Thoughts on entrepreneurship, startups, and tech.


Pivoting Is Overrated, Maybe Your Execution Needs Improvement

There’s a common belief in the internet industry that when your service or product is not performing, you need to “pivot”, changing your course of direction to pursue a new and fundamentally different objective. Not a day goes by without an announce on popular websites and specialist blogs that some up & coming startup has “pivoted” because they have found their new gold lying under some stone on the side of their current route. The community applauds this because it shows that the founders (and their handlers) have come to grasps with reality and have taken the necessary responsible steps to rectify the trajectory of their budding yet uncertain business and to avoid burnout and the sudden demise of the project. It’s almost become fashionable.

But what if the underlying reason that this company’s business is faltering is not it’s positioning or offering but more about the way it executes their services?

Take for example a Photo App (which by the way is an odd place to be in the first place in today’s landscape full of Google, Apple & Facebook — Instagram) with the promise that it’s going to make sharing photos “easier”. Maybe the pickup rate is not going the right way because of the incumbents (easy answer) but it could also be because of the way the service performs and how the company explains it’s USP and even more, how the customers perceive it. In this sector, you need not look farther than the pre-Instagram era to understand why this small company (at the time) made such a phenomenal entrance into the Photo App arena. Not only was their offering unique but the execution was beautiful and profoundly intuitive which made so much sense to people back then. Had Instagram launched with a complicated UI and a one size fits all pitch (like everyone else was doing) and pivoted to do something completely contrary, it might not have grown to what we know today. People easily forget how Instagram was designed, how they made it perform and specifically how they executed their overall promise — that is the true reason it grew.

Execution has long been considered something that is a result of a number of sequential actions, something more unitary than collective. Oftentimes it is considered the responsibility of the people “downstairs”, at the “warehouse” or in the “stores” and left unattended until the figures start pointing the wrong direction and then it becomes a whole new animal and the problem takes the shape of a Junior Marketing intern or a freshly minted Product Supervisor who are “made to blame”. Further down the road, the need to reach out to the community and “listen” becomes the mantra and this inescapably leads to some form of sudden re-birth (deviation) and the requirement for more cash infusion to satisfy these capital hungry new needs. After a binge of firing / hiring and some savvy reorganisation orchestrated by invigorating communication more often than not imagined and spun by a third party, the problem remains and in looms the need to “pivot”. Such a shame, maybe this startup was on to something but instead of examining the collective effort (think Americas Cup Sailing or the London Philharmonic), management sought the all too easy finger-pointing strategy. Execution is not a department — execution is everywhere.

And finally, there’s the timing of execution. Steve Blank famously outlined his book The Four Steps To The Epiphany, “The root of that mistake (learning and iterating vs. linear execution) is premature execution.” The major insight is that startups need time spent in a mindset of learning and iterating before they try to launch. During that time, the team can collect facts and change direction in private, without the often dramatic implications and public embarrassment for their founders and investors. Although this process can take time, it has proven to be a sound way to determine product or service fit but also, to hone the needed execution it will require to satisfying its customers.

Pivoting is often like cheating, it’s easier to do than the homework.