Startups Pivots to Take Off

Feed your creative entrepreneurial brain with potential pivots select startups use to ‘take off’ and experience the kind of revenue growth that changes everything.

Small business owners and startup teams work hard, pay dues every day and just want their brands to take off!

What taking off means is a bit different for each – traffic, engagement, social impact, conversions, partnerships, all of the above, etc. – but most can be boiled down to revenue growth.

If we grab the nearest microscope and inspect a somewhat established op currently taking off to see what kind of maverick maneuver they used to blast skyward…we’ll find a pivot.

Imagine each small business as a golf ball and their proverbial owner a golfer of relative skill.

If you pivot and change the aim of the golfer by even a small degree, you completely change the trajectory of the ball. Simple concept. Move one half-inch this way, it’s close to the hole, move an inch that way and adjust your hips a little… you’re in no man’s land.

The Definition of a Startup Pivot

After some looking around, I found a decent definition in Startups.co’s article Everyone Pivots: The Truth About A Startup Pivot.

A pivot is essentially a shift in business strategy to test a new approach regarding a startup’s business model or product after receiving direct or indirect feedback, and it’s one of the fundamental concepts of lean startup methodology.”

All jokes aside, there aren’t any universals here.

I’m not insinuating you should transform your business into something completely different, scrap your current product to focus on a unicorn Minimal Viable Product (MVP), or dump all kinds of resources into any overhaul…

When’s It Pivot Time?

I agree with The Startups.co Team, it’s not a Big-Bang moment or lightening strike. Ideally, you’ll look back and see your startup’s pivotal pivot was a natural evolution – a rite of passage. In fact, that’s exactly the topic we’ll cover in our first section.

Let’s get to’em.

Pivot #1: From Obstacles to Jump-off Points

As entrepreneurs, we hear this all the time, “Look at roadblocks as opportunities!

Then alas, in the midst of business mayhem we approach obstacles in VERY conservative and conventional ways.

Truth is, when starting in any niche, you find yourself confined by systems. These systems have rules you can examine and often manipulate.

How about an example.

Check out this 2012 article on how the founders of Vungle hustled to $2 million in seed funds by manipulating systems (inside the rules) to get the last spot in the 2011 class of AngelPad.

Using a handful of techniques that he still seems to shy away from talking about specifically, co-founder Jack Smith found a way to build a Google Adsense campaign that targeted not Thomas, but Thomas’ friends. “Do you know Thomas Korte?” the ads read. When clicked, the ads took the visitor to a page with a short video pitch of what Vungle was working on. Next to the video was a big button that read, quite simply, “Email Thomas.” They put up the site, launched the ad campaign, and…

This was back in 2011 folks. Using this method they actually got AngelPad’s founder Thomas Korte TO CALL THEM, and ask they cease and desist causing his email to blow up.

How are they doing now?

Around February of 2017 Vungle announced they achieved a $300 million revenue run rate and that’s after, according to Crunchbase, hitting a total funding after four rounds of $25.5 million.

How many other startups today faced confining systems and used these obstacles to pivot in ways that made them go huge? Next time you find yourself facing an obstacle in the way of your startup taking off, sit down and examine whether or not it’s actually THE PIVOT TO take off.

Pivot #2: Keeping Your Ear to The Tracks

So, as I write these words a bipartisan bill, the Hemp Farming Act of 2018, is being put before Congress by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) along with co-sponsors Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.).

We’re talking about industrial hemp – Cannabis Sativa L. – the plant you can make shirts, rope, ship sails, and house insulation with or even a new kind of organic plastic, not it’s psychoactive cousin Mary Jane.

This would essentially unleash what many prominent thinkers and activists over the last near-century have predicted will be a new agricultural revolution (along with bumping MJ company stocks). Search around and you’ll find TENS OF THOUSANDS of consumer products can be made with the industrial hemp plant, it’s fiber, plant compounds, and flowers – medicine, clothing, food, other textiles, paper, hempcrete, and on the list goes.

Thing is, the plant requires 90+% less herbicides, pesticides, or fertilizers and it cleans and regenerates the soil.

Should it pass, imagine all the people who will miss out because they have no idea what’s going on. Industrial hemp as a farming commodity, save for a couple spurts, has been outlawed for so long… why would they?

It would be sort of like cotton being illegal to farm in the U.S. since the 30’s then suddenly, it’s legal again – hemp’s just better in pretty much every conceivable way.

On the flip-side, think of all the little industrial hemp startups struggling over the last twenty years suddenly finding themselves in an interesting position.

Read. Listen. Keep your eyes open. Don’t get intellectually lazy. Sources of game-changing pivots bloom all around your startup. Pivot opportunities come and go like the clouds, it’s just that so few look up and reach!

Consider how aware of your market you are and whether you’re positioned to capitalize on big market shifts if/when they happen.

