The biggest dilemma for any startup founder.
Persevere or pivot? Persevere or pivot? Persevere or pivot?
Startup founders are caught between two absolute imperatives as they go through the daily ups and downs of running a startup. On one shoulder is the mythical Steve Jobs, saying “You must stick to your vision, ignore the naysayers, and believe that you are right, no matter what!”. On the other shoulder is Eric Ries saying “If you hit a bump in the road, Pivot! That’s what great startups do! Pivot, early and often!”
So how do great startup founders balance these two seemingly contradictory imperatives? I’ve often been asked about this by my Stanford students and I’ve struggled to come up with a concise answer. How do you know when to pivot? This week I had calls with some of my favorite startup founders and they gave some great insights into how they think about this.
The first was a call with Gleb Braverman, CEO/Founder of Speakezee. He said to me “Look. The most important job of a CEO is consistently articulating a clear vision for the team. If you have a new vision every week the team is going to decide you’re stupid and leave”. Fair enough. He went on to say for his company, the vision has to do with providing tools for audio creators, but that they will modify (“pivot”) as often as necessary with regard to how to best offer tools for audio creators. So that’s a pretty good framework to think about.
Then I had a call with the three co-founders of Midas, a cool new fintech platform. The founders of Midas – Cesar, Alonso, and Alfredo – have raised seed funding for the company, built a product, learned from customers, and are now scaling the operation up with a product that has been refined based upon their learnings along the way.
“We’ve had a lot of people tell us we’re doing it wrong”, said Alfredo, “Especially venture capitalists who all think they know the right path and they want us to pivot to their path”.
Alonso chimed-in: “Also, corporate partners we talk to tend to want to tell us all the things we should do differently. We listen to them, of course, but their advice is based on how things used to be done, and we’re building a platform around how things will be done”.
So I asked them, with all the different input they received, how they decided which advice to take and which advice to ignore.
“All that matters is customers”, said Alfredo. “We look at the customer data, listen to customer input, make refinements based on what we hear from customers, and ignore everything else”
Cesar said something that really stuck with me: “As a startup founder, you marry the problem, not the solution. You pivot as many times as you need to in order to find the optimized solution to the problem you started with.”
He echoed what Gleb has said about the fact that the team was assembled around a vision that articulated a problem worth solving. “You can change your shape, but you have to remember what you’re made of”, he said. I love that.
So the next time you’re running a startup and trying to decide whether to pivot or persevere, these are good thoughts to remember. You marry a problem, articulate it clearly to the team, modify the solution set as you learn from customers, but never forget what you’re made of.