The Anatomy of a Pivot
Just like a well-studied route that led you astray, entrepreneurs often find that their business plan isn’t working. So how do they pivot and evolve?
CREATING A NEW WAY FORWARD
Let’s say you’re on a road trip. You’ve studied your route extensively and Google Maps is in your pocket, just in case.
But then you come to an unexpected roadblock. A dead end. You pull out Google Maps, but there’s no service. Your only choice seems to be to turn around, go back the way you came and find a new way.
This is sometimes what it’s like to be an entrepreneur, except there is no Google Maps, no atlas and no how-to guide.
And just like your well-studied route that led you astray, entrepreneurs often find that their well-built business plan isn’t as aligned to the market as they had hoped.
So what are their options? Keep trucking along, hoping the market will adjust? Or pivot, go back, find a new way and evolve?
WHY PIVOTS MATTER
There’s an old military saying that no plan survives contact with the enemy. Entrepreneurs often have to live by the same idea.
"Once you get to market, things change," says John Messman, a Wichita angel investor. "Once you go to market and you meet your users of your product or service, things change."
Knowing when and how to ditch the plan and change directions is called pivoting, and it’s vital not just to survive, but also to protect investors and customers.
Once you get to market, things change. Once you go to market and you meet your users of your product or service, things change.John Messman
"You can either continue to bang your head against the wall, and probably not be successful, or move another direction," Messman says. "So, I think pivoting is seen, from an investor standpoint, as a positive thing to do."
Jason Toevs, co-founder and CTO of two startups, says pivoting is often an act of humility for an entrepreneur.
"It’s hard to realize that your baby is ugly," he says. "I think there’s humility wrapped up in that, because, as entrepreneurs, when you get this vision in your mind and you’re chasing after it, you sometimes have blinders on. It’s good to pull those blinders back a little bit and realize, ‘Maybe this wasn’t quite the right direction. Let’s pivot a little bit. Re-aim, re-target, run here for a while and then have those checkpoints.’"
Pivoting can be scary. It’s admitting the original direction was flawed. But a successful pivot can not only recoup losses or prevent further losses, but also reveal new opportunities.
Messman and Toevs are no strangers to pivoting. Alyss Analytics — a company Messman invests in and Toevs is co-founder of — made the decision to move its efforts to a new company and product, QuiCC.
Alyss Analytics is an Artificial Intelligence (AI) software designed to analyze video interview clips in order to help recruiters assess soft skills and create a shortlist of candidates.
"Think of it like a personality assessment from a 60- to 90-second video clip that they would submit alongside the resume," Toevs says. "How do we find the right people, core values, core personality, core fit to our company that also have the skills? The resume can tell us the skills — where they went to school, how long they worked somewhere else — but it doesn’t tell you who someone is."
Alyss would use AI on three different planes: audio transcription, or the content of what someone was saying; tone and inflection, which analyzes how they’re saying something to touch on personality and soft skills; and facial mapping, which would analyze facial points to pair with tone and identify different emotions.
The technology was a hit with initial pilot companies and in pitch competitions. Alyss won $120,000 at the Inside/Outside Innovation Summit in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Despite the early success, Alyss Analytics stalled when it came to signing up new customers in the human resources industry.
"People were interested, but no one was willing to sign any basic service-level agreements or pilot partnerships or put any money on the table," Toevs says. "The feedback we got was, number one, there’s a philosophical debate in the HR space of where should we use AI? How should we use AI? Should we use AI in any part of the recruiting process?"
Put simply, the market wasn’t ready to adopt the technology.
"Alyss was not getting the market traction that we had hoped it would get at that point," Messman says. For Messman and other investors, that lack of traction is a threat to a good return.
Instead of waiting or trying to force the market to evolve, Toevs and Alyss Analytics CEO Mike Mathia found a way to pivot some of the tech they’d already developed for Alyss into a new product they called QuiCC.
People were interested, but no one was willing to sign any basic service level agreements or pilot partnerships or put any money on the table.Jason Toevs
Essentially, QuiCC was Alyss Analytics’ transcription technology, which could be used by video creators and brands hoping to quickly add captions to their content. With this new technology, QuiCC could do in five minutes what would normally take 45 minutes.
The beta was released in March 2018, with the full product coming out in May. Since then, QuiCC has been used in 70 countries across all seven continents, supporting 11 different languages. Scientists were even using the product to transcribe research videos in Antarctica.
"We just rolled over 400,000 minutes of time we’ve saved creators out of post-production," Toevs says.
With the rapid success of QuiCC, Alyss Analytics was put on hold.
"It still exists, but it’s on the shelf waiting for the market to accept it," Messman says. "So, we decided to pay most of our attention to QuiCC at this point."
Needless to say, this pivot was a success. But one of the key reasons could be the constant communication with the team of investors, whose money pivoted along with the company.
CAPTURING A RETURN
Messman has been involved with angel investments through Accelerate Venture Partners (AVP) for about three years. Before that, he worked in human resources for Boeing, making him the perfect fit for Alyss Analytics and its parent company, Knoxx.
"I decided to become an investor and actually invited several other HR colleagues from Boeing to also invest in it," Messman says. "So it’s got a pretty good following from an HR standpoint."
When Alyss Analytics was shelved, the HR angle that attracted many of the investors was no longer there.
But Messman says that mattered less than simple return on investment.
"The investor, first and foremost, is looking for a return," he says. "So even though we’ve pivoted away from the HR part of this, I think the investors understand if the market’s not ready for that product."
Toevs says getting that return is a key reason to pivot in the first place. It’s better to find a new product — a new way to make money — than to go down with the ship. And it’s a more ethical business practice to involve the original investment team than to close up shop and start a new company right afterward.
The investor, first and foremost, is looking for a return. So even though we’ve pivoted away from the HR part of this, I think the investors understand if the market’s not ready for that product.John Messman
"It’s more than just the money component. It’s more than just the investment component. It is how you treat your company, your employees, your investors from a character-based standpoint," Toevs says. "If we have an opportunity to bring them value out of that instead of just saying, ‘Sorry, we lost all your money,’ closing up shop, and then starting something new right out of the gate behind it, there’s more value in us retaining those relationships and bringing them value, even if it means it’s going to be less equity for the founding team."
Communication, trust and respect are all vital for ensuring a successful pivot. Toevs says, fortunately, these are all easy to find in Wichita’s startup community.
"I think in the Midwest and in Wichita, we have this really tight-knit community and loyal community when it comes to entrepreneurship and investors," Toevs says. "I really like that. We have great relationships with every single one of our investors, and they believed in us from day one."