The Taxonomy of the Lean Startup Pivot

(Warning: this post may be highly theoretical / geeky. If you’re looking for the more amusing Taxonomy of the Lean Startup Anti-Pivot, it’s here.)

Last week I was planning for the worst. Having gone through 51 iterations of my mockups and gathered as much as feedback as I could with our primitive alpha, I feel confident about our basic customer problem hypothesis. Still, I play a lot of chess and like to think at least five moves ahead in the five most likely futures. So I decided to make a list of my potential pivots.

(note: For those not familiar with the term, pivot is a lean startup vocab word that states in it’s simplest form: If your business model isn’t working, change something. More on this below.)

To do this, I started making a list of questions I could ask of my product/market to brainstorm other ideas. In the process, I wound up breaking up my list of pivots into categories based on the questions and posted the list to the lean startup google group. I was wondering, “is anyone else doing this? Is there was any established taxonomy for pivoting or any template? Are there other questions I should be asking?”

Here was my original list of questions and their associated pivots:

Product Pivots:
– Can we solve the problems of our target market with an partly or
entirely different product?

Use Case Pivots:
– Can we use the same tech for a different use case with the same
target market?

Market Pivots:
– Can we apply the same product / tech to a different market?

Narrowing stance:
– Can we narrow our focus to a smaller/niche market or use case?

Widening stance:
– Can our product embrace a wider market or use case?

I thought this list could be the start of a very rudimentary taxonomy of pivots. However, some of the responses I’ve received so far have tested my understanding of the basic pivot concept and made me realize I had tied the concept of pivot into “product / market fit.” As product / market fit is most basic hypothesis I need to confirm before knowing that I have a viable business, any business changes outside of product/market fit didn’t register as a pivot for me.

Expect the Unexpected

Others seem to have a different take on the term, including Brant Cooper who implied “Everything about your business is a potential pivot” and also Eric Ries who suggested the following types of pivots:

  • Customer need pivot: same customer segment, different need/problem
  • Customer segment pivot: same problem, different segment
  • Business architecture pivot: ie from enterprise to consumer
  • Zoom-in feature pivot: remove features to focus on just one key feature
  • Zoom-out feature pivot: add features to become more of a holistic solution
  • Technology pivot: solve same problem but with different technology stack
  • Channel pivot: same problem, same solution, different path to customers
  • Platform pivot: open up an application to third-parties to become a platform (or vice-versa)”

(emphasis mine)

You’ll note that Eric’s list and Brant’s response both imply or include changes which don’t necessarily apply to product/market fit. In Eric’s list, I’m looking mostly at “technology pivot” and “channel pivot” which have nothing to do with who you’re target with what product, but instead focuses on how to make the product.

There is a lot of overlap between Eric’s list and mine and some of his terms are a lot zingier.┬áBut for my current purpose of achieving product/market fit I need something combining both elements, so I merged them:

(Please note: I wouldn’t recommend taking my list over his, especially if you plan on speaking the same language as the rest of the lean startup gurus.)

Product Pivots:
– Can we solve the problems of our target market with an partly or entirely different product?

This one doesn’t seem to have a parallel in Eric’s list, which I found surprising. I’m keeping it in mine because I think it’s very relevant.

Use Case Pivots:
Can we use the same tech for a different use case with the same target market?

This is “Customer Need” in Eric’s list.

Market Pivots:
Can we apply the same product / tech to a different market?

I would group “Customer segment”, “Business architecture”, and “Platform pivot” under this. All of them refer to who you’re selling the product to. I would consider all of this under the broad category of Market although it’s very very useful to break it down further for brainstorming.

Zoom Pivots:
– Can we narrow our focus to a smaller/niche market or use case?
– Can our product embrace a wider market or use case?

This is a great term from Eric and is better than my “Narrowing / Widening Stance” term. The main difference is that Eric’s refers only to product features and I would also want to address the possibility of widening or narrowing the target market. (Although you could just as easily call those Market Pivots.)

Open Ended Answer

You may also note that in the list above I ditched Eric’s suggested categories of “channel” and “technology” pivot as they don’t help me with product / market fit, but rather refer to marketing and production techniques. That’s not to say they’re not valuable, just they’re not relevant to the problem I’m trying to focus on right now.

As such, I have no firm conclusion to this post. I started the taxonomy as a thought exercise and I’m continuing in that spirit. I realize I may be using the term pivot differently than the lean startup folk and I need to adapt my terminology. Speaking my own language is not particularly useful for communication purposes, although I do find it helpful to associate the term pivot with the product/market fit concept. Otherwise pivoting can be applied to everything and is synonymous with the word “change”.

That’s it for the geeky post. Next week I’ll try and share some of our user behavior maps.

Discussion (4 comments)

  1. Sean Murphy says:

    “It is a mistake to try to look too far ahead. The chain of destiny can only be grasped one link at a time.” Winston Churchill

    Until you have traction or product/niche market fit it’s always a good idea to continue to narrow your focus. The use case pivot is probably the easiest to execute as it involves only a change in messaging for the same product in the same market. So that would normally be your second choice. I would not start considering new markets that you may be less familiar with or new products unless you cannot find any traction with the market you know and your current product. So it would seem premature to try and plot your moves out 5 plys ahead because you will be spending time that would be better focused on exploring your current niche. You also run a risk of both “grass is greener” and “analysis paralysis” trying to build such a large decision tree.

    My $0.02, your mileage may vary.

  2. Tristan Kromer says:

    I’d agree that it’s a mistake to try and actively solve problems that don’t exist yet, and it’s important to focus your energies.

    On the other hand, if you’re creating a product and you can’t think of at least five tactical options within a 10 minute brainstorm then there are really only two possibilities:

    1) You’re at a strategic dead end and that increases the risk of your product radically. You’ve essentially designed yourself into a corner.

    2) You’re not brainstorming well.

    In the case of option (1), I’m not sure what I would do. If I’m playing chess and I have that problem it’s usually because I’m about to mate or be mated. I’d be very very wary of my business plan.

    In the case of option (2), it’s time to find a co-founder to bounce ideas off of. I think every entrepreneur should be actively generating ideas constantly. Pursuing them all simultaneously is another issue, but coming up with ideas is the job of an entrepreneur.


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  17. Galen says:

    Hi Tristan,

    I’ve enjoyed a number of your articles, and particularly love your UX take on the business model canvas (I hope you don’t mind, I ‘borrowed’ your layout and expanded a little for my own purposes).

    In this article the thing that strikes me out of both lists of pivots, is they all come down to just 2 categories. You can either pivot on your customer or your value. Everything else in the canvas changes (or pivots) based on those two. I know you and Eric both talk about channel pivots, but in my mind that’s more about tweaking your business in response to either customer or value conditions.

    For example, if your channel pivot takes you into a new market/customer segment, then I would argue you’d be better off starting with your value and looking at all the possible customer segments you’ve missed as opposed to ‘backing into’ the changes by shifting channels.

    What are your thoughts?



    1. Tristan says:

      You can pivot channels without pivoting your customer segment.

      For example, let’s say I’m selling girl scout cookies and targeting 25-35 year old moms. My current channel is door to door sales, but I realize this is difficult to scale. So I can pivot to online sales with free shipping.

      Same customer, different channel.

      You could argue that my customer segment has pivoted to those 25-35 year old moms who like to buy food online, but this is where we get into a less useful semantic argument.

      Ultimately these definitions are meant to provoke thought, not provide answers. If you prefer to call a channel pivot a customer pivot + marketing…well…do that. All of the business model blocks are linked to each other and changing one general means you should at least consider any additional changes you might need to make.


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