To pivot or not to pivot

There was a great post last week by Blake Jennelle that said you should pivot if your startup feels that you are constantly fighting an uphill battle. The premise is that if you have a really good idea+execution you'll get product/market fit, and "gravity" will do the rest. If you don't, the uphill battle will be endless and demoralizing.

I generally agree with this advice, but I feel it is often applied incorrectly. I see startups pivot (or even give up) too early, and visa-versa. In this context, I'm talking about major pivots (as opposed to tweaks).

Don't give up before your launch. 

People get launch jitters, which often stem from fear of rejection, humiliation, failure, etc. Ignore all that. Embrace the MVP concept and launch something already!

Even if you think your idea won't work and you think you have better ones, still launch. You never know what will happen and what pivot thoughts may come from real customer interaction.

And consider this--investors want to see determination. Having a history of switching between ideas without launching anything pretty much shows the opposite. OK, so I hope I convinced you to launch :).

When you do launch, here are some things to look for that you are on the right track.

  • Emotional reactions, love or hate. If you put it out on Hacker News and you get really positive or negative comments, that's good. You've hit a nerve with some sub-group of the population. You can work with that.

  • Requests for changes. If you're getting unsolicited feature requests that's a sign that someone cares about what you're doing. Remember each piece of feedback probably represents a lot of people who have that issue.

  • Interaction with your site. If your analytics say that some people are spending a while on your site, that means that sub-group is intrigued enough to give you some of their attention. That's great.

  • Repeat visitors. Same.

If you launch and you see any of these things, don't give up yet. Instead, you need to do customer development. You have the potential for product/market fit. Now you need to talk to these people who are interacting with your site, and figure out how to build on what is working.

A lot of people give up in this stage when they shouldn't. Yes, some of the above happened, but it still feels like an uphill battle to get more. You have visitors trickling in that you may be able to count on two hands.

What you have to realize though is that you probably don't have a powder-keg idea (and never will), because they're super rare. It's more of a movement where you need to cultivate your followers and pay attention to minute details. 

At my last company, I saw the above signs, but it is was another six months of little tweaks before it started to really take off. At Duck Duck Go, it's been a slow and steady climb from the beginning. I think it would have been easy to give up on either of these projects if not looking out for these signs and using them as motivation and validation.

When you're farther along, here are some signs you're really on to something.
  • People offer to help you for free. 
  • People make add-ons to your site on their own.
  • People ask if you're hiring. 
  • Pople ask to invest in you.
All of these are signs that either you've made a real connection with customers or that people believe in your vision and market potential. 

Yes, you should be vying for product/market fit and doing anything to get there. However, many people give up because they don't immediately get there. Don't do that. Look for the markers that you are on the right trail.


If you have comments, hit me up on Twitter.
I'm the Founder & CEO of DuckDuckGo, the search engine that doesn't track you. I'm also the co-author of Traction, the book that helps you get customer growth. More about me.