Startup advice: the last pivot to the status quo

So I recently lost a pretty important deal and I am in a funk. The only way I can make up for it is by sharing what I have just learned.

So the story of any upstart business, be it a startup or an existing venture with a new product, is that your novel service or product is different from the status quo. And it needs to be! — no one in their right mind would rely on a startup or an unproven product or service without a VERY good reason.

So your initial actual customers are all looking for something new — either they know what’s out there in the market, and it is all not good, or they want to get ahead of their competition by doing something novel. Your initial attempts to sell to the established customers in your market fail: they don’t take you seriously. They want proven stuff.

Any time you get traction, it is with the crowd that aches for something new. All your demos, your sales decks, your communication have been evolved to deal with the people that want something other than the status quo. And once you have achieved a modicum of product/market fit, you get sales!

But one day.. you’ve made it big enough that you get a serious lead from someone that is not especially aware of the market and your high-end novel things and simply listed you among the top-5 players to be invited.

And you do your “we are so different/faster/cheaper/better than anything out there” pitch. And you lose the business! You get ranked last! Even though you know you are a great fit for their needs. What happened?

You failed your last pivot. You played the “novel” card to the people wanting status quo. And it is not what they wanted. You showed up with all your newfangled stuff and they concluded you are not what they are looking for. You emphasised how different you are. They wanted to hear how much you are not. Your pitch was aimed at connaisseurs wanting something special. And they aren’t the connaisseurs you’ve worked with before.

So although your lost deal hurts, it is a great sign. You’ve arrived, but now you need to switch gears.

So first, why? Here’s why:

The skill level, the desire for novelty, basically any attribute of your potential customer is distributed normally (due to the central limit theorem). Originally, only the customers with the direst need (“>μ+2σ), the greatest desire for new stuff, the greatest appetite for risk were in scope. But that is not where the bulk of the customers are. The median here is the average: most customers just want something that works.

That’s the why.

The “how” is going to be tremendously hard. Everyone working on your novel thing has been raised to stress how different it is. Nothing what you do or say spends a lot of time explaining that you also just Get The Job Done.

And in fact, the status quo players will now wipe the floor with you — all their stories are about getting That Job Done and crossing all the t’s and dotting all the boring i’s, while you fill slides about how you solve problems / challenges / things your customer doesn’t want solved or might not even have heard about. Meanwhile you aren’t talking enough about the stuff they do worry about: not getting fired for choosing you.

This is your final and most boring pivot: appealing to the seekers of the status quo. Getting there is going to be a slog: this isn’t what you have been doing — but remember the graph shown above: the bulk of the market is not to the right, it is in the middle. Write the documents, the presentations, the white paper about how your stuff also does the normal thing, the aspects that non-connaisseurs worry about.

And as you stake out your ground there.. prepare your next big thing, because soon you’ll be haunted by new suppliers out there promising even more amazing capabilities!

Good luck — and with this small screed, perhaps you’ll be a bit more prepared for the middle of the road customer than I just was…



DNA, DNS, Startups, Innovation, Food, Physics. @PowerDNS_Bert. Founder of PowerDNS.

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Bert Hubert

DNA, DNS, Startups, Innovation, Food, Physics. @PowerDNS_Bert. Founder of PowerDNS.