Few businesses become successful exactly as they were first envisioned by their founders. There are too many variables that are too hard to predict, all of which could render your otherwise brilliant idea inert.
In fact, bad timing, sudden market disinterest and competition are just a few of the plagues that could stop your business from taking off.
Fortunately, there’s a last-ditch option available so you don’t have to scrap what you’ve built: You can pivot, changing some fundamental aspect of your business, whether it’s the product, the target market or your style of execution.
This may sound like a Hail Mary, but it’s an effective business strategy that thousands of entrepreneurs have used to turn their near-failures into massive successes. Here are five examples of companies that have pivoted successfully:
It’s hard to imagine YouTube as anything but the massively successful video streaming service it is today but its early days were nowhere near as successful. In some ways, it was always a video streaming service, but when it started, it was meant as a kind of video-based dating service, where users could upload short videos describing their ideal partner, and browse for potential matches.
The site even had a slogan: “Tune in, hook up.” After seeing the potential in becoming a wider and more efficient host of online videos, YouTube pivoted and slowly turned itself into the empire that Google acquired for $65 billion.
Now one of the biggest names in professional chat and messaging services, Slack originated with a much different premise. Between 2009 and 2012, Tiny Speck and Stewart Butterfield made a strange but somehow popular video game called Glitch.
Rather than fighting monsters or solving puzzles, the game was focused on socialization and exploration. While the game was popular, it wasn’t profitable, so the team instead started investing resources into a new product: a chat app designed for coworkers. That worked — big-time.
Groupon started life as the subset of a completely unrelated platform known as The Point. Andrew Mason, with backing from Eric Lefkofsky, envisioned a social platform where people could get together to rally behind social and charitable causes.
The Point gained some decent traction when it launched in Chicago, but then started to fizzle. As an extension of the platform, the team added a subdomain — Groupon — where customers could pool their money to try and negotiate a group discount. That idea was far more popular, so the founders stuck with it and made it the central platform, expanding with opportunities for businesses.
Today, it’s almost impossible to start a local business without eventually building upport from the local review sections on Yelp. But Yelp wasn’t always the successful third-party directory it is today.
Back in 2004, Yelp started as an automated system to ask friends for direct recommendations — an idea that fell flat with audiences, despite a $1 million round of funding from a PayPal co-founder. Still, the founders noticed something interesting: Users were writing reviews of local businesses just for fun. The founders decided to run with this and have since built Yelp into a system with more than 17 million reviews.
In one of the more interesting turns on this list, Shopify’s founders didn’t pivot by coming up with a new idea, but rather selling an idea they’d already had — but used for a different purpose. Back in 2004, Tobias Lutke, Daniel Weinand and Scott Lake attempted to open their own online snowboard equipment store, called Snowdevil.
They didn’t like any ecommerce products on the market, so instead, they built their own. The shop wasn’t successful at all, but they loved the storefront they built, so they decided to sell it to other businesses that needed a better online store. The rest is history.
What you can learn
So, what can you learn from these examples?
- Focus on what you have. If some aspect of your business isn’t working, there might be another aspect that’s doing extraordinarily well — like the one in which Groupon performed so well under The Point’s brand. Focus on the wins, and try to expand on them.
- Cut your losses. Even if you’re in love with your business idea, you can’t keep pursuing it if it’s not striking a profit. Speck and Butterfield still lament that Glitch never took off, but they had to abandon that project if they wanted to succeed.
- Follow the money. Ultimately, your business needs to be profitable if it’s going to survive. Throw hypotheticals and ideals out the window, and instead focus on where you can generate the most revenue.
You don’t have to be a hit right out of the gate to become a successful entrepreneur, nor does your business idea need to remain intact to maximize those chances of success. Instead, open your mind to other possibilities, and don’t be afraid to make a major change — even if you’re already a few years in. It might just be the change you need to save the business.
For more content like this, be sure to check out my podcast, The Entrepreneur Cast!