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Startup Pivots (github.com)
87 points by marco1 5 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 43 comments

There's a military saying that "No battle plan survives contact with the enemy." Business seems to generally be the same.

You try a thing, learn that it doesn't work the way you envisioned and you modify it accordingly, informed by new info. If you do that well, the result is a functioning business.

My preferred version of that saying is from Mike Tyson: "Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face"

This is great.

I've also heard something along the lines of "a plan is useless but planning is invaluable."

Improvising on top of a plan is much better than coming up with things on the spot.

Some creators achieved great success working like that, such as Fernando Meirelles, Larry David, and Woody Allen.

I'm much more of a planner myself - like Spielberg and Hitchcock. Not that I'm even close to them, of course. But I admire their method. It is not uncommon for most things to occur precisely as planned, sometimes to the second. But you gotta be prepared to think on your feet. I think that's the message behind those sayings.

Popularized by Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s, as per https://quoteinvestigator.com/2017/11/18/planning/

That's good. Makes me think of "No one plans to fail. They just fail to plan."

There is a very old version of this, indeed:

“Plans are worthless when the fighting is once begun, and all depends on the inspiration of the moment.” (1877)


This is great. We also need companies and founders with great visions that ultimately don’t have to pivot. And I’m sure there are many of them.

By the way, is there any source for that blog post that proves its existence and form back to 2006? The Wayback Machine only has it until 2016, but perhaps the URL changed.

It does trace back to 2006, although the "Elon Musk, Co-Founder & CEO of Tesla Motors" byline is misleading. The original publication has him as Chairman of the Board. It gives his year appropriate job description in the intro paragraph so I'll let the blog engine's retroactive job title change slide.


(Their website used to be at teslamotors.com)

Thanks a lot for tracking that down! I would also say the change of some metadata in a non-static page is fine.

But will there be a future pivot? "Tesla pivoted from the original idea of selling cars to robo-taxis in 20xx."

I would say robotaxi is an extension of the business not a pivot. the plan described in the blog is pretty much achieved, isn't it?

What struck me about this list is how old these companies are. It's sad because that web gold rush seems to be over. Do the lessons from that generation of startups apply to the much more consolidated web of today?

Instagram 2010, Whatsapp 2009, Groupon 2008, Twitter 2006, Youtube 2005, Facebook 2004.

Me in 2001 (dot com crash): "the web gold rush seems to be over"

Me in 2007 (market malaise): "the web gold rush seems to be over"

Me in 2012 (Facebook IPO): "the web gold rush seems to be over"

Me in 2019 (finally having learned my lesson): there are probably still plenty of opportunities left, if you know where to look

Past performance is not indicative of future results.

Exactly - neither positive nor negative.

When I first moved to Palo Alto in 1984 the houses were all underwater (worth less than what was owed on their mortgage) because of the tech crash. The boom had been fun but everybody knew it was over and not coming back. After all, how many disk drives did the world really need anyway? The tech business magazines (upside, red herring, etc.) all had cover stories about how people were fleeing the valley

You’re right about the gold rush being over. But what certainly remains true is that, although your product may be failing, it could be possible to identify individual features or adjacent markets that are more promising.

Flickr beginning as "game never ending".. Slack beginning as the game "glitch", both magical failures of Stewart Butterfield.

The full evolution of Flickr from https://businessideaslab.com/flickr-history/

> A project founded in 2004 by Vancouver-based company Ludicorp (coming from the Latin word for ‘play’ actually), Flickr, as we know it today, is nothing like it was supposed to be in the very beginning. In reality, this website was made out to be a kind of a multiplayer online game, which eventually was turned into a chat system with live photo-sharing options. While the team behind Flickr, namely the couple Steward Butterfield and Caterina Fake, was working on quite a big number of settings and possibilities for the project, they ultimately got rid of the coding system for the game and created what is currently viewed as the beginning of Flickr. Later, even the chat system called Flickr Live, which was the basis of the earlier versions of the site was erased since the entire character of the portal has transformed into something a lot more different than the planned too. Also, we must never forget that, just like languages and cooking, the internet is something ever changing and there is nothing still inside the World Wide Web. Every site is what the users want it to be, the users of Flickr didn’t want to chat – they wanted to share their experiences in pictures and not in instant messages.

You’re right, these are perfect additions. No idea how they could have been missed. Thank you!

The term "pivot" has been so overused as to be a joke. These are typically much more like "focusing" or "refining" of their original premise.

These services almost all had a handful of features to start and then found through use that they had a bunch of lackluster features and one killer one (Burbn -> Instagram) is a good example.

