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How to rethink 'pivoting' your business startup


If I say the word pivot one more time, please punch me.

I am not sure I’d heard the word ‘pivot’ in a formal business announcement until 1st March last year. But as soon as it happened there was an intervention from my best mate John Gower (from Dialectinc.com), and I had to follow suit.

Building your business on the back of an existing business’s products is always risky, and that ride had come to an end.

But here is the thing...I really don’t think that ‘pivot’ is a good word, and would like to offer an alternative - a tack, or moving from a 'zig to a zag'.

Let me explain…

Origins of the word pivot

If you are working in a business startup then you will be testing, testing, and testing some more.
And much of what you do in the early days will fail.
But should you be thinking about 'pivoting'?

Take a look online and you will find this definition:

Tack and Relaunch 1

In other words, a pivot is movement around a point.

Tack and Relaunch 2

And I mean, how the heck is that a useful thing to do? You are still at the same point, combing about your business for the next best approach to taking your products and services to market, or making new ones. Where are the goals? Where is the vision?

It can feel a lot like this:


The real thing you want to do is ‘get somewhere’, you want to win.
And for people to love what you do, you need to have a vision of where you are going.

With a vision you can set course.

This is why, instead of pivoting you need to learn to ‘tack’.

It could be a Zig, or a Zag. And it has energy, powered by the wind.

Having been a windsurfing instructor throughout University, I learned a lot about ‘how the wind works’, and I think that within business culture we would really benefit from applying the principles.
As it happens, it was due to the generosity of my cousins, Jackie and Charles Wand-Tetley, who owned the school at Queen Mary's Reservoir, (just outside of London) that I had the good fortune of sailing and teaching around legends like Sir Ben Ainslie. I then spent two years in Australia as a senior instructor honing my skills. Ah, good times. I digress.

What does ‘changing tack mean’?

I’m glad you asked…
Let me explain.

You want to build your business, you want people to use your product, download your app, monetize your site, love your platform, but it is not working.

You want to go straight ahead, right?

I mean, you are at the bottom (or near it), and you want to be 'up the top' (in whatever way).

Imagine the wind is coming directly 'at you', holding you back.

Well, you cannot sail directly ‘into the wind’.

Tack and Relaunch 4


In other words, you cannot just ‘get to where you want to go’, upwind, by pointing directly in that direction.

If you try, your sail will get pushed back by the wind. It’s just how it is.

This ‘no go zone’ is generally taught as 45 degrees either side of the source of the wind, when you learn to sail.

Instead, you need to look at ‘tacking’ - like a zig-zag, which allows you to move upwind, like this:

Tack and Relaunch 5
Credit: http://www.slideshare.net/emilygoodstein/sailing-101

Tacking means you get to where you want to be, working with the forces against you - in this case the wind, but in business if could be any of the following:

  • Funding
  • Cashflow
  • Tech Resources
  • Team skills
  • Market conditions
  • Cultural conditions
    And so on...

You were on a Zig, and you move to a Zag.
As such, let me give you a few ways to think about how you can approach this principle when you feel your business needs to change.

Tips on changing tack.

1. Know which way you are currently pointing

The simple fact is this, you need to begin somewhere, and unless you accept the current situation you cannot begin the process.
You are pointing in one way right now, and you know you need to change.

2. Know where you want to get to

Instead of 'just changing course', pivoting and flip flopping all over the place, set a goal of being 'up at the top'.
And know what it would look like when you get there.
You have to know where you want to get to. Direct your hand towards it - point - and commit to it.
Then think: if you get there, what would that get you?

I mean, are you sure you want to go there? If ‘yes’, great. If not, then re-think setting sail quite yet.

3. Know where the wind is coming from, and pick your first course of direction

The wind is your friend, but cannot be approached head on. You need to work with it.
Maybe there is a market emerging, but not ‘there yet’.
Maybe you have more ideas than financial resources to implement them.
Or you might be fatigued from the last journey your business made.
Whatever it is, this is what you have to work with.

4. Make the decision to tack - move cleanly and swiftly.

The faster you change your course, the faster you can build up speed in the new direction.
And know, ‘talk’ is not enough.
If your website still is ‘the old style’, then you are still the ‘same old business’ to many people.
You cannot say you are going to ‘go in that direction’, change internally, but communicate that to everyone through your channels.

Here are some ‘tactics’ (get it?) to get you moving:
Do a relaunch through one, strong announcement.
This creates an initial wave of attention: post on social, mail your lists, phone your friends and ask them to look at your site. Then…
Don’t assume that people will get notice you’ve changed tack straight away.
But don’t tell them again that you’ve changed - show them.
To do this, you need to drive it home through quality content (amongst other things) that brings people to your site to find out for themselves.
The more radical a shift, the more reinvention you need to make.

5. Know you could tack ‘once’ and all is well, or not.

Sure, you may get lucky and in one tack you get to where you want to be, or not.
Here is a great illustration, with P3 being the most efficient way to get there (other things being equal).

Tack and Relaunch 6

Credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Gregors

You may get to where you want to be with several tacks (P1 above), but you may miss your chance as other sailors have stuck to their course.

6. Pick a point to sail towards, not a seagull.

Point in a direction that moves you upward, and sail as close to the wind as you can.
As I say, you cannot sail into the wind, but you can have the pressure against the sail move your forward.
Pick that next point to get to.
And the reason I say ‘don’t pick a seagull’ is because fixed points can be measured, and random goals can’t - they just fly, and do what they want.
e.g. don’t let anything out of your control govern your success (expect, ultimately, the market)

7. Too many tacks, in too short a time, and your market may be lost.

Tacking takes time, it is not efficient sailing.
Sticking on one course, in the right direction, and you will be heading towards your goal.

8. Don’t confuse changing tack (direction), and trimming the sail (speed).

Have you really changed tack? Or are you just hoping that people buy your stuff with a new logo?
Put simply, it is simply not enough to change a pricing table on your website and assume that is changing tack.

9. Trim the sail as the wind is not a constant.

Once you’ve tacked you can adjust the course a little, based on the gusts of wind you experience.
You can alter your pricing a little, you can bundle products, you can test out new markets.
Once you are heading in the right direction, moving at a pace, you can make the most of the the forced with which you are working.

10. Goal reached?

Good. Now, in front of you, the horizon keeps on expanding.
This is what you’ve been working towards.


Hopefully you can now see a little more why I thinking that ‘Tacking’ (Zig-Zag) is a better way to go than ‘Pivoting’ (ouch, who punched me?).

And know it may well take some skill to sail, as Alan Watts describes here:
(thanks to Johnny Stork for popping this into my stream today)

The language we use reflects our culture, and right now I think many people are as using ‘pivot’ (enough already) and failing because of it.
Business is not that difficult, create products and services people want to buy, that add value, and that solve our world’s problems, whatever world you live in.

Tacking is what we have done with PlusYourBusiness.com and it has worked. We have corporate clients, and we have sustained our own community vessel as we are all sailing together - developing businesses that people love.
Maybe some day soon you’ve like to hear how you can sail faster than the wind too.

Let me know what you think. Contact me here. I’ve been through it, and myself and the crew do consulting for a business like yours. We can help you move from Zig to Zag, swiftly and cleanly.