Pivot #3: Yeah…Do That ‘Crazy’ Thing

Let’s you and I conduct a quick mental exercise.

Imagine we decide to start a company that makes custom sleeves and skins for mobile devices.

For a couple years we chug along, but the margins are as thin as laptop screens and there’s just not enough volume to expand without debt.

What can we do?

We could reach out to the biggest tech titans and common retailers, but how about something less obvious? Let’s say we decide to dramatically expand our brand’s exposure by reaching into an unexpected space – Foodies.

  • We decide to write out a list of the most influential names in the foodie world – chefs, social media personalities and bloggers.
  • We create spectacular mock-ups, customized for each individual.
  • Then, we reach out and pitch the products with a little caveat for cross-branding purposes.

Hmm, maybe that’s not so crazy after all. I didn’t check, has a company already done this? We could make something awesome, just awesome, for Kylee Cooks and if she goes for it, sports it for her social media feeds, writes a blog about it…boom.

There’d need to be something deeper. A story. A larger initiative.

What if we designed and conducted a campaign that supports a certain cause she’s into, say oceans clean-up? So, we create the most spectacular ocean skin or sleeve and donate 5% of proceeds to really innovative and exciting ocean clean-up operations.

A 360-degree win!

Sometimes we need to explore the less conventional. In our example, it was creating mockups and stretching into an unlikely niche, but consider the crazy thing you could do with your brand right now that you’re avoiding out of fear.

Hint: If you’re drawing a complete blank…up your ante! Where’s the risk? What edges are being pushed?

Pivot #4: Gamified Social Proofing – Building Community

How many small ecommerce startups right now have either no social proofing functions built into their platforms, or very cheaply/poorly-designed options?

It’s sad, when honest reviews are worth their weight in virtual gold.

You see SO MUCH effort put into modern responsive web design, sleek product pages, and fabulous sales funnels but table scraps devoted to giving people a gorgeous – albeit curated – microphone.

  • Are there any incentives to leave a thorough review; any rewards for those who do?
  • Can a moderator reply and engage the reviewer? Maybe that’s just saying thanks with a, “Since you loved this, be sure to check out our…” comment. Or, it’s professionally addressing issues/concerns or taking care of unhappy customers in an open and transparent way for all to admire.
  • How do you showcase or beautify customer profiles for when they leave testimonials…or comments on others?

Social proofing, the hive-mind, and digital crowds are the social media of the future. Look around. Do you think the current overlords will exist in the same forms in 3, 5, 10 years from now?

No.

Bots. Let’s not forget the rampant fake reviews debacle the net’s been dealing with. On huge platforms, it’s an issue. However, with your smaller more boutique ecommerce websites it can be highly-moderated to ensure genuine reviews.

Pointer Creative recently published an article entitled, “Our Top 5 Product Review Apps + more” where you can browse functionalities and personalization elements of the biggest apps on Shopify.

Shopify Product Review App Example

Hmm, consider improving on those.

Pivot #5: Fresh KPI Focus

It’s astoundingly common in the fuss of startup-whirlwinds, many teams need a bright shining light to focus on so they choose sparkling targets like revenue or customer satisfaction. Sure, if you aren’t seeing positive cashflow and happy customers, then…right?

Maybe.

Just because revenue’s presently strong/weak and smiling faces abound, or for a year, or even two years (this has killed countless startups…they get sloppy) doesn’t mean your new solution’s a household name and you can relax.

Reverse engineer revenue because it can camouflage a slowly rotting startup, gloriously on its way off the cliff.

Break it down and see where it’s coming from.

  • How much are you spending per lead, customer, user?
  • If 80% of your sales comes from 20% of your efforts, are you streamlined enough?
  • Be sure to see your most important KPI’s through the eyes of your customers.

Then, there’s simple projections like,

  • Look at the gap between marketing cost-per-sale and lifetime value of each customer.
  • Is there a market change coming? An easy example would be international tariffs.
  • Pretend you’ve hit your 5-year goal for that particular KPI, then work backwards to design how it can be achieved.

Wait though, we haven’t touched on the KPIs you could be setting for your own internal team to increase the value of your startup and customer experiences. Let’s save that for another article, there’s more pivot potential to explore.

Pivot #6: Dabble in CrowdFunding

If you haven’t dabbled in crowdfunding yet, then head on over to KickStarter and see how well projects relevant to your operation are fairing. Perhaps, there’s a way you could invest in a crowdfunding campaign and see ROI in brand expansion, breaching into new markets, tons of advertising and hey, you might reach that funding goal!

What kind of campaign would your brand be involved in?

A concept worth whiteboarding.

As an example, in Pivot #2 we talked about industrial hemp farms sweeping across America and how this shift will create a gigantic new domestic consumer goods market when it eventually happens. So, I did a KickStarter search using the word and sorted results by Most Funded.

Here are 5 of the highlights from the first page of results.

