Pivot or Persevere?

Change SmallLaunching a startup is often a roller coaster ride of successes and disappointments punctuated with critical decisions regarding the current business model and whether or not it can survive, maintain and ultimately thrive. It is at these critical junctures that entrepreneurs must decide whether the model should, in the words of startup guru Eric Ries, “pivot or persevere”. And of course a third option could be to simply pack up and go home.

Entrepreneurship, by its very nature, presents an interesting dichotomy relative to entrepreneurial perseverance. If asked to list the most important qualities of a successful entrepreneur, we might often include passion, tenacity, dedication, determination, and so on. Starting a business is a challenging undertaking – definitely not for the faint of heart. So persistence and tenacity can certainly be important attributes when staying power and indefatigability are required.

However one drawback to that same entrepreneurial spark, spirit and drive surfaces when it is time to pause and reflect on where we are at critical milestones in the startup process. If we adhere to the lean startup process (which I strongly recommend), we commit to an iterative process and continuous feedback loop, taking customer input and incorporating it along the way as we move from a minimal viable product to a more refined final product or service offering. In doing so, entrepreneurs can easily fall victim to being too attached to what we firmly believe to be the right solution to fill what we believe is a burning need in the marketplace.

But what if we’re wrong?

By definition, starting lean is all about getting feedback from prospective customers and, for that matter, others who might provide their opinions and suggestions. And as the great philosopher Dirty Harry said in the 1988 movie The Dead Pool: “Well, opinions are like assholes. Everybody has one.” But it’s not about simply getting the feedback – it’s about acting on it.

Now of course opinions are just that – opinions. If we survey 10 people, and hear 10 different suggestions, that’s one thing. But we ask those same 10 people and get the same feedback from 8 of them, that’s something entirely different. When we receive consistent feedback from the people who are our potential customers asking us to change something in our product or service offering, we need to act. And that’s where tenacity and perseverance might start to act not as a positive force, but rather a negative one.

Hanging on to our firmly held beliefs that we are right and our customers are wrong is not a recipe for success for any business. It doesn’t mean giving up our principles or making short-term decisions that may have negative long-term implications. But hanging on to our own personal opinions in the face of customer feedback to the contrary can quickly convert passion and tenacity to stubborn, obstinate and pigheaded.

That’s not to say that we should ever be forced to make decisions that will destroy our profitability. We can’t simply follow customer input to lower our prices if it means we will lose money on every sale. And sometimes our customers can’t provide the input we are looking for, because they can’t envision our plan for the future. As Henry Ford famously said: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” But when we are talking about meaningful feedback with suggestions for improvements in design, functionality or services offered, why in the world would we not listen to our customers and incorporate those suggestions?

Novel concept: listen to customers, act on valuable feedback, launch a successful company. Makes sense to me!

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