I was listening to a podcast the other day (I can't remember what it was) but when pressed about how the term "pivot" is overused, the intervewee mentioned that the term comes from the idea of one foot being firmly planted and pivoting in new direction. He suggested there are two types of pivots. One of product and one of customer. You can't pivot on both, so, to be a pivot, you are either keeping the same customer but providing them a different product, or keeping the same product and finding a different customer.

As an example, YouTube started as a dating site, but it was a video dating site. They had built the video upload and streaming (product) and kept that but pivoted to serve a different market.

I don't think Twitter really "pivoted", they didn't change market or product really. Ok, they started with SMS, but for a LONG time you could still tweet via SMS (maybe you still can) but the core of Twitter is you can publicly post short messages. Still the same product it ever was.

Well, would you say that the pivot from a dating app to what YouTube is today is a joke? Is that just a refined product? Same for games turning into social networks or productivity tools.

It's not the action itself just the impreciseness of the label that I'm objecting to as I do think there is a difference between a video dating app that re-uses their underlying technology to become a general video hosting service (a refinement) vs say a Magic the Gathering collectors site that becomes a cryptocurrency exchange or a product company that just cancels their product and rebrands as a consultancy.

There's survivorship bias here. Where's the list of companies that pivoted to oblivion?

I worked with a guy who wanted to pivot every week, then every month.

Basically, he just didn't have enough follow through on specific ideas to either validate or disprove them.

I should have walked away sooner than I did, because we went nowhere.

In general, a pivot needs to come from evidence that it will increase sales, and stay within your core competency.

I had a similar experience. I joined a company about a month before Google launched a competing advertising product (you know, the kind of product Google never kills). The CEO got stuck in some sort of pivot loop where we'd drastically change our product offering every 6 months.

The CEO insisted it wasn't pivoting, it was "refinement", but he also had a really annoying tendency to redefine X to mean "what we do", so he could tell clients and investors "we do X".

I had the same thing happen.

When we were discussing me joining the company there was a very clear plan for the product and the path to revenue. Unfortunately, he had one meeting that completely shook his confidence in that direction. After that meeting it was something new every week.

We would build the feature of the week and then it wouldn't immediately catch on and he would decide to scrap it and start something new.

I finally jumped ship when it became clear he wasn't going to commit to a vision and his next idea was that we should make it a social platform.

You would be right – if the point was “just pivot and you’ll succeed”. It’s not.

Is there a lesson to be derived here or is it just to point out that oftentimes the thing that gains traction in the end isn't what they were originally working on? If there is a lesson, what would it be? Just work on anything to get your head in the game and into the mindset of solving problems? I can see how people overvalue the original idea, but it matters to some degree, no?

Sure, there are lessons here. And it’s certainly not “just work on anything”. It’s really that the initial idea is often overvalued, as you already said, that execution is more important than ideas, that you should constantly (re)validate your idea, and that you should be ready to pivot.

We know this from “The Lean Startup”, but practical examples can show why some aspects are important. And it’s not just small teams and solo founders from startups and young companies that may place too much importance on a great initial idea. It’s certainly also the general public, where most people belief that successful startups are the result of a genius having a clever idea. See basically every movie about inventions (and young companies). That general public also includes a lot of (potential) investors.

I'm not sure how the lesson (if any is intended) applies to some of these.

For example, YouTube started as a dating site. I genuinely don't know enough about the history of the website: is it that they had a decent dating website going that had videos as a feature, but talking to their users and studying the analytics they saw the video feature taking off and decide to revamp accordingly? Or did the dating part just fail, and the choice was to pivot to something else in their wheelhouse or risk losing investors? I genuinely don't know.

My sense of Twitter and some others is that it was the former. But for companies in the latter category, the lesson maybe it just "don't give up" rather than lean startup principles.

For YouTube and Groupon at least, it definitely was the latter. This can be seen in the sources.

Spectra-Physics, the first laser company to exceed $100M in sales and get a major stock listing, began as a semiconductor stepper company. They pivoted to making HeNe lasers.

A meticulous plan needs ton of effort & assumes dependencies. How well we perform in "Guerilla tactics"is what makes us (humans) different from super computers.

The most famous example is probably Cisco, which was founded to build a clone of the PDP-10 small mainframe computer. To make some money they sold routers on a design they had developed for the Stanford network.

But was it a pivot? The founders later went and started a company XKL doing just what they had originally intended to do: PDP-10 clones.

And XKL now seems to make switches, so I guess they've come full circle.

Was there ever a pizza place in the 600 West building? All I remember in the sandwich place (Snarf's?)

Interesting but was hoping there would be more than the famous ones.

Would also be interested in a list of Super successful startups that started exactly as they were and didn’t have to do a massive pivot.

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