In 2010, a location-driven social check-in app called Burbn launched. Founder Kevin Systrom believed people would use it to make social plans and collect points for visiting locations, but it soon became clear they just weren’t doing this. Burbn was shaping up to be a potentially costly flop.
But Systrom didn’t give up on his idea. Instead, he chose to persevere, watching what users were doing with his app. They were using it to share photos. Lots and lots of photos. So Systrom and fellow programmer Mike Krieger decided to make a major pivot, changing the direction the app was heading. They got rid of all features except those related to photo sharing and added some cool photo filters. They called this new version of the app Instagram, and their pivot turned out to be worth $35 million!
The concept of persevere or pivot is crucial when any business is starting up, finding a market, solving a customer problem or introducing new services or features. Do you stick with a concept, despite the research or the analytics showing you it's not working? Or do you change direction, building on a part of your idea that has potential? It’s really a question of how a business deals with failure. Businesses that eventually succeed build their failures into their design process to make it stronger.
No one is using your product or service. So you ask your customers what’s missing, and then you build what they tell you they want. Sounds logical, right? But the problem with the so-called product death cycle is that customers are users, not designers. They can tell you about problems but they aren’t the best people to come up with solutions. Bolting on new features is likely to miss the core issue with your product altogether.
‘We can’t backtrack now, we’ve spent too much.’ This is a common mindset in a business facing a potential failure. You believe that if you give up, your investment to date will be wasted, so instead you throw more money at it. The problem? When your initial idea is flawed, that extra money will be wasted too.
Smart businesses use some form of idea validation to assess whether they should persevere with an idea or pivot in a new direction. Idea validation involves using agile testing methods to try out complex ideas in simple ways to find out if people will use them. It’s a useful process when you’re developing concepts and services, because it can tell you whether people will use your idea, what the issues with it are, and if there are elements of the idea that you could still use.
Idea validation can help you identify and save the parts of your original idea that still have value. You might find that aspects of your current solution solve part of the problem, and that it’s worth persevering with the problem as a whole while pivoting on the features you focus on. You might find that you need to go back to basics, revisiting your user research and the problem you’re trying to solve. One of the world’s most recognisable brands Starbucks was founded with the vision of helping people enjoy coffee by selling espresso machines. It was only after they pivoted on their approach, abandoning coffee machine sales to open coffee shops that they hit big-time success. (Our team aren’t big fans of their coffee, but we love how they followed the same vision via a different route!)
It’s often the case that good work has been put into a bad project. Even if you didn’t solve your initial problem, there may be features you can use elsewhere to make the most out of time and budget that’s already been spent. The founders of YouTube knew they’d built a great video-sharing platform, but what would people use it for? Internet dating was their best guess, but they couldn’t even pay people to upload dating videos. So they pivoted, keeping the best elements of their platform and opening it up to anyone. A million funny cat videos later and their change of direction certainly paid off.
If you’re considering a change of direction, there are some basic ground rules to help you navigate the transition and make a potential failure work for you.