The power of a pivot

If your business isn’t performing across the board, why not ditch the bits that aren’t working and focus on the ones which are? It worked for these businesses…

Refinery29

Cutting-edge and female-focused digital media company Refinery29 reaches 225 million users worldwide with its sharp, snappy writing and millennial-friendly mix of smart and sparky. “People are trying to reach this demographic anywhere around the world,” Philippe von Borries told the Financial Times last year.

But the company was originally founded in 2005. It started as a city guide, then became a showcase for New York’s small fashion, homeware and music brands. Founders Philippe von Borries and Justin Stefano realised that it was the fashion content that got the most hits, so they switched to being an online fashion retailer. And when their advertising took off in a big way, they realised that their community was where the company’s value lay. 

Pinterest

Cool shopping app Tote was going to revolutionise mobile phone shopping. Yet back in 2009, the tech just wasn’t there and payments weren’t efficient enough for the app to take off. But Tote did have one big advantage: it allowed customers to connect with multiple retailers and save the clothes they loved on their phones, curating collections and sharing them with their friends.

When founder Ben Silbermann realised this, he transformed Tote into online scrapbooking site Pinterest. It’s now valued at $11bn with 200 million users predicted by March 2017. “People say doing a startup is like a marathon,” Silbermann says. “It’s actually a roadtrip at night with no headlights. You think you’re going to Toledo but you’re actually going to Miami and you might not have enough gas so you might need to buy gas from someone who might take you out if you aren’t driving well.”

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Twitter

On July 15, 2007, Odeo, a service which helped users find and subscribe to podcasts, launched a side project, what news site TechCrunch.com described as ‘a new service called Twttr…a sort of ‘group send’ SMS application’, where each user had his or her own network of friends. The rise of iTunes meant that Odeo was no longer relevant, but its new service certainly was.

By 2007, 400,000 tweets were being posted per quarter, Twitter was beginning its meteoric rise – yet it’s still changing. “Twitter actually changed from what we thought it was in the beginning, which we described as status updates and a social utility,” says co-creator Evan Williams. “It is that, in part, but the insight we eventually came to was Twitter was really more of an information network than it is a social network.”

Groupon

Back in 2007, founder Andrew Mason got $1m in seed capital to fund his startup idea: a sort of proto-Kickstarter called The Point. You posted your fundraising project and if donations reached a certain level – a tipping point – that cause would get funded. But when the financial crisis of 2008 hit, it became clear that the idea wasn’t a success and Mason was about to burn through his seed money. So the decision was made to use people power to save money rather than make it – and Groupon was born.

Mason was ousted as CEO back in 2013 but the company’s still going and was valued at around $3.5bn back in March 2016. “One of the challenges of innovation is figuring out how to wipe your mind clean about what you should be doing at any given moment, and not having a religious attachment to what's gotten you there thus far,” he says.

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Flickr

These days, Flickr is one of the best-known photo-sharing sites – but it originally began as a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORG) called Game Neverending. The game never caught on, but one of the tools developed for it did: the ability to share photos and upload them to the web. Founders Caterina Fake and Stewart Butterfield pivoted from players to photographers and Flickr was launched in February 2004.

The photo-sharing site quickly caught on and was acquired by Yahoo in 2007 for $40million – the site now has more than 50 million users. “Very often, accidental side projects become the main product,” she says. “Flickr is a great example. Twitter’s a fantastic example. They were not the main thing that the team had been working on, but they suddenly came to define the company.”

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details. Thumbnail from gettyimages.

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