Mastering the Pivot: Shifting Strategy Toward Opportunity

Island Sunrises by Tim Forrest surfer 1.jpg

Like a surfer shifting angles to capture the energy of a wave, a business leader pivoting strategy is looking for new ways to keep rolling.  The Financial Times defines a strategic pivot as “the tortured path that most start-ups go through to find the right customer, value proposition, or positioning.”  The path is hard and hardly straight so tortured is a good word for it.  A venture capitalist I talked with recently said, “pivot is just another word for failure.” 

I disagree.  To me, a strategy pivot is the all-important step between failure and giving up.  Another type of failure isn’t as obvious and often engenders acceptance rather than action.  The failure of mediocrity is that nothing changes.  See my piece, How to Fail Successfully, for a quick plan of action in that case.  

We’ve all probably heard of successful pivots…often without realizing that the pivot is the reason the companies lived on and why we’ve heard of them.  Here are just a few examples:

  • Gap started as a San Francisco-area record store that sold Levi’s. 
  • PayPal began as a company making security software for handheld devices. 
  • Specialized Bicycles started as a distributor of European bicycle parts.  
  • Virgin originally was a London record store. 
  • Wrigley originally used chewing gum as an incentive for customers to buy their baking powder. 
  • YouTube was a video dating site. 

A pivot isn’t limited to early stage companies either. Look at IBM.  The massive former computer maker is now a massive business services company.  Remember when Amazon was just an online bookstore?

At its best, a strategy pivot is all about turning toward business opportunities that your company can be uniquely positioned to address.  Martin Zwilling in Forbes outlined some common routes:

  1. Customer problem pivot – using the same product or service to solve a different problem for the same customer segment.
  2. Market segment pivot – using the same product or service to solve a similar problem for a different customer segment.
  3. Technology pivot – repurposing technology to solve a more urgent or marketable problem for customers.  
  4. Product feature pivot – adapting the product to the real needs of customers based on their actual usage or feedback.  
  5. Revenue model pivot – finding a different way to generate revenue from the product such as moving from an initial purchase to a subscription or licensing model.
  6. Sales channel pivot – finding a more attractive route to market, a common tactic as brands move toward direct to consumer sales. 
  7. Product vs services pivot – a move to wrap a product with revenue generating services
  8. Competitor pivot – evolving marketing to respond to a specific competitor via differentiation on their weakest points. 

It takes a certain amount of humility and self-awareness to recognize the need to pivot. It takes a fair bit of street savvy to do it well.  Just like deciding initial strategy, a pivot should be based on data, experience, observation, and insight.  Otherwise, the move might be just another distracting round of chasing the latest shiny new object. 

Here are some things to keep in mind as you look to catch that next – and best – wave…

  1. Be problem focused rather than product focused.  Stay in touch with the evolving needs of your target customer.  Product focused companies act on a “here’s what we have to sell” mentality.  Problem focused businesses act with a “here’s what we have to solve” mentality. 
  2. Think broadly about the current and potential value you can bring to customer relationships. Consider product, technology, process, and service as currently offered and adjacencies that your customer may need. What problems or pain points are they facing that you aren’t yet addressing? How can you reimagine your current offering and/or add to them in order to bring greater value to your customer?  How can you do that in way that customers are willing to pay for?
  3. Understand the competitive situation that you’re entering. How are those problems being solved now? What makes your approach unique?  Why will your customers choose your solution? 
  4. Define your vision for success and what it will take to get there. Be as specific as possible on both. Clarity improves execution.  
  5. Test your way in, if possible. Can it be a trial run?  The “fail fast, fail cheap” often translates into a sharper product or service offering and clearer path to near term success.  
  6. Prioritize.  Be specific about your plan, success requirements, and expectations.  Then prioritize the work.  What will be different: broadly across the business, operationally by group, and specifically for each person.  
  7. Align resources behind your new plan.  Prioritization is empty without aligning resources behind your new plan. One easy check:  if your new plan involves a shift in direction but no change in work – as in, “we’re going to keep doing everything we’re doing and also this new thing” – then you’re probably not really prioritizing.  
  8. Communicate all ways and always.  Share why you’re shifting direction, what needs to change, and how it affects individuals and groups across the business.  Stay in touch and confirm understanding.  Even more important, make sure to continually remove obstacles to the new direction.  

There’s a time for staying the course and a time to shift.  The above tactics can help ensure you’re on top of the wave rather than getting crushed by it.  

Photo by Island Sunrises by Tim Forrest

Mike Irwin is an advisor, mentor, operator, and strategist.  Drawing from his past as a startup co-founder/President, executive officer of a $1+ billion market cap company (WD-40), public company CFO, VP Marketing, chief strategy officer, head of sales, and board member, Mike uses his diverse background to help companies grow sales, improve profitability, and scale up.  He serves as an advisor, consultant, fractional or interim CEO/GM/MD, and on boards of directors.   He’s also a community volunteer, youth sports coach, author, cyclist, and marathoner. Follow him at, get in touch at or connect on LinkedIn.    

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