The Difference Between Impossible and Really, Really Hard At a Startup



Starting a company is very hard. You put every ounce of your energy into the new business, fighting for every new customer and struggling to make ends meet. In the midst of the chaos, it is very easy to lose track of whether you are making progress or just running in circles.

Every company runs into a wall right around their product launch, when the initial excitement of the startup wears off and the first version of their product makes contact with reality. Reality is a harsh place and even the brightest dreams never quite work the way you would expect. Success fails to come easily and you sit there wondering if your idea, which seemed brilliant a week ago, can really work at all.

At that point, many first time founders will start thinking of a pivot. The original idea isn’t working out exactly like you expected but you have another, equally brilliant idea that will be much better. This new idea has not had to survive contact with reality so it will always look more attractive. You start to think the original plan is impossible but this new path will definitely work.

But, is the original plan really impossible or is it just really, really hard?

Don’t get me wrong, pivots can be an important part of startup success as almost every successful company ends up doing something different than what they started out doing since they learn from the market. However, pivoting too early or often can actually hurt your chances of success. You should not pivot unless you are positive that it is the best thing for your company.

Here are some questions you should answer before deciding for or against a potential pivot in those early days.

Question 1: Have you followed through on your go to market plan?

It is easy to panic if you begin to test your concept in the market and things don’t go as you expect. Even if you were able to demonstrate demand with alpha customers, raise funding and recruit a team, there is no guarantee that customers will flock to you when you launch. If your launch doesn’t give you immediate benefits then you will feel panic setting in.

Making good decisions when emotions and stress are high is very difficult. That is why you laid out a plan for your go to market strategy including specific milestones that you would aim for and how you would achieve them. Those milestones are important, because they give you a decision-making framework that is above all of the emotions of the launch. Do not make decisions until you hit your next checkpoint to ensure that you have given it a chance to work.

Even if the early results don’t match all of your original expectations, look for promising signs and clear feedback from the market. Perhaps your pricing model is too aggressive or there are certain customer segments that are working well that you should lean into. Remember that whatever concept you might have started with, you will need to refine it as you learn from the market.

You should not continue trying to force a product that is clearly not working, but you need to be sure you have given your product a chance. Sticking to your go to market plan and avoiding panic are important parts of doing that.

Question 2: Do you have enough time for a pivot?

Pivoting your company is a lot like starting over again. While you might be able to use some of the assets you have accumulated along the way, you will be at a much earlier stage of development on the new idea than you were on the old one. You will need to start over again with your market planning, prototyping, customer development and strategizing. All of that will take time, just like it did the first time you did it.

The unfortunate truth is that when companies get the most desperate they start to favor pivoting as a solution to their problems. Often, this means they are trying to pivot when they have only months of runway left, which is not enough time to restart their go to market strategy. While it is true that your current business might not be working, if you only have a few months left then you likely don’t have enough time to make a new business work either. Be very practical about your existing runway and whether a pivot is really an option for you.

Question 3: Is your team on board?

At the end of the day, your company is made up of people. Maybe it is just you or maybe you have a team of dozens. Either way, pivoting is a traumatic event for everyone involved. You are, in essence, admitting that your previous plan which you used to recruit and motivate them, was flawed. The passion that drives early stage companies can quickly deflate.

You cannot change your team as quickly as you change your business so make sure that the team you would hire for your new idea and the team you have already are almost the same. If they are not, then you are faced with rebuilding your team at the same time you rebuild your business which is very hard.

Assuming your team is right, make sure they are on board. If you think a pivot is the right move but they are still committed to your old concept it is unlikely you can pull them along. Besides, if you can’t convince your team that it is a good idea then maybe it isn’t.

Impossible vs. Really, Really Hard

All of this should make you realize that the difference between Impossible and Really, Really Hard is difficult to see when you are in the moment. Startup companies are at least really, really hard and often impossible so it is easy to confuse the two. While you don’t want to waste your time on something impossible, all the value and benefits of starting a company come when you overcome things that are really, really hard.

Whatever you choose, be sure not to waver. If you pivot and then swing back again you aren’t pivoting, you are waffling. Choose a direction and stick with it. 

This article was originally published at Sean on Startups, a blog about starting and growing companies.

Image credit: CC by Sasquatch I

About the author: Sean Byrnes

Sean is the founder of Flurry, the leader in advertising and analytics services for mobile applications. He is currently an advisor, mentor and angel investor in the San Francisco bay area. You can read more of his advice and thoughts on building businesses on Sean On Startups and his personal website.

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