One of my mentors once told me, “Change is easy, but pivots are painful.” I understood all too well what he meant, since my company, Zealyst, was in the middle of our first true pivot. We’d just signed a major enterprise client, one year after launching as a consumer-focused business, and we were scrambling to figure out the new business model.
Change is constant at a startup: every day there are new business ideas, opportunities, and hurdles — which are all a part of the thrill. Pivots, however, are deep, long-term changes that fundamentally alter your course and shift your company’s identity.
The pain of our pivot has decreased and we’ve come out on the other side wiser and stronger, but my mentor’s words stayed with me. As I reflect on the stages of our startup pivot and distill the challenges we encountered, there are three main lessons I learned along the way.
Listen to business opportunity.
I once joked with a colleague that our pivot began when opportunity knocked, but it had to knock again … and again … before we really listened. Shortly after launching Zealyst, to a small pilot group of consumers, a business approached us about providing the service to their clients.
We agreed to work with them out of curiosity, but considered it an experiment rather than a directional change. We had a few contracts come our way through referrals, which we continued to handle in a similar manner. It wasn’t until a Fortune 100 company asked us to host an employee engagement event that we finally realized we needed to change our focus and pursue enterprise opportunities instead of expanding to new consumer markets.
Maintain a connection to your core vision.
My co-founder and I initially resisted the enterprise direction because we thought it strayed too far from our original vision. We started Zealyst to help people build meaningful new connections and ultimately create stronger social networks. We were concerned that taking our model into the corporate world would dilute the impact and lessen the satisfaction we derived from our work.
However, after a series of client engagements, we found the work we did to heighten employee engagement, improve retention and foster innovation was just as gratifying as the work we did for consumers. People spend a major portion of their lives at work, so helping people feel more connected to their workplace has proven to be a rewarding challenge. Additionally, we discovered that working on specific client objectives, such as connecting people across regional boundaries or across management levels, actually improved our design process.
Communicate clearly with stakeholders.
One of the things that kept me up at night during our pivot was how we were going to tell our loyal group of early adopters about the change. Initially, we were not sure if we would have to scrap the consumer arm of Zealyst entirely, which felt like a betrayal of the people who supported us from the beginning.
I consulted all of our key advisors about the best way to move forward, and we eventually came up with a strategy to maintain a small consumer division for research and marketing. After we integrated the consumer activities into the new business model, we worked closely as a team to craft a clear message about the change to all our key stakeholders: investors, advisors and existing customers.
I was nervous about how the announcement would be received, and pleasantly surprised to be met with resounding support across the board. It was a humbling reminder of the importance of transparency — and further reinforcement that we’d made the right decision.
The pain in our startup pivot came from having to recalibrate our vision and change the expectations we had in the early days for what the company would become. It was challenging to let go of the plan and wrap our minds around a new course, but opening up and altering directions has allowed us to become a more resilient company than we could have imagined at the beginning of this adventure.
Martina Welke is the CEO and Co-Founder of Zealyst, a curated networking service based in Seattle, Washington. Zealyst utilizes smart technology and creative design to build unique events. Zealyst software uses registration data to match attendees according to their interests, and customized social games make it easy to make new professional and personal connections at events.