Talk of Silicon Valley: Is "Pivot" the New "Fail"?

"Pivot" is such a fashionable term these days. Have you heard somebody talking about pivoting this week? Me, too. But not only is "Pivot" is getting a little over-exposed - it's poised to overtake "Fail" as the fashionable new Silicon Valley rite of passage. And it would appear I'm not the only one who's been thinking this.

The strange thing is, "pivot" isn't necessarily all about failure. Reading a couple popular books and hearing people talk about it, I've come across two slightly different meanings for pivot.

The first definition: After you get some customer feedback, you might find that you need to tweak your product 10%-20% and key in on a specific feature.

The second definition: A more extreme form of the adage "no plan survives first contact with the enemy," you got the entire thing wrong and you need to change more than 80% of your product, maybe retaining one aspect of the original, maybe not - fortunately your customer feedback showed you a new path.

Redefining Entrepreneurial Failure

Definition one means you're just adjusting to the market.

Definition two means you boned the product badly and are trying to salvage something from the company, rather than just shutting down.

The word "pivot" has been a little politicized. It's a key term in The Lean Startup and its legacy of feedback loops. It's mentioned frequently in the TechStars Do More Faster manifesto. That's two very trendy tomes in a culture that tends to pile onto trends (i.e. create bubbles). I found Lean Startup to lean more towards Definition One (similar to Agile feedback) and Do More Faster to mention the more extreme Definition Two.

Either way, people seem very anxious to say they pivoted. Psychologically speaking, this is interesting. Most people agree that one of the things that makes Silicon Valley unique is the acceptance and occasional celebration of failure. What's really celebrated is instances where entrepreneurs learned from the mistakes and were thus able to not make them again, but that's a little too nuanced for a sound bite.

If you make the... let's call it the "big pivot," you get to fail and succeed all at the same time. You don't have to start that second (or third) company, finally get it right and then talk about what went wrong. That's a whole lot of Valley cred you can build up in one fell swoop, if you pivot correctly. And I could see how that might be attractive when you win big.

Of course, when thing get trendy, they also get blown out of proportion.  A good example of this is Business Insider trying to say that Sony's consumer electronic market is all a pivot. No, that's an ongoing line expansion. Did Sony forsake TVs to make computers? No, they did not. People try too hard to fit square pegs in round holes for the sake of being fashion.

Startup Pivots: Hot or Not?

At a certain level, this is a matter of business philosophy. Take the example of Bo Fishback. Fishback knows what he wants Zaarly to be. There will be no big pivot and if it fails, it fails. Listen to him talk and you can hear how his belief in the model is driving the company. On one level, pivoting is about validating your product and your business level, then adjusting if you find out you were wrong about something.

Wanting to pivot, particularly wanting to make that big pivot, means you want to be wrong about your product and approach. There's a big difference between wanting to test/being open to tweaks and actively wanting to fail.  I'm not sure people realize the logical extension of the more extreme pivot talk.

So is "pivot" the new "fail?"  In terms of the Valley zeigeist, it sure does seem to be catching up.  In terms of literal definition, if you're actively looking to pivot and you favor the second definition, that means you're actively looking to fail for the purpose of redeeming yourself.  And that's dangerous.