.com.