The case against pivots – why it doesn’t make sense to switch tables in startup poker

I believe success in startups boils down to three factors — expertise, persistence, and luck, a lot of luck.

If luck is important, then it’s tempting to think that being a technologist gives you infinite poker chips. Each product you build gives you some poker chips and a chance to buy into a round of play.

Pivoting is like getting up from a seat at the table because you realized that everyone’s got you beat. Trying a new table has its own associated risks though. A table will have completely new players and it’ll take plenty of time to figure out everyone’s playing style, all the while you’re losing blinds. There’s no guarantee the new table is easier or harder, and your poker skill certainly hasn’t changed at all. Probability says you’ll perform similar to before.

The critical difference between startup poker and normal poker is that startup poker has many more players at the table. As a result, variance of player skills between tables are much smaller. The rules in startup poker is also more complex. The combination of more players and more rules means that switching cost is significantly higher. While it may make sense to switch tables in normal poker in some cases, there are relatively few situations in which it makes sense when doing a startup.

Instead, when things aren’t going well, choose to dig down deeper. Collect more information about your fellow players and improve your skills. Startup poker is a marathon and you have the time to improve. You’ll have to be judicious about the hands you get involved in, but when luck delivers a good hand, leverage your familiarity of the other players at your table to extract as much value out of the hand as possible.

I like this approach much better. Successful products take time and expertise to build. While it may take less and less time to build products than 10 years ago, I doubt the number of iterations it takes to get to product/market fit has changed much at all.

Successful ‘pivots’ like Pinterest, Twitter, Groupon were successful because they weren’t full pivots. They leveraged significantly on the experiences of their previous iterations.

Complete pivots give the illusion of improving founders’ chances of winning, but often times it is a wild goose chase. The feeling of improved chance is just a byproduct of ignorance of the challenges ahead. I’d rather know the challenges, try to solve them, and continue working on a product that I am passionate about.

I believe expertise combined with passion and persistence is the secret formula for optimizing chances for a win. Luck is another word for timing, and when the time comes, have the experience to capitalize on it.

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