Persevere or Pivot?

Let’s talk about the PIVOT today. This term is now so common in the startup vocabulary.

For most founders pivot is the consequence of a failure of the original value proposition hypothesis. However, the man who coined this term (in the context of the famous “lean startup”) Eric Reis, actually thought to the contrary. Pivot for him was an opportunity! He advocated a pivot or persevere meeting that a startup should keep doing periodically, to consider all possibilities, especially in a startup scenario.


To grasp this fully, it is useful to trace back the term to its sporting origins in basketball. A pivot is that moment when a player has dribbled the ball and stopped – at this point the player is not allowed to move one foot from the ground. He can use the other foot and the rest of the body to choose any opportune action – be it of shooting or passing.

In a similar vein, a startup builds momentum with a value proposition. Pivot does not mean abandoning the whole thing to chase a new dream. That is another decision altogether. So the pivot is not a shift of vision, but one foot firmly drawing from the past, while the other is testing new possibilities.


Though pivots are unlimited in scope and options, three common ones have been commonly categorized as follows:

  • Segment pivot. This solves for another segment than the original intended one, and therefore feature prioritization changes. For instance if a B2B product focus is switched to B2C markets.

  • (Customer) Problem pivot. This envisages solving another problem for the same customer. The legendary example of this is Starbucks coffee – which started selling coffee seeds, and then pivoted to brewing coffee, and got their breakthrough global business with it.

  • Feature pivot. This could mean zooming out and adding a whole bunch of features around the core, or zooming in, which meant taking a feature out of the solution and reorienting the venture around it. An example is Justin.tv which began life as a general livestreaming site and then pivoted to only gamers streaming themselves playing.

Notable startups that pivoted to become the game changing successes that we know today include YouTube (which started off as a dating site!), Twitter, Instagram, Slack, Flickr, Android and Pinterest!


Pivot is not restricted to startups alone. IBM pivoted from its hardware focus of half a century to a service business model, kept its customers, and grew to new heights of business leadership. Nintendo, now known for its market leadership in video games, is over 150 years old, began in 1889 with making Japanese playing cards, successfully pivoted in the 1960s to children’s toys and games, and further pivoted yet again in 1972 to video games.


And closer home, in India Bajaj Auto is a legendary example of the pivot, and that has made them grow and scale globally. Moving away from the warm-n-fuzzy-yet-uninspiring “Hamaara Bajaj” brand of vintage scooters of the last century India, now the company is blazing the bikes tarmac in its quest to be counted among the top global motorcycle brands. By the looks of it, the company seems to be getting there!


It is worth mentioning here that engineers who have slogged at the original design and development, often mistakenly think of the pivot as merely regrouping the tech stack or the platform. It is a lot more than that. As Prof Jacqueline Kirtley of Wharton Business School puts it, a pivot is a changed and redirected strategy, with an accumulation of “adds” and “exits” in the value proposition. In doing so, she observes that the pivot is an opportunity you stumble upon that is significant to what your firm becomes…often changing the story and for the better!


To me, pivot is actually a mindset that entrepreneurs should adopt and hone. Choosing to activate pivot thinking empowers you to be flexible, explore alternatives freely, and not get stuck to any position. At one end of the spectrum, it might help come out of a no-win situation for the business, and at the other end, it might help go beyond an already working proposition to get far more valuable outcomes. (It bears repeating here though that a pivot is a clear switch in strategy, and not synonymous with Kaizen, which is about incremental improvement largely in execution.)


Two questions for you founders and entrepreneurs to ponder over…

What would a pivot be (and potentially do) for your venture? How open are you to do a monthly “pivot or persevere” meeting?

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