Pivoting at the early stages with Cathy Tie, Jordan Huck, and Genevieve Ryan Bellaire
“I just saw this massive opportunity, and that’s one of the great things about being a solo founder, is that you don’t have to get anybody, you don’t have to convince anybody … You can wake up tomorrow and be like, ‘this isn’t working, I’m going to do this.’ This was one of the moments where I needed to make that decision for the company without having to get anybody’s approval.”
This Fall at Propel, we hosted a Builders Bootcamp panel with three CEOs to cover some of the most common questions we get from early-stage founders and leaders, namely: "When is the right time to pivot?”
The conversation was full of rich anecdotes about building journeys and what it takes to not only grow, but adapt a business — particularly during the pandemic. Read on to meet the CEOs we spoke with and learn more about how to pivot your business.
Meet Cathy, Jordan, and Genevieve.
Cathy is the founder and CEO of Locke Bio, a digital health platform that helps other companies in launching their own D2C online pharmacies. Locke Bio provides all the telehealth, ecommerce and pharmacy fulfillment features you need to drive adoption. Skip past developing your own software & meeting strict health data compliance. Cathy began building in 2019.
Jordan is the CEO of Notch, a tool that brings precision to the chaos of ordering food service supplies — digital ordering, invoicing, and payment. Established in 2015, Notch is attempting to be the first company to ever allow restaurants to onboard their existing supply chain and then order, chat, and pay through one product. Jordan joined the team in 2019.
Genevieve Ryan Bellaire
Genevieve is the founder and CEO of Realworld, a platform that essentially onboards you into life after school, the “real world.” Their vision is to be the one central place where you can navigate adulthood decisions down the line — whether that’s buying a house, buying a car, getting married, having kids, or going to grad school — and provide you with all of the tools, resources and knowledge you need in one place. Genevieve began building Realworld in 2017.
Three accomplished CEOs on pivoting
Identifying what problem you want to focus on:
There are a lot of problems in the world, many of them overlapping, as a founder it can be difficult to zero in on what problem you should solve.
Asked how they knew the problem they were focusing on was the “right one,” all three CEOs emphasized the importance of customer research, as well as thinking critically about how expertise or product can be of use — sometimes not in the way you originally intended.
“We realized that there’s a massive opportunity to leverage what we’d already built and our expertise to help them do the same thing, basically by white labeling our software,” Cathy explained of her decision to pivot and expand on her existing telehealth framework.
She compared her decision to that of another, very different, company. “Shopify actually started off as a snowboarding gear store… Toby was selling snowboarding gear online, he had to build everything from scratch, payment processing, inventory, all of those things, and he realized that other people were probably setting up online stores for other types of things, so why not white label what he’d already built for other areas, and therefore build a platform that enables other companies to get access to the smartest new market ares?”
“That kind of plays into the theme of not reinventing the wheel,” she said. “... Being the customer yourself is always a good way of knowing what needs to be built.”
Genevieve echoed the sentiment. Her company, RealWorld, was built to help deal with a problem she herself faced.
I started looking around and realizing everyone deals with this, this is not a me problem this is very much a we problem. Everyone out there for the most part, unless you have a parent who’s truly guiding you through step by step how to navigate these different questions, kind of falls flat on their face when they start working. They have to deal with all of these questions on their own, it’s a really confusing and frustrating time.
I started realizing that, despite there being so many individual products and services across each vertical that help with one sliver of this adulthood pie … There was no layer on top, there was no one place that just said ‘here’s what these products are, here’s how they work, here’s how they relate to your life. — Genevieve Ryan Bellaire
Knowing when to pivot:
After taking the time to listen to customers, or the market, major changes may be in order.
Jordan: When you think about pivoting, there’s an original thesis and then a business model, and sometimes the thesis holds true… (for us, the) thesis remains the same, business model to get there was wrong.
For Notch, it was the customer that first alerted them to the need for change. “We had a major restaurant group in Toronto ask to use the product differently, which is a telltale sign.
