I tried to launch a business and ended up having to pivot a year after starting. It was a brutal reality check. I wasted time and money that could have been avoided had I done some simple preparation. At the time it felt like a failure.
But here’s the truth, pivots happen and they happen frequently. And that’s ok! What’s not ok is making decisions based on assumptions and desires. And that’s exactly what I did.
I learned that to be successful, entrepreneurs need to be experts at gathering facts, making quick decisions, and building systems to remove emotion and ego from the decision making process.
Here’s my story about how my mistakes led to a stronger business and a realization that the lessons I learned made my entire life better.
My business partner and I set out with a simple goal of providing rentable helmets to the growing micro-mobility industry.
When we began operation in 2018, our original idea was to install vending machines near the docked bike stations in downtown Boston.
The vending machines would rent out and receive helmets near each bike dock system, cleaning the used helmets internally. It seemed like a good idea at the time. We were passionate and motivated to succeed.
But our passion turned out to be a double-edged sword. It blinded us to the facts we were collecting and prevented us from accepting reality. Local governments didn’t want vending machines on their sidewalks.
Eventually, we realized that we needed to pivot.
We spent a lot of time and money on a solution that in hindsight was never going to work for many reasons. As we came to this conclusion, we developed a strategy for moving forward.
Defining the Goal as a First Principle
No founder sets out to start a company and expects to pivot. We expected to be right from the start. Of course, it’s natural to have to alter the business based on user feedback, but we expected the idea to work.
Founders tend to have a stubborn mindset that doesn’t always align well with the notion of pivoting a concept. Why? Because it can be hard for us to take no for an answer.
Just because something hasn’t been done before doesn’t mean it can't be done. But this same ability to push forward in the face of adversity is often what creates a blind spot to the reality that our ideas may not be feasible.
This blindness is exactly what harmed my business. We focused from the start on the what and how of our business before we had any verifiable data indicating it would be a success.
We approached the micro-mobility industry with no insider information and made general assumptions about how we could be successful. We didn't clearly define our purpose and this caused us to force a bad solution.
We worked on building our solution before we had facts that verified that it was something feasible. Looking back, we could have done a lot of things differently.
We could have defined our overarching goal as a first principle and gathered data to build a better path forward. A first principle is the smallest fundamental building block of an idea. It is the core purpose of our business.
We needed to focus on our first principle and we needed to build our solution around the first principle as industry insiders. Not outsiders.
Once we went back to the drawing board we determined that our “first principle” was a simple sentence: we wanted to make micro-mobility users safer.
The what and the how of achieving this goal would be informed by data gathered from user surveys and industry stakeholders.
Without a clear goal in our minds, we were unable to ask the right questions.
“Indeed, the single most powerful pattern I have noticed is that successful people find value in unexpected places, and they do this by thinking about business from first principles instead of formulas.”
— Peter Thiel
After we defined our goal and properly educated ourselves we came to realize that there was a market for helmets but our method of delivery wasn’t right.
Quantifying Success and Failure
Hindsight being 20/20, we wasted time and resources getting to this realization. We spent time trying to determine the resources needed to construct a vending machine when we should have spent time verifying if the concept was feasible in the market.
What made matters worse was that we didn’t define what success and failure looked like. Because we did not quantify what failure looked like we kept pushing on a dead concept.
As we charted our path forward we determined that we needed user survey data to build solutions based on user preferences. Not our assumptions of what could work. But how much data were we going to gather? And what would we base our “go or no go” decision on?
We decided that we would go into the streets and survey 200 bike-share users to understand their interests in micro-mobility and their preferences for safety. We then organized meetings with local officials to gauge their preferences.
We learned a lot.
Our target customer had a clear desire for rentable helmets but wanted on-demand access. Vending machines didn’t support users that preferred dockless bikes and scooters. These same customers were unwilling to pay more than a few dollars a month for access.
We also learned that although the local officials were positive on safety measures, they did not want vending machines on the sidewalk. Further, it became apparent that the bureaucratic red tape for getting approval to operate on the sidewalks was a nightmare.
Based on our stakeholder interactions we learned that the customer's willingness to pay, the challenge of negotiating with municipalities at scale, and the cost of developing functional vending machines didn't add up to a viable business. The data did not align with our “go or no go” numbers.
There was no way we could make the vending machine concept profitable.
Build Processes to Remove Ego & Emotion
We were hurt, frustrated, and emotionally exhausted. My partner and I had spent hours of our time and staked our reputations on this project. Failure seemed like a miserable solution.
But we realized that it wasn’t actually a failure. We had answered a set of questions important. Is there a need for safety equipment in micro-mobility? Would users pay for on-demand safety equipment? Most importantly, is there a path forward?
One path closed off to us but our first principle goal presented other possibilities.
We needed a process to move forward that would build on our first principle without injecting our egos and emotions into the process.
The process was simple:
- Gather data by asking more questions
- Use the data to build actionable insights on our customer needs and become industry experts
- Leverage these insights to build a feasible product prototype
- Test the product in the market
- Gather more data, iterate on the product and expand our insights
Our primary goal was to aggressively move forward gathering facts to make decisions while eliminating as many assumptions as possible. By relying on data to make decisions, we aimed to eliminate our emotional attachment to the ideas we created along the way.
Establish a Timeframe and Move Quickly
I learned that it’s important to have a bias towards action and speed. As an entrepreneur, time can get away from you if you’re not constantly working to make progress.
This was especially true in our case. We launched the company while in a full-time MBA program. Our time to devote to this business was extremely limited. As a result, in the first year of operations, we did not move as aggressively to answer critical questions about our business.
Our takeaway was that it’s important to answer as many questions on the viability of a business's first principle goal as quickly as possible. In doing so, you can quickly determine if you have a foundation to build on or if you should call it quits.
Had we properly defined our goals and established metrics for success and failure, we could have saved a lot of time and resources.
Using “First Principles” to Pivot
Our startup identity had become so intertwined with how we delivered our solution that changing direction became very challenging. When we established our first principles, it became easier to reshape our company identity and build a path forward.
We were building this company to keep the people that rented bikes and scooters safe. This was our “first principle”. How we executed this first principle did not matter as long as we could develop a solution for the fundamental goal.
So we went back to the drawing board. Instead of focusing on fixed delivery units, we modeled our approach to fit consumer needs. Avoiding bureaucratic red tape.
We took the data we had gathered, conducted some design thinking workshops, and consulted with engineers. As a result, we designed a blue-tooth locking mechanism that attaches helmets to the scooters themselves.
For non-technical founders, we are proud of what we’ve produced. (Pictures of the prototype below).
I can’t look into a crystal ball and tell you we are going to make it as a company in the long run. Certainly not after COVID-19’s impact on the on-demand transportation industry. But I do know that I am grateful for all that I have learned from the experience.
- Break goals down into first principles
- Use first principle goals to stay nimble and change direction if needed
- Clearly define what success and failure look like
- Gather actionable data to establish “go or no go” scenarios
- Set a timeframe and move as quickly as possible
- Build data-oriented decision-making processes that remove your emotions and ego
- A change in direction isn’t a failure, it’s a lesson learned and a question answered
- Own the journey. What works for others may not work for you and vice versa. It’s ok to create a different path for yourself.