Business Pivots Crowdfunding Examples

  • Winona’s Hemp Farm: $132,337 from 962 backers.
  • Recreator Hemp Apparel: $46,608 from 671 backers.
  • Comfy Hemp Shoes: $37,216 from 470 backers.
  • First Non-Residential Hemp Building: $27,137 from 235 backers.
  • Hemp Plastic Water Bottles: $17,050 from 156 backers.

Being honest here, I got pretty excited as I looked forward into the future of domestic U.S. hemp farming based on these results…wow! Did you know innovative Californians have been making sports cars with bodies made out of layers of hemp?

Jay Leno got one!

Hemp Sports Car Red

Pivot #7: Reflect on ‘True Usage’

What if you’d just spent years building a specific service to the point where seed funding is becoming a real possibility and you’re starting to get seriously noticed…when suddenly a better-funded startup splashes on the scene with a VERY similar product or service?

One of the first things I’d do if Virtus were called onto the case, is look to see how your service is actually being used or where the demand really is. Maybe competing head-to-head with this better-funded startup isn’t the best option. Maybe there’s value blurred between the lines.

A perfect example is Instagram and the founder’s ‘Pivot to Photo Sharing’ from the Burbn app one of them – Kevin Systrom – was originally working on. According to Investopedia’s Story of Instagram they,

…made the difficult but critical decision of taking a step backward by stripping Burbn down to its photo, comment and like capabilities. At that time, they renamed the app Instagram, combining the words instant and telegram. With their UX skills, they worked tirelessly to improve the photo-sharing experience. They had a minimalist focus, requiring as few actions as possible from the user. After eight weeks of fine-tuning the app, they gave it to friends to beta test, fixed bugs and brought it to launch.

How about Pinterest.

This titan of social media was originally a mobile shopping app called Tote. However, back in 2009, the m-shopping market wasn’t near as popular or established as it is today and the original team struggled. So, as TechCrunch puts it,

But, from the ashes of those early m-shopping ambitions, arose another startup idea – directly fueled by the collections of items Tote users had been amassing.

Now there’s a pivot!

They already had all that content, they just needed to focus on the ways in which people were using it and wanted to use it and then streamline the functionalities holding them back like low-friction payment processing.

If you’re struggling, take a clear SOBERING look at how your product or service is being used by people. Talk to them. Do what it takes to understand. The answers might be staring you directly in the face.

Pivot #8: Routinely See What the Team Says

Essential! Regularly see if the brains inside your teams’ heads are holding any gem solutions. Say the marketing team is stumped on a certain problem because they’re missing the forest for the trees, but your graphic designer has a cousin who…

Often people are shy, or unwilling to put their ideas on the line. They don’t want to risk stepping on anyone’s toes. Of course, we’re only human, so this type of thing needs to sort of be thread throughout your startup’s culture.

It’s tricky. Speaking of which, now’s a good time to get into the risks of pivoting. Not everyone’s a fan and yes, you can get burned. Here’s how.

Consider the Downsides of Big Pivots

Mini-changes and iterations are par for the course. We all know that. But, making the choice to go off on a huge course-altering tangent is no small matter. You’ve got to stay calm and control your emotions should you spot of potential pivot.

Dramatic Loss of Confidence

This is contextual, but we’re not all Instagrams and Pinterests. If you’re sole owner that’s great, but if there are investors you need to really see if a pivot-solution is the way to go, do your research, and sell them on it ‘by the book’.

Some investors will be fans of pivots, while others won’t be and have limited tolerance. Aside from funds, how about your sales and marketing teams? If you’re scrapping and taking a new direction will they be demoralized?

A Culling

Well, the data is there and the decision to pivot has been made. And…there goes your core engineer, perhaps your VA, your writing team lead, etc. You get the idea. If your team’s been dumping blood, sweat and tears into a project and then it’s destroyed save for a little sliver or something…some people are going to bail.

Another thing here is that before making any serious pivot, consider how it’ll impact the larger vision or brand story you’ve been creating. If you crush the dream and people stick around for a paycheck, things can go south fast. How about the core audience or tribe your product or service has built despite its shortcomings? Will they stick around and stay loyal?

Wrapping Up

Whoa, and there you have it folks. I was going to go all Neil Patel-style and make this into a monsterous article tackling the top 30 statup pivtos but hey, I’m a busy guy. Here are the potential pivots we looked at in this article, which I hope you enjoyed. Cheers!

  • Pivot #1: Examine whether obstacles are take off points.
  • Pivot #2: Keep your ear to the tracks – study your niche.
  • Pivot #3: Do that crazy thing!
  • Pivot #4: Kick your social proofing to the next level, build community.
  • Pivot #5: Take a fresh or new approach towards KPIs.
  • Pivot #6: Consider dabbling in crowdfunding.
  • Pivot #7: Reflect on the true usage of your product or service.
  • Pivot #8: See if your team has solutions. What are they thinking?

 

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