What The Gita teaches Entrepreneurs about Pivoting and Persistence
Every Entrepreneur Struggles with this Question
As growth of your venture stalls, how do you decide if you should persist or be flexible and pivot? Give it some more time to build on the occasional encouraging feedback you get, and persist in the face of inevitable skepticism and uninformed disinterest of the larger market, and drive harder to overcome the resistance which is an inevitable part of every entrepreneur’s journey? Or be smart and adapt your idea in response to the feedback as every successful entrepreneur has had to do?
You know you have to take feedback, be flexible and adapt your idea till you hit upon the winning proposition for the right target customer. Sometimes the market starts to give you results in a tangential area, customers start offering you business, and the choice is made for you. But more often than not, the signals are not clear. How to read uncertain and ambiguous signals? How to decide what is the right path to take?
There is no clear guide, no KPI, no signpost which tells you when you must persist further, or you must pivot and try something different. I have often faced this question as an entrepreneur or while mentoring other entrepreneurs.
You also know you have to persist in the face of obstacles and negative feedback till you succeed. But why does it have to be so difficult to tell what kind of negative feedback you are getting? Do the Gods expect you to overcome the current obstacles and show your commitment despite odds, or to change your path and show your adaptability given evidence? You still BELIEVE in the idea. Is that enough?
A very good guide comes from a surprising source — The Gita.
Before we can understand what guidance the Gita offers to this dilemma, we need to understand a few core concepts and how they apply to entrepreneurs.
Preamble: This is a Secular, Non-religious, Intellectual Exploration
This article is based on secular concepts. Gita is treated as an ancient source of wisdom rather than as scripture, a philosophical rather than a religious guide. As an atheist, I have substituted the concept of God with the goal of the greatest good and followed the philosophy without any elements of faith or religious belief.
Even the term Dharma itself — which means religion in common usage — is a secular term in the Gita, and strictly speaking is not about religion.
Basic Tenets of the Gita
There are certain core concepts which form the pillars of the Gita philosophy and way of life: Karma, Dharma, Satya, and Yoga. The actual meaning is different than popular usage of these terms. The article briefly explains the core concepts, especially the prescription for entrepreneurs, and then examines what the philosophy counsels for the difficult question entrepreneurs grapple with when they are struggling to get results.
Karma means action. A person has to perform. Action is better than inaction; in fact, inaction is immoral (5.2; 6.1).
What it means for Entrepreneurs
Always prefer action over inaction. When you are not executing, you commit a sin. Shying away from the karma of sales and of helping customers by continuing to perfect the product or adding new features without hitting the market is a sin.
Vanquish competition. You battle not just demons. Arjun was asked to battle his extended family, even his Guru and granduncle. Do not be reluctant to disrupt existing structures, existing businesses, killing jobs — even of your friends & community. In fact, to not do so would be immoral.
Dharma means the sacred duty, your sense of purpose, which is for the greater good. Note that unlike the popular usage of the term, the concept is not about religion. Rather, dharma, the performance of one’s duty, is the path to one’s salvation.
Dharma is performing your duty without attachment to the fruits of your action. One’s own dharma, performed imperfectly, is better than another’s dharma well performed. Destruction in one’s own dharma is better, for to perform another’s dharma leads to danger (3.35). You have a right to perform your prescribed duty, but you should not be attached to the fruits of action (2:47). Dharma is the right action, right for you, performed for the greater good, and performed without regard to gain.
What Dharma means for Entrepreneurs
Be original. Follow own passion, skill and inclination; do not copy others’ models or what is in vogue. A true entrepreneur will come with deep understanding and honesty to build something unique to their self. Dharma is different for everyone, you must follow your own calling. Build your venture for the greater good, for the benefit of consumers and employees, but without attachment to the fruits — wealth & fame. These rewards will inevitably follow when you pursue your dharma with commitment and action. However, pursuit of fame & fortune will only lead to misery.
The most interesting take away for me is: Dharma for an entrepreneur emerges from personal core, experience and insight. It is your destiny, your sense of purpose. No model, however good, will work without entrepreneur-market fit, which is a fit between the entrepreneur, the product and market. An entrepreneur must iterate the product and strategy, guided by the fundamental insight, till product-market fit is achieved. A model copied from another entrepreneur or another geography, without a personal experience, connect or insight, violates Dharma and will fail for that reason.
Satya means the Truth, the pursuit of Truth, the path to Truth, not straying from the Truth in wasteful thought and action.
What it means for Entrepreneurs
Be deeply honest with yourself. Get to the truth as quickly as possible with the least amount of resources. Test, and Validate iteratively.
Yoga is a state of being. It is persistence in a state or path despite pressures, temptations and resistance.
Yoga does not necessarily involve contorting your body in tortuous poses. Entrepreneurship could also be Yoga.
What it means for Entrepreneurs
Persist on your path, persist in execution. Persist despite pressures, hurdles and doubt — or the lure of the next big thing. You can only persist if you have a sense of purpose, if you are pursuing your dharma. Resist all distractions and focus on the venture with full dedication and concentration.
Adharma is Sin. There are three sins as per Gita: lack of Karma, lack of Dharma, and Attachment.
What it means for Entrepreneurs
Inaction is a sin. Always execute, reach out to and serve customers. Building someone else’s dharma — being a copycat, or being untrue to oneself, building for fashion rather than passion — is a sin. Building for the fruits — fame & fortune — is a sin and will lead to misery.
Pivot or Persist?
Now we come back to the core question: how to decide if it is time to persist or to pivot?
The question is relevant for entrepreneurs who are already in their journey and planning to continue, but struggling with the path ahead. Existential questions such as running out of funds, product failure, or team conflict, which threaten the very existence of the venture are out of scope for this article.
