How do you know when it's time to pivot?

How Do You Know That Pivot Isn’t a Bad Word?

Jul 8, 2019

Pivot is such a dirty word to the average small business owner.

I struggle with this every time I think about it; I can’t really determine why the thought or the idea that a pivot is bad has crept into the common vernacular when we describe running a business.  When I say it’s become a term with a negative connotation, I’m not talking about the average SV funded startup – I’m talking about the average small business, not one with so-called “unicorn potential” (more on that in another blog post entirely.

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Just as a test, I asked four of my friends this very morning – friends who are not part of the aforementioned unicorn culture, but who are either running their own business or managing someone else’s, what comes to mind when I ask how they would know when it’s time to pivot…  the replies were disappointing, to say the least.

Friend #1 – “pivot?  what do you mean pivot?”

Friend #2 – “must have been a bad idea for a business to begin with…”

Friend #3 – “are you talking about someone who doesn’t know how to run a business?”

Friend #4 – “um, no.  We don’t do that.”

These answers just make me sad.  It’s so rare that someone has the ah-ha moment or lightbulb idea for a successful business on the first try that it’s probably more likely that you’d win the lottery than be that person.  And it’s also very likely that all four of my friends in the impromptu survey have done a bit of pivoting without even realizing it, and they would be shocked if we traced a timeline back and showed them a pivot here or there in their business plans.

Errm, can you define what you mean by pivot?

A pivot is a change in strategy or plans that is necessitated by the ineffectiveness of your original (or current) plan.  This doesn’t make you a bad person, a dumb person, or an idiot.  Frankly, the fact that you’re at a point where you are even considering a pivot makes you much smarter than so many other stubborn fools in my estimation.

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Let’s say you’ve started a food truck, with a Southern food theme, and you have 12 items on your menu.  Of these 12 items, four are best sellers – (I’m going to make up a random list here, there is no such food truck that I know of, for the record) –

  1.  pimento cheese jalapeno poppers
  2.  chicken pot pie
  3.  fried green tomato sandwich
  4.  gumbo of the day

So that leaves eight other items that are not best sellers.  Of these eight, three don’t really move at all.  What’s your first pivot?  Get those three items off the menu ASAP, since a food truck does not have a spare bit of storage and the usable work space is tiny.  Just because you think that Aleppo pepper dusted okra bites with a garlic remoulade should be everyone’s favorite does not mean that they will be.

So your menu is down to nine items.  Let’s go back to the idea that you have a tiny kitchen without much storage space and it’s also hard to cook a 12 item menu when it’s busy, so you decide to leave the menu at nine items.  That is pivot #2 and you did not even realize it when you did it. 

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A pivot doesn’t always have to be a complete and total change of course.  Of course if you have a food truck and it’s not selling much of anything on the busiest days – think First Fridays or the Hot Air Balloon Festival types of days – then you may need a bigger pivot than just changing the menu or dumping some slow sellers out of the lineup.

Sometimes you pivot to stay ahead of the curve.

A pivot isn’t always a response; sometimes it’s an initiative.  I’ll give you (yet another) sailboat racing tactics example – let’s say I look around and realize that our boat speed is not quite as good as another boat (or more than one, I hate it when that happens).  I look down the course and see that from a geometry perspective we are going to have a problem at the bottom mark rounding, given the nature of the rules.

So I decide to take a hitch over on port gybe, even though we’re cruising along with the rest of the boats, slightly in front (although they are gaining on us and I know this), and I also know that the rule of thumb is never separate from your competition when you are in the lead.  However, this is the one time that I am not separating, I am gybing away in order to make sure I have the starboard, leeward, AND inside advantages when we arrive at the aforementioned leeward mark.

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So I will take my port gybe only as far as I need to go in order to be sure that I will gain all three of the advantages, and then I will gybe again and touch base with the rest of my competition.  Experience also tells me that many of the boats behind will figure that I must know something they don’t, and they will follow us, which will almost surely force the rest of the boats in the fleet to gybe over as well, and this is going to insure that I’ll get the position I want at the bottom of the leg, and my pivot will turn out to have been the smartest move I made on that section of the race.

The hard part – how do you know when it’s time?

Picking a point to pivot is much harder, in my opinion, than actually pivoting.  It’s difficult to know when to cut your losses, and it’s possible that if you give up too soon you will do more harm to your cause than good.  I have a couple of simple rules that I employ when deciding whether or not it’s time for a change:

Did I create a workable plan to start?  If the answer here is no, then the problem isn’t a pivot, it’s a lack of initial direction and focus.  No amount of pivoting in the world will fix this mess.  Go sit in the corner, think about what you need to do, and then get an actual plan of attack.

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Have I executed my workable plan to the best of my abilities? Again, if the answer here is no, provided time hasn’t turned against you, then you’d be better off in a lot of cases to work your plan and see what happens.  Occasionally you will find that you’ve missed a window of opportunity and you’ll need to regroup, don’t be surprised and act all butt hurt if that’s what you get for procrastinating.  This one happens to me a lot more often than I’d like to admit.

Do I have a clear picture of the alternatives?  If you can’t see the forest for the trees, then you need to get some objective, outside opinion(s) that will help you to figure out what the best course of action is going to be to move forward.  Don’t be afraid of asking people for their opinions, just don’t get pissed off if you don’t like hearing what they have to say.  At the end of the day, you are the one choosing the course, so you can disregard whatever input you don’t find valuable.

Don’t wait until you can’t afford it.

I cannot stress this enough.  If you keep hanging on to the same ideas that are not working, then you are eventually going to run out of money, ideas, or determination to succeed.  Sometimes an idea just won’t pan out, and there’s nothing you can do to fix it.  Ask me about the online furniture store I started in 1996.  Go ahead, I’m well past the butt hurt stage.

[READ: Pimento cheese is not a fancy food at all – BLOG ARTICLE]

It was too much, too soon, and even if I had been able to afford to hold out for five more years waiting to make a profit at it, that’s a ludicrous idea and Pokemon Go was a one off.  I should have pulled the plug on that at least six months earlier than I did.  It would have saved me a lot of grief, but then again the path I ended up following brought me a lot of good stuff, so I guess it’s a wash in the end.


My last bit of wisdom for you regarding when and how to pivot is this: don’t be any more afraid to change than you are to keep going the wrong way.  


Still reading?  Ha, I LOVE you!  Here’s a pimento cheese recipe from Southern Living as a reward.  I would suggest you serve it on white bread with a side of chips.

Basic Pimiento Cheese Recipe


  • 1 (4-oz.) jar diced pimiento, drained
  • 1 1/2 cups mayonnaise
  • 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 teaspoon finely grated yellow onion
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 1 (8-oz.) block extra-sharp yellow Cheddar cheese, finely shredded
  • 1 (8-oz.) block sharp yellow Cheddar cheese, shredded
How to Make It

Step 1
Stir together pimiento, mayonnaise, Worcestershire, onion, and cayenne in a large bowl.

Step 2
Stir cheeses into pimiento mixture until well combined. Store covered in the refrigerator up to 1 week.

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