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The Beauty Inside

Did you know Shopify started as a snowboard company? Get inspired by companies that have pivoted successfully by focusing on one aspect of the solution they built.

Otto Pohl

Jun 25, 2024

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Sometimes, the most important story is the one you need to stop telling yourself.

Beautiful questions spark beautiful answers, to paraphrase e.e. cummings. But life often more closely resembles Jeopardy, where the world presents answers, and it is up to the observer to realize the corresponding questions.

We see it all the time in drug development. Researchers testing a high blood pressure medication received feedback from patients about frequent erections. The scientists channeled their inner Alex Trebek: What is Viagra? Ozempic started life as diabetes medication. Warfarin, which is currently keeping my dad alive as a blood thinner, was invented as rat poison.

Pivoting isn’t failure. As Benchmark consumer partner Sarah Tavel describes it, a good founder is “a heat-seeking missile.” For Tavel, the predictor of success is not your size or speed, but your ability to course-correct mid-flight.

One of the most interesting pivots is where one component of a company’s product becomes the star. Often, founders solve some hard problem on their way to achieving their original vision, and then they realize, wait, everyone else is struggling to solve this problem too. I have frequently seen this “part worth more than the whole” pivot in the companies I work with.

The hardest step is simply letting go of the original story and realizing that the world is presenting a new path. After that, the story will need to adapt to accommodate this pivot, which isn’t hard (read about solving it here).

Depending on the stage and success of your startup, get inspired by some of the most famous internal pivots:


Slack

Founder Stewart Butterfield’s company Tiny Speck created an internal communications tool to facilitate building their game Glitch. When it became clear that Glitch was going nowhere, Butterfield thought hey, maybe other companies need this comms tool.


Branch

In 2013, four co-founders launched Kindred Photo Books on the app store. They tried everything but sales weren’t clicking. In a process co-founder Alex Austin termed “digging for gold in the ashes,” they went through all the stuff they had built on their way to failure. One of their growth hack tools solved the problem that Apple didn’t let developers track users through the app install process. They renamed themselves Branch Metrics and pivoted to selling this “deep linking” service. Developers rolled out their service to 25m devices within 3 months.


Amazon Web Services

This one obviously wasn’t pulled out of the husk of a failing enterprise, but perhaps that makes it even more impressive. Amazon realized that a lot of the solutions their engineers created to launch new features would be of interest to engineers everywhere. This was the origin of cloud computing services. Even today, AWS provides Amazon the bulk of its operating income.


Shopify

Three friends wanted to sell snowboards online in 2004. They couldn’t find a good e-commerce platforms, so co-founder Tobias Lütke built one. The Snowdevil snowboard site didn’t really take off, but the site’s e-commerce platform rebranded and launched as Shopify in 2006.


Plaid

Two financial consultants at Bain wanted to build a financial planning app in 2013 but found that enabling customers to connect their bank accounts was incredibly cumbersome. They decided to make that piece their main product and got Venmo as an early adopter.


Discord

Jason Citron and Stan Vishnevskiy had built a video game called Fates Forever that wasn’t catching on. But users liked the chat feature. The founders ditched the game and focused on the chat.


Pinterest

Before Pinterest, there was a shopping comparison site called Tote. In the user data, the founders Ben Silberman and Paul Sciarra saw that customers were sending images to themselves of products they discovered. So Ben and Paul thought, let’s give the people what they want, and stripped the service down to image discovery and organization.


Instagram

This one’s a bit like Pinterest. Instagram began life as Burbn, a location-based check-in app that allowed people to post their plans and share photos (and named after co-founder Kevin Systrom’s love of whiskey and bourbon). Check-in apps were common in those days, but the photo sharing was the novel attraction. They eliminated the other stuff and relaunched as Instagram.

How’s your startup? Is there an answer begging you to ask the right question?


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Otto Pohl is a communications consultant who helps startups tell their story better. He works with deep tech, health tech, and climate tech leaders looking to create profound impact with customers, partners, and investors. He has taught entrepreneurial storytelling at USC Annenberg and at accelerators across the country.

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