What is pivoting and how do I do it?

6 min read
24 Oct 2018

hange is one of the few constants in the creation and scaling of startups. You never know what will happen when starting and maintaining a business, so be ready to pivot from one idea or business model to another.

Whether you are a first-time founder or a serial entrepreneur, pivoting is and likely always will be part of your innovation toolkit. Entrepreneurship means not only sticking to your vision and your gut instincts, but also being ready to accept changes for the good of your product or company, or even yourself as a founder.

We look at the meaning of pivoting as well as how it works. We also get into the right time to pivot and how to pivot to relative perfection (this is entrepreneurship, after all). Lastly, we share the story of how one company in Germany pivoted in a rapidly evolving ecosystem and industry.

What does pivoting mean?

Remember that iconic scene in Friends where Ross is trying to move a sofa down the stairs of a NYC walk-up? The punchline in that scene is Ross screaming the word “pivot” without giving any instruction how or even why it should work.

In the context of startups, pivoting is much more complex and can have broader implications. An integral part of the lean startup methodology, pivoting is when you make a change or shift in your startup ideology or practice. In basic terms, it means to change directions.

When you are building fast, trying out MVPs on test markets and receiving feedback from the ecosystem or customers, pivoting becomes a vital part of the process.

In practice, a pivot is not only an extreme and sudden shift in vision. Pivots can range from having one feature of an MVP becoming the exact product you were hoping to design originally, changing your target market or adopting a different technology for your platform.

You may be thinking that this sounds an awful lot like failure. In a way, it could be considered as such. When you receive feedback and decide to make a change, it’s because the service, product or technology at hand hasn’t been 100 percent successful.

The term pivot, similar to the word fail, has a certain fashionable quality in Silicon Valley, according to Startup Grind. This may be because by pivoting, there’s the potential to come out the other side more successful.

A positive aspect to this is that failing, for the most part, is becoming increasingly acceptable as part of the entrepreneurial journey. A negative is, as Startup Grind points out, that founders end up wanting to pivot, or ostensibly to fail.

Whether or not you perceive pivoting as failure really boils down to personal perspective. One thing’s for sure though: as pivoting seems to be a fact of startup life, it may be best to think of it in a positive light and face it (if and when it arises) with optimistic grit.

Photo: Unsplash/Jamie Saw

When’s the right time to pivot?

The Founder Institute, a pre-seed accelerator, writes that there are a number of signs to look out for to help you identify whether it’s the right time to pivot. Most importantly, it’s vital to plan a great deal and really think about your next move before making a pivot.

First and foremost, try to pivot only when absolutely necessary. Expressly wanting to pivot may not be wise. If you find yourself holding in there with your company, persevering by the skin of your teeth, then maybe it’s time to pivot.

Internally, you may want to make a pivot when the perspective in house changes. When your founding team and staff start to feel less inspired, or your creative energy and hustle has plateaued, a change could be in the cards.

Outside the internal feeling of the startup, there’s also the product, service and/or technology. If only one aspect of the project is working, an option could be to pivot toward focusing on that, and leave the rest behind.

Also, check in with the market to see if what you’re developing has a ton of competition. This might help you realize you’re not playing to your strengths as well as you could be and pivoting could be the answer.

The main point here is to always listen closely to the feedback you receive. You may not know yourself whether it’s ever time to pivot, so make use of your diverse pool of stakeholders and customers.

How do I pivot effectively?

Just like you can’t expect a sofa to magically fit in an unchanging stairwell simply by yelling “pivot,” pivoting in the startup realm takes some time, thought and planning.

If you’ve decided you need to pivot, do it quickly. If you don’t, you may lose valuable resources like energy among team members and money – or, most important of all, time. Pivoting well means minimizing the amount of resources that go to waste.

That being said, it’s not always the best practice to shed all the work you’ve previously done. It’s all valuable in some shape or form. In addition to this, pivoting doesn’t entail losing your vision entirely. Be careful not to compromise your vision if you really believe in it. Pivot with passion.

In keeping with the idea that pivoting should be something that’s positive, pivot towards opportunities for growth. For instance, if your customers are telling you that one aspect of your product or service stands out, you could consider pivoting toward growing that aspect of your business.

A recipe for success

In 2014, an entrepreneur named Matthias Kramer invited a group of friends over to his home in Germany to talk about an app idea he wanted to launch. To feed his hungry friends after a long night of brainstorming, he whipped up a batch of pizzas using his very own flaxseed dough recipe.

Not long into the evening, his friends urged him to change course completely. Having thoroughly enjoyed the pizza, they told him and his future co-founder Marc that they should pursue the flaxseed dough as a business rather than the app. That’s how the company Lizza, which claims it sells Germany’s only flaxseed, low-carb pizza dough, was born.

Not long after the accidentally enlightening brainstorm session, Matthias and Marc entered the street food scene. They sold pizza with their flaxseed dough and other products out of a food truck, and in 2016 sold the truck in favor of becoming a scalable startup with a small production facility.

By 2017, they had received retailer deals and a huge uptick in digital orders after appearing on a German show. Furthermore, in a rather short time span and after adding many products to their repertoire, they realized they wanted to make their flaxseed pizza dough the focus yet again.

Matthias told Startup Guide that one of Lizza’s milestones was learning to listen to the market, even though it was largely by accident. Having a food truck meant they were meeting many customers and fellow vendors face-to-face, and the pivot toward selling the original product online came from listening to their customers and realizing the opportunity they had.

From selling tangible items from a food truck to selling them via a digital platform, Lizza’s journey is actually full of many small pivots. What makes this a success story is the fact that the flaxseed dough that started the narrative has remained the company’s protagonist. It’s an example of how you can pivot between markets and sales methods, while still retaining the thing that makes your company special.

In your startup quest, you may see many small pivots, a few big ones, or a mix of the two. Take comfort in the fact that every startup has pivoted, and still have many pivots to go. If you give yourself time to think through changes, and pivot with intention and passion, you’ll not only survive the entrepreneurial process, but thrive as well.

You can read more about Lizza and other startups based in Frankfurt in our Startup Guide Frankfurt book, which is set to be released in February 2019.

Main photo: Unsplash/Natalia Y