Proven strategies to pivot your product after your million dollar idea becomes obsolete 🧐

A well cited statistic states that 90% of startups fail. Whether by poor management, insufficient funding, or being choked out by competitors, even the best idea can fall short under these circumstances. Coming up with a marketable, valuable idea is only half the battle, as incredible foresight is needed to make these visions a reality. At the onset of my team’s journey, we had all the makings of a successful startup team. The goal of an algorithm that would predict not only whether a mask was being worn but also whether proper mask wearing technique was being observed was a novel and profitable idea in late 2020. Case counts were high at the time, and vaccines were not likely to become available until late 2021. The first 14 week ‘season’ was spent cultivating the requisite technical and theoretical skillset to execute the proof of concept I previously developed, and the team demonstrated clear mastery of the necessary skills.

However, one of the critical factors that affects a startup’s success is timing. By the time our team was poised to begin developing their minimum viable product (MVP), societal attitude towards COVID-19 had rapidly shifted. The vaccine rollout progressed at a much faster rate than expected, and several team members had at least one dose already including myself. States were beginning to lift mask mandates, and local businesses in turn were opting for an honor system approach that allowed fully vaccinated individuals not to wear a mask. Additionally, the first season of development for the team ends in August 2021, well after the point that most of the population would be fully vaccinated. Anticipating the loss of both the business motivation and public support for the solution, a pivot seemed to be the prescient step necessary for the team’s success.

Given that each season is 14 weeks, my ambitious goal was within four 2-hour classes to move from our original plan to a thoroughly fleshed out alternative project. This plan was divided into the following weekly goals:

Week 1, Introduction — Receive student buy-in on pivot, research alternative ideas

Week 2, Brainstorm — Use collaborative technology to collect and discuss student-proposed ideas, students select one project each to focus on

Week 3, Pitch Development — Craft pitch presentations to persuade the team on why their project should be the team’s project

Week 4, Decision — Present pitch presentations, vote on team project in an unbiased manner

The first step of this process was getting student buy-in on the pivot. This step was critical, as the team needed to be convinced that the project they’d just spent 14 weeks gearing up to start was no longer viable. After the team unanimously agreed a pivot was in order, a presentation was given that laid out some of the project types (sentiment analysis, image recognition, classification-based, etc.) that could serve as options, along with the relative drawbacks and benefits of each. The remainder of class was spent searching through premiere science competition’s winners to identify interesting projects that might serve as inspiration. For homework, each student was asked to bring 3–5 ideas from their out-of-class research to pitch to the team during next week’s brainstorming session.

For the brainstorming, the team utilized Google Jamboard to facilitate active engagement. Each student presented their ideas, received questions and feedback from their teammates, and explored some of the preliminary benefits of each proposal. The ideas were then grouped as a team into three buckets: Ideas the team liked and would consider pursuing, Ideas that would require modification either of scope or direction to be viable projects, and Ideas that were not feasible. From the first group, each student selected a project that they would be interested in championing and spent the week exploring existing solutions, competitive landscape, and other relevant areas to inform their presentations

Taking two full weeks between the students selecting their project ideas and their pitch presentations allowed for stronger proposals that thoughtfully considered all aspects of the proposed project. The integration of outside research gave context to how many analogous solutions were available, and if competitors existed how our solution would distinguish itself from theirs. Students factored in important concepts like competitive advantage, highlighting the unique strengths of their proposal relative to their teammates. When it came time to vote, a ranked voting process was utilized to ensure students voted for the project they believed in the most and not just their own proposal. Nobody was allowed to put their own proposal in the #1 slot, and many students did not even rank their own proposals as #2 due to the high caliber of pitches presented. The winning solution, using unsupervised machine learning to foster EV infrastructure, was ranked in first by almost 70% of the team. The overall process ensured we kickstarted the pivoted project with enthusiasm and a clear understanding of the challenges and benefits ahead.

This unique, incubator-style approach to pivoting brought a lot of unique benefits with it. By having students own their own proposals, engagement and overall enthusiasm for the project increased significantly going into the first development season. Each proposal’s detail and continued dialogue with other team members allowed for a level of specificity and insight that a more truncated process would not have. Finally, some of the later tasks the team would be conducting for their project including value proposition and competitive analysis were already completed, allowing for some of the time eaten up by this process to be recouped.

Despite these benefits, there were several drawbacks to this methodology that are worth noting. The magnitude of goals for the first season (developing a core feature of the solution, creating promotional materials and relationship with a team advisor, presenting to key stakeholders, etc.) lead the 14 weeks to be rather compressed as is. Taking up 4 of those weeks going through this process creates an artificial time crunch for the later weeks that would not exist for teams starting the season without a pivot. Another key aspect is level-setting expectations earlier as to not allow ideas to be considered past their usable life. One student came up with an interesting idea for a food app that would allow you to search for restaurants by dish rather than cuisine, which in such an oversaturated market as epicurean tech has yet to be developed due to its near impossibility. This idea endured all the way to the final 4 even though it could never have been implemented, which should be avoided going forward.

This issue points to one of the crucial challenges with this and all projects: the tradeoff between inspiring team members’ intrinsic motivation versus promoting ideas from the expertise of seasoned advisors. Allowing students to “own” and self-determine their project prompts a greater level of enthusiasm, but this approach can allow for a far superior project to be passed over as they are more interested in another idea. For our project, we were fortunate enough to have a real stakeholder who works in the EV infrastructure space come and present to the class, validating that the team’s proposal has real value for his business. Doing so slightly circumvented the will of students, artificially pushing them in this direction as each idea did not have its own designated speaker.

In spite of these concerns, this approach to pivoting the team project has proven to be a resounding success. The team, now known as RhinoCharge, have thoroughly committed to working on the solution and are more unified than ever. Going through this process proved to be a great bonding experience, encouraging students to joke with each other and interact more frequently in the team Discord. Each member puts in countless hours outside of class, unceasingly looking for areas to improve their solution without pressure from the coaches. The RhinoCharge members are on track to develop a robust, valuable solution as a united front with a fervor I doubt would have existed without pivoting. RhinoCharge may not be one of the coveted 10% of startups who succeed, but their agility in pivoting to a more marketable solution and unity in times of uncertainty certainly contain all the key ingredients for a successful product.

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