Communication strategist and an expert in branding, high-stakes pitching and strategic storytelling
The restroom story
The founder of a startup bumps into an important investor inside a restroom at a large event. A classic elevator pitch situation with a slightly-less-classic odor. The founder desperately wants this investor — a well-known persona in this field. The catch is that this is not their first meeting, and the first one was terrible…
During the first meeting, 2 months earlier, the investor kept looking at his phone and ignored the presentation from the third slide onward. After the presentation, he thanked the founder, criticized the market relevancy and concluded that this investment was not for him.
Back to the meeting in the restroom. The investor, feeling a bit awkward, politely asks the founder, “How are you?” The founder panics a bit, knowing he has to create drama in order to bring the investor back to the table and spits out “We’ve pivoted!” “Mmm?” says the investor with surprise. “Yes,” says the founder. “We’ve listened to what you and other investors said and fixed our course.”
This works, and they leave the restroom with a new meeting scheduled.
Was there actually a pivot? Will there be an investment? You’ll have to wait to find out, but meanwhile let’s make sure we are on the same page about what pivoting actually means and how to address it.
Pivoting is often considered the last resort for a startup, a dreadful point most attempt to avoid. It’s usually reserved for the desperate times when a startup is running out of funds and has one last chance to develop something people will actually use.
This perspective presents a pivot as akin to the last bet of a gambler, who pushes his last chips onto the roulette table, hoping to beat the odds with the last spin. His heart is filled with hope for a crazy last-minute turnaround, like those of Twitter (pivoted from a podcasting platform), Slack (pivoted from an online video game), or Instagram (pivoted from a check-in app).
However, not only is this perspective wrong, it’s actually very dangerous. First of all, those extreme turnarounds rarely work. Second of all, being apprehensive about a pivot and seeing it as a failure, as opposed to progress, creates a fear of change that has killed many companies, big and small.
The sailor’s metaphor:
Imagine your company is a boat, sailing in the stormy waters of big business. If you are an early-stage company, your boat is small, the waves are big, you’re sailing in the dark, and there is no compass to count on. All you have are your gut feelings.
But then, once in a while comes a moment of clarity and calm in which, for a brief second, you can see the North Star — a star of truth and certainty. Not pivoting the direction of your boat, at this stage, would mean certain death by starvation or drowning! [usually due to lack of revenues or funding]
Even if you are a big company, with a bigger boat and great compasses, you should still know that in the vast sea of business, something can always go wrong. A small leak in the ship’s abdomen can become a huge one, pirate ships can attack you, or, if you’re not careful enough and don’t react quickly enough, you can get stuck in sand.
The Story-Centric Pivot
So, at this point you might think that making frequent pivots is the right approach, but that is much easier said than done. Making drastic changes to product and strategy every so often probably feels crazy and risky — and you’re right, it is. But what about waiting on a product pivot until you start receiving market feedback or, in the case of a startup, investment?
Think about it. Most of your interactions with investors, clients or partners don’t include actual validation of the product (maybe just a demo), but what they do include is validation of your strategy, your positioning, and your story. How about testing those?
Furthermore, finding the optimal story will later allow you to reverse engineer the optimal product.
The story-centric pivot — Methodology
The following is the methodology of an agile process that I usually lead when working with startups. It’s the same one I used while working with the startup from the restroom story.
You are welcome to test it yourself.
1. Search for an insight — Insight is the backbone of any pivot. For me, insight is this momentary glimpse of the North Star from the sailor’s metaphor. This insight is usually already there in the minds of managers, and this is why I start with interviewing them and luring this insight out [an objective external consultant, like yours truly, is highly recommended for this stage].
There are many faces to these insights: a better understanding of your audience; a discovery of a new customer group to address or a new category to tap into; a new perspective on the competitive landscape; a better understanding of investors’ needs; etc.
2. Turn insight into a clear narrative to test with the team — A major part of the success of any pivot lies in an ability to turn an insight into new and attractive words — words that can be tested and optimized on the go. I suggest creating a short narrative and getting it evaluated and optimized by the core team and a few clients/investors.
Why a narrative? Well, because stories or story-shaped narratives are the only type of information our brain can actually process as a unit (without breaking it down to sub-units of meaning). It’s not by chance that narratives include all the basic elements of a proper pitch by default [read more about this topic here].
3. Prepare for a target group test — After team validation, you need to craft an end-to-end offering for your audience. It can include building a pitch deck to be tested on investors, a designated landing page for B2B clients, or an order page aimed at the end customer.
Don’t forget to set clear goals and success parameters you can actually measure.
4. Pivot evaluation — The new positioning is either rejected, or it becomes the new strategy of the company and of its products/services.
5. Post-pivot iterations — It’s important to keep in mind that a successful test only proves a potential and that the general strategic direction is right. It doesn’t mean that this direction is optimal, and any new meaningful feedback should result in adapting the chosen narrative.
How did this methodology work for the startup from the restroom story? The money this investor gave allowed the company to adapt the product to the new positioning and to get a few initial clients. Now it’s time for us to pivot the story once again, but this time we have a budget for in-depth validation.
In my next post, I’ll dive into this in-depth validation process. Stay tuned.