Start-up pivoting - a case of change or die

SOLUTION SPACE - 28 March 2020

“Pivoting means giving yourself an opportunity to learn some important business lessons, particularly about what your target customers really want. Listen carefully to what they teach you.” Jacques Sibomana, Founder and Managing Director, Kuba

Pivoting has become a rite of passage for many start-ups, and it’s likely to stay that way. Because start-ups that are not capable of adapting in the age of change invariably fail.

For many entrepreneurs, however, the idea of pivoting is just as scary as the prospect of failure. But it doesn’t have to be. In many cases, a start-up only needs to address one or two obstacles before it takes off. And the changes do not need to be dramatic. They might, for example, include moving your platform from software to an app. Or focusing on a different group of customers by shifting to a new market.

Indeed, some of the world’s most successful businesses achieved mega-brand status after making relatively minor changes to their business models and strategies. Video streaming giant YouTube, for example, started as a video-based dating site while Instagram was originally a location-based check-in service.

One person who knows more than many people about the personal and professional upsides of pivoting is Jacques Sibomana, Founder and Managing Director of Kuba, a pioneering business that uses smart technology tools to make it easier for people in the informal economy to tap into formal markets — and vice versa.

Jacques’ life first pivoted when he was a young child fleeing the Rwandan genocide in the 1990s. After arriving in South Africa with his family, he quickly learned that being a refugee means fending for yourself and adapting to survive. Even if that meant earning a living as an informal trader in Cape Town’s Grand Parade to pay his way through school then university. Not only did these formative experiences shape Jacques’ entrepreneurial instincts, but they also calmed the fear of change that prevents so many start-up entrepreneurs from adapting to new business realities.

So, what advice would Jacques offer to entrepreneurs who feel the time has come to pivot? “Simple: just take the time to listen and learn. Pivoting is your opportunity to slow down and actually pay attention to what your target customers want. Don’t pivot because you are under pressure to make the next sale. Rather, pivot because the market is telling you to pivot, and be sure to take note of what it is saying.”

Other rules for a successful pivot include starting as soon as possible; staying true to your original vision; preserving the results of the hard work you have already put in; and only changing direction when you are sure that there are new sales and growth opportunities along your new route.

Meanwhile, Jacques’ own track record suggests that his advice on pivoting is well worth taking. His own pivot involved taking his original business model, which was strictly analogue, and digitising it. Launched nearly three years ago, Kuba’s website now attracts over 50,000 visits every month and it has a community of over 800 registered users, many of whom use its app to send invoices and quotes to customers.

“When I receive feedback like this, I realise that that it’s the human factor — and not technology — that makes or breaks a pivot,” he says, glancing at the WhatsApp message his smartphone. Sent by a member of Kuba’s online community who runs her own catering business, it simply reads: “I am so happy with your app. It makes me more professional to my clients with quotes and invoices. Thanks so much.”

Pivot | Startup | Strategy | Business Models