How to pivot successfully
Agility and resilience are qualities we’ve all had to show in the face of unprecedented challenges since March 2020. It has been hard for all of us personally, and it has also been challenging for many professionally, with industries created and destroyed overnight; wild variations in customer demand; and general economic instability. In response, many businesses have had to pivot fast to survive and, in some cases, thrive.
The term ‘pivot’ can conjure up the image of a heroic start-up founder pulling a new business model out of a hat with the flourish of a Vegas magician. The reality is far more mundane in that pivots are often frequent and incremental - small shifts in business strategy (for example, a repositioning within your market or taking your existing offering to a new market).
My business has had many of these incremental pivots in the past year. We started 2020 as a hospitality labour marketplace. In late March 2020, our entire client base effectively disappeared due to lockdown restrictions. We stand today as a healthcare SaaS provider, helping UK vaccination sites fill shifts with their own pool of clinical and non-clinical staff. Here are some of the most valuable lessons this time has taught me about how to pivot, in our case both in terms of our offer, and market.
1. Play to your Strengths
When it becomes clear a pivot is needed, your first instinct will be one of complete reinvention. This is natural but wrong. Your first play should be to identify what is most distinctive about your current business offering, i.e., your people, your technology, the loyalty of your customer base. While you can pivot in an infinite number of directions, what you bring to these new environments is going to be some version of what you already are.
If you don’t know what is most distinctive about your business, don’t worry - the majority of executives don’t. The best way to find out is to talk to your old customers about what they liked best about you. And, better yet, use this exercise as a chance to secure valuable customer testimonials that will inevitably be helpful in new client conversations - no matter how different the context.
My conversations with clients made clear our core strength was our technology, which I knew. What I didn’t know, however, was that the specific aspect of our technology the clients valued most was its ability to fill shifts with quality people no matter how short the notice.
2. Listen, Learn, and Act
You may already have an idea of which industry or geography you want to take your product or service to but, before you do, make sure you assess which actually needs you. Do your research, listen to feedback from in, and, critically, speak with actual buying customers in each market about the problems they have and whether they would pay for the distinctive solution (as above) you can bring.
Your first instinct will be to focus on the opportunities. Again, this instinct is wrong, as it is the unexpected barriers that will be your undoing. Common ones in new industries or geographies include regulatory issues and differences in length of sales cycles. Getting people to be forthcoming with these issues is difficult given their natural desire to encourage you. I’ve found asking them: “What will keep my product from working in this market?”, always yields the most fruit.
My business’ pivot targets were adjacent industries to hospitality (for example, Food Production, Facilities Management, Health Care, Care) and I had hundreds of conversations with experts and potential clients. The barrier that I somewhat effectively teased out in the non-Health Care sectors was despite them being operational (unlike hospitality) during the pandemic, they were still in crisis mode which meant putting off buying decisions on new suppliers.
3. Don’t get lost in the noise
When you enter a new sector without history and contacts, it is easy for would-be clients to put you in a box, assuming you are just another seller in an already crowded marketplace.
Your first instinct will be to fit in and not make waves. Again, this is wrong, as the only way you will secure a foothold will be by distinguishing yourself. Remember your core strength your old clients confirmed, focus on that and double down on that in all your marketing. Literally shout about it, and don’t be afraid to make waves!
The challenge my company faced in Healthcare was explaining to clients we were not another Workforce Management System (WMS). We doubled down on our core competency of filling shifts in dynamic staffing situations, not least because the existing WMS were really bad at it! We then identified the vaccination roll-out as a remarkably dynamic staffing situation, and (as always) with some luck, are now supporting some remarkable clients.