If the venture is progressing well but you are attracted by more attractive opportunities, a new idea seems more lucrative and glamourous, should you pursue it? Ask yourself, what is your dharma? Why did you pick the idea you are currently pursuing in the first place? If you are pursuing your dharma, Yoga demands that you persist. Resist the temptation to jump from idea to idea. If you want to switch because the alternate idea is in vogue, getting all media and investor attention, you must doubly resist, as pursuing fame & fortune violates the third law (see box below). However, if the new idea is an evolution of your current venture, such as a technology or data-driven innovation, then pursuing the improvement, while continuing to execute and serve customers, is very much in line with (in fact, demanded by) the laws of karma and dharma — go for it.
If your venture is struggling to grow rapidly, prompting thoughts of a pivot, then you have to dig deeper. If you are driven by a sense of purpose, introspection, analysis and experimentation will lead to answers — this is your dharma, right? However, if you have no ideas or compulsion to continue, question your passion. Is this your dharma? Are you violating the 2nd law? If your heart is into it, you will discover the answers. Entrepreneurship is a game for the patiently patient. You have to be impatient about action (karma) but patient about the results (phal). Were you motivated by the desire for quick riches? If so, you violated the 3rd law. Are you cut out to be an entrepreneur? Your commitment, heart, drive should be into solving this problem.
It is helpful to consider yourself the trustee and not the owner of the venture, leading the organization to reach greater heights while detached from the outcome.
The growth challenges will usually fall into sales, operational, product or financial challenges. The challenges I come across most often when talking to entrepreneurs are listed in the table below.
However, I find a different framework is more helpful. Are you facing an execution gap, a market gap, or an expectations gap? An execution gap is breach of the 1st law (karma), a market gap of the 2nd law (dharma), and an expectations gap of the 3rd law (motivation).
If the problem is in your messaging, targeting, product, channel, quality or effort, fix it and persist. Get guidance from mentors. The Gita puts a lot of emphasis on finding and getting guidance from a mentor (guru), a mentor who has seen the truth and helps you realize the truth (4.34), who cannot be purchased simply by paying a fee but is committed to your success. A guru can listen and ask the right questions to help you arrive at the truth.
Test your messaging, practice and improve with guidance from mentors. Usually a 2–3x improvement will do the job. It is exacting, but persistent efforts yield results, at times amazing results. If even after fixing your messaging prospects keep deferring the decision (or in the case of enterprise prospects, delegating it as well), the 1st law (karma) is violated and it is time to pivot.
If there is a real customer need, but you are unable to convince your customer to take a chance on you, persist. The customer trying alternate methods (such as other providers or in-house) is a sign of high need but low trust. Persist, keep trying and continue improving. Remember that most sales take persistent follow-up to close.
If the initial results are poor, take an informed guesstimate. Assume that you can overcome challenges you are still facing, that you will be able to drive 10x improvements. If you are still short, if there is still a gap in market size or customer value, the idea is not aligned to Greater Good. Time to Pivot and work on another idea. On the other hand, if the opportunity is feasible with a 10x improvement, break down and systematically test the critical success factors and assumptions (campaign response rates for example). Look for incremental improvements and persist. You will see amazing results before you know it.
If however, the gap is too large (I once found a 1000x gap after initial pilots in an opportunity I was pursuing), and a few further tries fail to move the needle significantly, the idea is not aligned to Greater Good, you need to pivot.
Truly audacious ideas will by definition have a large gap initially, maybe even a million-x; however, you have to break the market or desired change into smaller segments, and measure the outcome in smaller segments. If you see positive impact and delighted customers in certain segments, and your conviction is high, be patient and persist.
The most misleading challenges are the finance challenges — often misdiagnosed as the core problem, they are likely symptoms of an underlying problem, and rarely will adding investor funds fix your problem.
If your margins are low, are you pricing adequately? Low gross margin violates your dharma. If you are unable to price for sufficient margins, is your cost or execution weak? Your karma is weak, fix it and persist. If however you are in a commodity market, your dharma is violated, you need to innovate or pivot.
If your results are below par, you find yourself behind your batchmates and peers in corporate careers and other ventures, you find ventures who started after you racing ahead, closing large rounds and getting media attention, you have an expectations gap. Most entrepreneurs are looking to raise funds for convenience and vanity. This is a violation of the 3rd law. You have to persist and be patient for results. For at least the first 5 years of your journey, do not compare yourself to others, just worry about if you are helping customers and making an impact.
Fundraising is very rarely the critical success factor. Once your margins and sales are corrected, you will have sufficient cash to invest and grow.
I have applied these principles in 4 different ventures I have mentored over the last year. They all were initially looking for help in fundraising and have since stopped chasing investors, grown 3–6x since, and become hugely profitable.
Therefore, if you have an execution gap, persist. If you have a market gap, pivot. If you have an expectation gap, reassess your motivations and chosen path. Once your karma and dharma are aligned and you are creating positive impact for your customers, you will have sufficient cash to invest and grow, and investors will chase you.
KarmaYoga is persisting in Karma with Dharma & Satya.
What it means for Entrepreneurs
When Dharma and Karma are aligned, when one’s vision and passion are coming drop deep within and are backed by persistent action, dedication and burning desire to change the world, the entrepreneur is in a state of KarmaYoga.
Have you met a KarmaYogi entrepreneur? They are driven by an overwhelming sense of purpose. You will be blown by their vision, passion and conviction.
Such an entrepreneur is in a state of bliss, even when struggling and fighting a hundred fires, even if not quite successful yet. The consummate entrepreneur is a KarmaYogi.