There’s no market for my idea! How idea validation can help you persevere or pivot

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.

What not to do – the product death cycle

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.

What not to do – the sunk cost fallacy

‘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.

A better solution - re-test your assumptions

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.

When to pivot

  • You’ve designed a solution, but there’s apparently no market for it
  • You’re trying to solve a problem that potentially doesn’t exist
  • Your approach is wrong – wrong features, wrong positioning, wrong price
  • You’re targeting the wrong audience

How to pivot

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.

Steps to pivoting

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.

  1. The first step is to talk – to your boss, to your colleagues, to your clients, about any planned change of direction.
  2. Make sure you’ve got the evidence to back up your proposed pivot – the user research, web analytics, financial numbers, whatever it is that demonstrates you’re currently not succeeding.
  3. No one will thank you for just killing their idea, so offer an alternative vision; give them something new to get excited about, whether it’s persevering or pivoting entirely. Tell anecdotes and give examples of other successful stories.
  4. It might be tempting when you’re championing your own plan to present your preferred route along with two clear flops, in the hope that everyone will go for your obvious option. But this risks limiting your ideas and stifling creativity and innovation. It’s important to present multiple, legitimate alternative options so that your team can collaboratively choose the right option.