June 16, 2014
I’ve been spending a lot of time in Silicon Valley for my day job at CalendarTree. I feel like an embedded journalist. You might be interested in some of the things I’ve discovered.
The most fascinating phenomenon in the start-up world is called the pivot. That word has been used in every meeting I’ve attended. There’s more to it than you think.
A pivot is when a start-up quickly changes from one product to another or from one business model to another. The valley is full of stories about companies that started with a lame idea and hit it big after a pivot. Most start-ups in the valley are software-based, so pivots are both practical and economical.
The pivot used to be the exception. For example, a company starts out selling PEZ dispensers online and later pivots to become eBay. You didn’t hear about all of the companies that failed so the pivot stories probably sounded more prevalent than they were. It’s similar to how a story of one shark attack makes you think there’s a Great White under every surfboard. The human brain assumes that whatever it hears most frequently must be the best reflection of reality.
The valley attracts some of the smartest humans on Earth, and each of those humans, being otherwise normal, probably assumed they could use their talent, brains, and hard work to achieve specific business goals, such as building product X and selling the company to Google for a billion dollars.
And then they find out that success in the start-up realm is mostly luck. They discover this by trying great ideas coupled with great execution and failing. And they further discover it by observing unexpected successes at other start-ups. Success simply can’t be predicted to any level of statistical comfort.
Smart observers in the valley look for the “tell” that an early stage start-up will be a winner, but none can be found. Oh, sure, the team needs to be smart, talented, and willing to work long hours. But nearly every start-up has that going for it. Most have great ideas as well. None of it predicts success.
So imagine if you will, some of the smartest, most rational humans the world has ever created, wallowing around in the absurdity of Silicon Valley, where success is mostly based on luck. How does one feel good about that? And what is the solution?
Answer: You institutionalize the pivot.
In other words, you move from a goal-oriented approach to a systems-oriented approach. The system involves assembling a team around a starting idea and then pivoting until something lucky happens. No one pretends to know where it will all end up.
Here’s the system:
1. Form a team
2. Slap together an idea and put it on the Internet.
3. Collect data on user behavior.
4. Adjust, pivot, and try again.
Thanks to Google Analytics, Optimizely, Bitly, and other tools for measuring customer behavior in real time, a smart team can try different approaches and different products until something works out. A start-up in 2014 is a guess- testing machine.
Meanwhile, technology is increasingly becoming a commodity. A smart start-up can build nearly anything. If they need extra talent, connections, or money, the valley has plenty to offer. There isn’t much of a resource constraint among the talented. That’s the positive side of the “boy’s network” in the valley. Everyone knows everyone. (The downside is not enough women.)
Another fascinating phenomenon in the valley is that every entrepreneur and investor seems genuinely interested in helping strangers succeed. I would go so far as to call it the defining feature of the start-up culture. Some of it has to do with the nature of entrepreneurs as serial problem-solvers. If you tell me what problem your start-up is experiencing, my reflex is to offer a suggestion or to connect you to someone who can help. And creating social capital makes a lot of sense when teams are fluid and who-you-know always matters. But beyond the practical and selfish benefits of being helpful, the dominant worldview in Silicon Valley is that if you aren’t trying to make the world better, you’re in the wrong line of work. The net effect is that the start-up culture is shockingly generous. If you need something for your start-up, folks will happily help you find it. I would have predicted the opposite.
But here comes the interesting part.
In an environment in which start-up resources are not limited, and no one can predict the next winner, and it is easy to measure customer behavior in great detail, the Internet is no longer a technology.
The Internet is a psychology experiment.
Building a product for the Internet is now the easy part. Getting people to understand the product and use it is the hard part. And the only way to make the hard part work is by testing one psychological hypothesis after another.
Every entrepreneur is now a psychologist by trade. The ONLY thing that matters to success in our anything-is-buildable Internet world is psychology. How does the customer perceive this product? What causes someone to share? What makes virality happen? What makes something sticky?
Experience and history give start-ups their ideas on what to test first. But the thing that worked for the last business often doesn’t work for the next because no two situations are identical. So psychology on the Internet is an endless series of educated guesses and quantitative testing. Every entrepreneur is a behavioral psychologist with the tools to pull it off.
In this environment, quality is less important than speed. So the most prized technical people are the ones who can work quickly and produce one buggy prototype after another. And that brings me to the next observation.
Psychology has evolved to be a function of speed plus measurement. We’re nearing the point at which the best psychologist in the world is any computer with access to Big Data, and any start-up that is rapidly testing one idea after another.
That’s a system that makes sense to me. In a complicated environment, systems work better than goals.
Please excuse me while I go pivot.
Co-founder of CalendarTree.com
Read more about the advantage of systems over goals