How a pivot can turn your ‘failure’ into success
It’s time to bust another myth about entrepreneurship.
MYTH: You only get one shot to succeed as an entrepreneur, and if you can’t hack it on your first try, you’re not cut out to be an entrepreneur.
FACT: Just because your first business fails does not mean you are a failure as an entrepreneur.
There are a million reasons why your first business might fail — maybe the timing isn’t right, maybe it’s not the right business for you or your city, or maybe your target audience isn’t willing to pay for your service. Some ideas are just not viable.
Even when entrepreneurs succeed, they may still walk away from their business. Maybe the business doesn’t work with their life, or maybe they have new ideas they want to test out.
It’s a silly myth that an entrepreneur only gets one shot at success. Unless you are a one-in-a-million entrepreneur who happens to strike gold with your first idea, your success will depend on your ability to pivot.
How do you know when it’s time to pivot?
Every business faces challenges in its first few years. Some of those challenges are growing pains, like finding talent or scaling up your supply to meet demand. But sometimes those challenges will be early indications that your business model isn’t viable. How do you know the difference? When is it time to double down and push through, and when is it time to cut your losses and try something new?
The key to knowing when to pivot is to stay close to your customers from the beginning. When I talk to an aspiring entrepreneur who has not yet invested any time into a business, I encourage her to tell her idea to as many friends as she can. I tell her to socialize the idea, and listen to the feedback she gets. If she has not invested anything into the idea yet, her friends and colleagues will be more likely to give honest feedback, and she’ll learn more about her own idea by articulating it over and over.
After socializing the idea with friends, it’s time to share it with a focus group. I encourage entrepreneurs to pick two dramatically different demographics and share the idea with them. The experience of working with those different groups and the feedback from those sessions can provide valuable data about who your target audience is.
If the feedback has been positive up to this point, the next step might be create a wireframe or a demo of your product or service, and to show it to a group of your target users. Then you might run a pilot session, observing what works and what doesn’t, and gathering more and more feedback.
At every step of development of your business, you need to stay in this cycle of talking to your customers and listening to what they have to say. If you do this, you will find yourself making small adjustments to your business model along the way, each one a refinement based on customer data. Ideas are dynamic not static. You are continually shaping and reshaping the business. If you are connected and responsive, you may not hit a point of needing to make a dramatic change.
But if you don’t engage with your customers, you will likely hit a point when things aren’t working. You don’t really know why, because you’ve been operating on your own assumptions instead of letting your customers guide you. You may start chasing shiny objects in an effort to fix the problem. Remember, your customers are your design partners.You can’t build a strong, sustainable business without them.
If you find yourself trying to jam a square peg into a round hole, you can gain valuable insight from seeking outside advice. Gather a group of people you trust together and ask them to brainstorm solutions for your business. Let them bring fresh eyes to the project. Perhaps they will help you realize what your customers have been telling you all along — the real value in your business is X, but you have been trying to do Y. Or maybe they will determine that there is no way to make the numbers work. This requires the strength to be vulnerable. Entrepreneurs can often let their fear of embarrassment or shame get in the way of progress.
You may come to a point where you realize it’s time to pivot, but you’re not ready to let go of your first idea. This is normal. There are many reasons why we stay in a business too long, whether it’s ego, embarrassment or sunk costs. No matter how much feedback you get from trusted friends or customers, it will be a decision you must come to on your own.
What does a pivot look like?
A pivot is not starting over from scratch. Even if you feel like you’re pivoting 180 degrees, you will still start from a stronger place because of all of the knowledge you have gained about your industry and about entrepreneurship in general.
In the past few months I have coached several Doyenne members through a pivot. One member is transitioning from building a consulting business into building a virtual reality training product. While she found plenty of work as a consultant, it never captured her passion. The whole time we were working together on the consulting business, I had a suspicion that there was something else out there that would better use her talent. Now she has found it.
Another member is passionate about food justice and was pursuing a retail business. She poured her soul into the work, but came to the realization that a retail business would not work for her and her family. She’s taking a step back to find a business model lets her be the mom she wants to be, so she can stop feeling guilty about being a bad entrepreneur and a bad mom.
Another member was building a business that connected students to international internships, with the goal of providing life-changing travel experiences. But the business was not producing a sustainable income, so she had to step back and rethink it. Now she has pivoted into a new business model in the same industry — creating a platform for finding authentic travel experiences. Before she could take a step back to consider other options, she had to get to the point where it was obvious the first business model wouldn’t work. But now she is bringing all of the lessons learned from her first attempt into her pivot, with a new name and new business model and renewed energy.
Why do you feel the need to grieve your first business idea?
Deciding to pivot can be a deeply emotional process, especially if your identity is tied up in your business. To even get to the decision to pivot, you need to be able to accept the failure of your first idea, without interpreting it as a personal failure.
To do this, you must separate yourself from your business. You have poured your heart and soul and hard-earned money into your business, but your business is not who you are. And one failed business does not equal a failed entrepreneur.
For many people, pivoting will trigger a grieving process, because you’re letting something that you put a lot of energy into die. It’s not unusual to go through the five stages of grief — the denial, the sadness, the rage, the bargaining, and then eventual acceptance — when you finally walk away from your first idea. Give yourself the space to experience this emotional path.
Building an army of women entrepreneurs — not just a portfolio of businesses
At Doyenne, we anticipate that many of our members are going to need to pivot away from their original business ideas. This is why we focus on building entrepreneurs, not businesses. Our job is to give our members the skillset to test out their ideas, to gather data, and to recognize when something isn’t working and it’s time to pivot. And we also provide a network of other entrepreneurs to support them as they navigate the emotions that come with letting go of their first idea.