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The Logic of the “Unnecessary” Pivot in Business

Or, why we’re changing our company strategy mid-pandemic.

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I want to be completely clear: not all pivots are unnecessary. In fact, many of them are absolutely, fundamentally necessary. While thousands of businesses have gone under as a result of COVID-related problems, thousands of others have found ways to survive by making some or another kind of change that allowed them to keep their heads above water or even flourish. 

Typically, in fact, this is the way we think of pivoting – as something born of necessity. As long as you have a good thing going, after all, why take the risk? Don’t fix it if it’s not broken, right?

Wrong. I’ll explain, but first, let me paint a picture of what an “unnecessary” pivot can look like.

For almost 10 years running, our business has experienced year-over-year growth between 40 and 100%. It’s given us plenty of breathing room – allowed us to build our own state of the art manufacturing plant and hone our business processes with great care. Largely, we’ve done this by focusing on attracting customers with the biggest margins and producing longer and longer runs of thousands or tens of thousands of items per run, while turning our back on the small startups who wanted just a few dozen or few hundred products. These “lower-tier” orders are often time-intensive and unprofitable, and we made it our policy to avoid them for the financial health of our business. Given our current growth and success, why would we even consider this seemingly profitless segment of business? 

Recently, we binned that policy in favor of the decision to embrace those small startups, which would allow us to help thousands of emerging entrepreneurs launch businesses and brands of their own. Why? Well, there were a number of reasons, but for the purposes of this article, it will suffice to mention two of them: first, it was an opportunity to help the massive number of people who suddenly found themselves out of work or in need of extra income during these troubling times. 

Second, we saw it as a preemptive response to the global trend of individual consumers in our industry moving away from larger brands and toward smaller, more purpose-driven, themed ones. As such, we decided to take our minimum order all the way down from 1000 to as low as a few dozen or even just one dozen of an item. For us, this is a huge pivot, and in the short term, it will undoubtedly present us with many challenges. It means building a massive infrastructure to be able to efficiently service this segment of business. 

So why do it, if we didn’t “need” to? Why pivot, if not strictly to support bottom-line profitability?

To answer, I’d like to point out another context in which the word “pivot” is frequently used – the game of basketball. In it, a player “pivots” to avoid the defender while planning the next move. On the court, unlike in business, a pivot is never seen as explicitly necessary. It’s done to improve a good situation; you already have the ball and want to make the most of it.

In other words, it’s not about this moment, it’s about the next moment, and the one after that, and the one after that. If you’re stuck in the “Well, it got us this far” mindset, instead of looking for every chance to improve your positioning – if you’re planning to pivot only when you “need” to – then you’re going to be at the mercy of competitors who have learned to look at the big picture. 

I think this quote from a master of the pivot, soon-to-be NBA Hall of Famer Kobe Bryant, illustrates it best:

“Everything negative – pressure, challenges – are all an opportunity for me to rise.”

So, yes – embrace the pivot. If it seems like an unnecessary challenge, it’s probably just a great opportunity in disguise. 

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