Knowing the Right Time to Pivot Your Business
I started a business that initially provided an online ordering platform for food trucks. Instead of waiting 20 minutes or more to place their orders, customers could order ahead online and skip the order line. The idea came from my own impatience with waiting in a line. Before launching the company, I made sure to sit down with some vendors. I met with owners of nearly 50 food trucks and carts to understand their business.
What I learned was astounding: many of them weren’t thinking about themselves as business owners, but instead viewed themselves almost as employees collecting a paycheck. They didn’t think about how they could best serve their next customer; instead they just hoped people would get on line and order from them. I saw an opportunity to help food truck vendors integrate technology, market themselves and build meaningful brands that would resonate with consumers. After initial traction with food trucks, we expanded to include restaurants.
We did well in the beginning. Users enjoyed being able to skip the line, while the vendors saw an increase in business. We got good press for being the first platform to enable online ordering from food trucks and for being the first third party vendor to not charge restaurants hefty fees as part of the service. We marketed ourselves as the “Robin Hood of online ordering,” in contrast to Seamless, Grubhub and others that charged vendors up to 25% on every order. However, while growth was robust at first, it didn’t continue at the same rapid pace.
We learned a few key lessons relatively quickly. First, customers didn’t care how much restaurants were being charged or what service they used if they weren’t the ones incurring the additional cost. Second, food trucks initially did well, but we failed to account for some variables that disrupted the user experience. Unlike restaurants, which can run fully stocked kitchens, food trucks have limited inventory and can run out of food on any given day. Also, NYC laws around permits and the ability to park caused variability in food trucks’ location; if they didn’t update us, we might have the wrong location in the system. Both of these issues could seriously harm our own relationships with customers using our platform.
“You’re always searching for new ways to achieve your goals. Sometimes what’s required to do so is changing the focus of your business.”
I knew I still wanted to make my business a success even though we faced some growth and logistical challenges. I still wanted to help small local food vendors use technology to grow their businesses. I went back to the drawing board to figure out how we could pivot.
The current focus of my business came out of a new use case for my original network of food truck vendors. Specifically, we had a conversation with an executive at a company whose employees were ordering a lot from food trucks. We discussed the idea of having the company pay for a truck outside the office as a culture-building event for their employees.
The next chapter of my business began out of that one conversation. Of course, I didn’t execute on this new strategy right away, but I did follow up with my vendor network to gauge their interest in being part of an online catering platform rather than just another one-off order system. I encountered overwhelming enthusiasm for the idea. Many of these small mom-and-pop vendors lacked the resources to build out a full-scale catering operation. They loved the idea of working with my company as their catering partner. Because the client that initially requested this new type of service was a big tech company, I had a viable proof of concept to pitch to other companies as well.
And so, after getting much feedback from both the vendor and corporate client side, I pivoted hard into this new strategy. While I think my business is in a much better position than if we had persisted with my initial vision, I recall how apprehensive I was at the outset. First and foremost, I thought I was abandoning my baby, the concept I had already put so much time, effort and care into making a reality. I felt as though I’d be giving up on my initial vision of being that Robin Hood for the industry, the business that did consumer online ordering the “right” way. Moreover, I would be going back to square one and building an entirely new business from scratch.
However, I quickly realized that — more than changing the business model for online ordering — I wanted to help local food vendors build more sustainable businesses. The new form of my company therefore wasn’t a departure from my vision, just a different way of executing on it. Instead of providing a cheaper online ordering platform to help vendors save money, I’d be helping them generate more money via an entirely new line of business. Again, a different way of achieving the same goal.
The biggest lesson I took from my pivot is that there are many different ways of achieving the same goal. And while I was afraid of pivoting at first, I knew I had to change something in my business to both execute on my vision and build a successful company. The key factor (and toughest part) was admitting to myself that something wasn’t working in my original concept. This is not a negative in itself, as the process of being an entrepreneur is one of constant trial and error. You’re always searching for new ways to achieve your goals. Sometimes what’s required to do so is changing the focus of your business.
Recognizing when to pivot can be difficult and it can be even more difficult to get the pivot right. But by asking yourself if you’re taking the right steps to achieve your vision, and having the humility to understand when you get it wrong, you might be able to make the decision that keeps your dream alive in the long run.