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The Five Golden Rules of Pivoting For Startups

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This guest post is written by Philippe Laval, founder of Evercontact – a cloud mining service that extracts contacts hidden in email and shares and updates them automatically. Evercontact joined Seedcamp in 2009 and has pivoted its product (and name!) several times since. An older version of this article first appeared on wework.com.

I’ve been an entrepreneur and a geek since the early 90s, but after spending 15 years building an enterprise search company (Sinequa), I decided I was ready for a new challenge. In early 2009, I launched a new startup: Kwaga.

Right as I got back into the swing of creating, Eric Ries started blogging about “lean startup” methods. My co-founders and I wholeheartedly embraced this approach, and created four minimum value products (MVPs) over the next 2 years. That led to our current automated contact mining service, Evercontact.

Philippe and the Evercontact team

Philippe and the Evercontact team

Based on my own experiences, here are five lessons that clearly show how pivots, aka early failures, are important on the path to success.

1. Build Quickly, Minimally and Interact Heavily

Our first product, a Firefox plugin which we called a “magnifying glass for emails,” identified actionable requests, contacts and calendar appointments. We didn’t invest a lot in the UI or design, because we wanted to get it out there and see how it would be received.

The plugin brought us in contact with a number of early adopters, and helped us move quickly past this first MVP and into our first pivot: identifying “important emails” and providing real-time notifications.

2. Identify Real Pain Points and Focus on Precise Solutions (again, quickly)

Users found our first plugin helpful, but not essential. In early 2010 we pivoted towards a greater pain point, and launched a second app for Mac and PC (called Kwaga BirdsEye), which notified you when you received an important email. Our traction was much stronger this time around. We knew we were onto something, and what happened next proved that point: by the end of the year, Google released its Priority Inbox feature, clearly demonstrating the pain point and a great solution. It also forced us into a second pivot.

3. Focus on Your Unique Strengths When Creating New Solutions

As a startup, you’re competing against the world, against Goliaths, and against anyone else who can solve problems better than you. That’s why you have to focus on what’s most unique about your technology, team, and how you can leverage that to come out on top.

Our second pivot didn’t take this into account perfectly, but thanks to lesson number one (constant interaction with your users), it brought us to our third pivot.

My two co-founders and I are computational linguists, and when our early adopters of Kwaga Context began to find greater value in maintaining up-to-date contact information in their address book, we turned back to our skills in NLP (Natural Language Processing) to solve a contact management pain point. Evercontact (formerly Write.That.Name) came out in 2011 and has had steady PR, traction and growth since then. We’ve already been adopted by over 100,000 users.

Since its first iteration, Evercontact has evolved, with automated contact solutions for Chrome, Outlook and Gmail, and CRM systems including Salesforce and Highrise. And with all of these developments we have kept the focus on our core strength, solving contact management pain by intelligently automating mining and updating of contact information.

4. Go Beyond User Feedback: Surround Yourself with Great Mentors

As an early-stage startup, it’s easy to focus all of your attention on your “baby,” so let’s be honest: objectivity isn’t on the cards. That’s why having an outside point-of-view, especially an entrepreneurial one from someone who works a lot with startups, is priceless. Acceleration Funds like Seedcamp and investment funds like Kima Ventures, are great ways to have that third tier of perception beyond your own creation and inspiration.

5. Once You Have a Great Product, it Becomes its own “Sticky Engine”

Eric Ries’ concept of a sticky engine demonstrates how a truly valuable product becomes something that few users leave. Once you hit this point, the real analytical hustling starts; you’ll work on improving website conversion rates, developing internal virality, rolling out PR or encouraging word-of-mouth — the art of growth hacking.

Because Evercontact was our first product to grow and retain clients in a scalable way, our next “pivots” were marketing-oriented. When you reach this stage, I highly encourage you check out what Neil Patel is writing at Quick Sprout. Solid gold. We have tested out lots of ways to grow our business even more, like content marketing, referral programs and PR, but at every step we pay close attention to user feedback and results to make sure we are constantly improving.

Evercontact in action

Evercontact in action

Bonus: Enjoy the Ride or Pivot Professionally

In the early 90s, I was the CEO who had to sweetly coerce his team to check their email at least once a week. Now, I’m developing solutions for the same platform that our power-users check over 25 times per day.

Who knows what comes next? You do. The entrepreneurs of tomorrow — and what a joy it is to be a part of this creative ride. That said, the entrepreneurial industry is becoming increasingly mainstream and “glamorised”. If you or your friends get in the game, do it because you’re passionate, hungry, and enjoying the ride.

If you’re not, maybe it’s best to pivot to another profession, because there’s nothing easy about entrepreneurship… but there is a whole lot of fun to be had!

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