Genevieve: We delayed fundraising to pivot pivot pivot, to be able to build up that team, to just learn as much as possible. And I spent the first six months, before there was anybody else on the team, essentially having 15-20 minute long conversations with recent graduates. I talked to almost 1,000 people during that time. And it was an amazing opportunity because I got to sit down and have these conversations, essentially learning about not just the process that people were going through, in terms of transitioning from school into the real world, and sort of the nitty gritty of the things that they needed to do, the papers they had to fill out, the accounts they had to set up, etc. etc. But, peeling back the layers one more to the more emotional need.”
Removing bias as builders and founders:
To get to that “emotional layer,” where a customer doesn’t even know they need, you have to conduct research in a way that cuts out bias, in either direction.
Genevieve recommends that founders conducting customer discovery watch out for bias in the opposite direction. “If you tell someone ‘I’m thinking of building a company, or I’m building a company to solve x,’ they’re going to answer your questions much more favorably towards you,” she said.
“So now, whenever we do user testing, of which we still do all the time, just as we build out new features and stuff, we typically try to position as one of two ways. The first is, if you’re an existing company, saying: ‘We’re trying to decide to do this feature, or this feature. We’re going to kill one and we’re going to do one. What do you think we should do?’ And sort of go down that path, to better understand what their preference is.”
Jordan shared similar advice. “When you’re doing customer discovery you don’t want to have leading questions… you shouldn’t be leading what’s happening,” he said.
Pleasing your customers without losing your vision:
As you iterate, it may feel like you’re moving away from the original vision that made you excited about the company in the first place. To address that concern, the trio advised focusing on meeting the needs of customers or the market.
“Nobody gets it right” on the first try, Jordan said. “Nobody ever in the history of tech has gotten it right. So there’s always these iteration loops.”
We iterated like our life depended on it because it did. And so, we just stayed as close as we possibly could; everybody knew that was all that mattered. You as the CEO or founder… you have the power to say ‘this is what’s most important.’” - Jordan Huck
Jordan also shared that getting a product that people love is really all that matters. He implores founders to make iteration the number one and only priority whenever it is needed.
Weighing a potential expansion:
When making the leap to change your company or idea in a fundamental way, the trio advised first sizing up how big that new idea could potentially become if acted on.
Cathy: If you’re building something new it’s always hard to know how big the market really is. You can have an understanding of ‘this is what my, who my initial customer are and what they’re willing to pay for it,’ and that’s sort of your initial guess of should you do this or not?
On being careful not to trust a small number of strong supporters.
Genevieve: What we came to learn was that you can find a couple of evangelists, who believe in your product no matter what it is, even if it’s not something that the whole market will take on.
Taking the leap to pivot or expand:
Jordan: Many founders are used to doing it alone, but by the time you’re considering a pivot or expansion new and varied stakeholders — your team, your users, your investors — are likely in the mix. All three panelists faced the daunting obstacle of convincing one such stakeholder that change was necessary.
What I’ve found is that (venture capital firms) don’t know the answer… They want a plan, and they want to see that you can execute against that plan. Because, momentum is good no matter what, you learn the right direction.
Genevieve: I was trying to really make sure was that we didn’t feel like super reactive, and I wanted to make sure it felt very thoughtful in the sense of, ‘ok’ — because we made the pivot during covid — that it wasn’t like, ‘oh the world’s upside down, like we’re going to change our business model.’... I think ultimately it was probably me that was most resistant, but I’m also very happy that we did it.
Even when the idea to pivot was your own, it can be nerve-wracking to take the risk.
Cathy: I just saw this massive opportunity, and that’s one of the great things about being a solo founder, is that you don’t have to get anybody, you don’t have to convince anybody … You can wake up tomorrow and be like, ‘this isn’t working, I’m going to do this.’ Not that you should, but you can if you needed to, and this is one of the moments where I needed to make that decision for the company without having to get anybody’s approval.
I think overall the hardest one (to convince) was probably myself because I knew that if I were to make this decision, and I know no one is going to really stop me, so it’s really up to me to make the right decision for everybody.
Want to dive deeper into the conversation? Access the event replay here.