Knowing WHEN to Pivot

Jack Lancaster | Product
April 20, 2023


Do you need to pivot but haven’t realized yet? That was us last year.
As product managers and founders, it’s crucial to recognize when things aren’t on the right path.
Below are six reflections to help you take action earlier:

Key Reflections

  1. Take time to reflect → It sounds simple but stepping out of the hamster wheel is essential. Take time every week or month to really challenge where you’re going and whether you’re actually solving the problem. If we had done this more, we would have pivoted earlier.
  2. Set goals for your metrics → This is hard to do with no baseline but you need to think boldly about what traction looks like. The metrics that you need in order to prove PMF are much bolder than you think.
  3. Set timelines for when you need to reach metric goals → This will give you feedback faster and help you realize failure more quickly.
  4. Be clear about where you’re creating value → Think carefully about your interface. Getting people into your app is harder than you think and you may be better off being deeply integrated into where people are working already.
  5. Onboard more aggressively → There are always more users to try with (in 99% of cases). Don’t hold back too much because you’re scared of not putting the right product into people’s hands. And remember that it takes longer to onboard than you think so start earlier.
  6. Work out the value prop of your pitch → You need to understand whether what you’re building actually resonates with people. Not whether they like the idea but whether they would actually buy the product.

1: Reflecting on our Problems

It was 17th October, and I was sitting with my co-founders, Carl and Max, in our AirBnb in San Francisco. We had been invited to pitch at TechCrunch but we had doubts about what we were pitching. Our product lacked the traction we’d hoped for.

We built an asynchronous standup tool that collected and summarized updates to automate reporting. All the information was supposed to cascade horizontally and vertically to create perfect alignment across organizations. Teams were using it for async standups but there was little virality. It wasn’t growing from team to team and stakeholders weren’t subscribing to summarized reports, as we’d expected them to.

It took us stepping away to reflect that we needed to do something. But what were the signs that we needed to pivot? And could we have noticed them earlier?

2 & 3: Set metric goals & Timelines

Our metrics were okay at best. Engagement (55% of users submitting updates each day) and retention (~40% usage after 30 days). The bottom line is that we simply did not see Spoke spreading virally across multiple teams in an organization – a key sign of PMF for our model.

Andrew Chen’s The Cold Start Problem articulates how atomic network growth looks, and June have a lot of great guides on approaching different metrics and what to look for.

4: Friction vs. Value

In the Spoke experience, users received a notification in Slack, which then took them into the Spoke web app to submit their updates. Summaries of these updates were then published into the web app. This created an information silo in a product that people didn’t get enough value from to go to regularly. The result was a hybrid that took updates out of where people wanted them: Slack.

Heiki Reisenkampf made the point perfectly when describing an earlier pivot at Acapela:

Your product has to perfectly fit into an existing workflow or be a 100% replacement for an existing tool. Everything in the middle fails.

Ufff this rang very true for us.

5 & 6: Outbound Sales & Onboarding Users

After delivering our MVP in August, we started onboarding companies. Our mistake was doing this too slowly. Waitlists go cold quickly. Handheld onboarding takes longer than you think simply because you have to reach out, set up the call, onboard them, wait for the first usage, etc. This delays your feedback loop. Start earlier, with more urgency.

Starting an outbound motion also takes time. You need to iterate on cold messaging and call structure. We would explain Spoke and see confusion. We weren’t able to frame a clear vision and end state that addressed a problem that resonated.

We could have learned this earlier by having sales calls before we even had a product. You can even go one step beyond this by having the ‘willingness to pay’ talk early.

Next Steps

All of these factors pointed to pivoting but it required a step back to see the bigger picture. But what did we do about it?

In the next post, I will tackle how we pivoted. I’ll cover how we:

  • Used Design Sprints to validate fast
  • Set clear criteria for success/failure
  • Could decide and move forward just a few weeks after reflecting on our lack of PMF
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