Pivot and Persevere - Part 1


All of us have heard the story. The resourceful and quick startup that pivots from a flailing business model and catches the next big thing. Then again, Steve Jobs once said “Half of what separates successful entrepreneurs from the non-successful ones is pure perseverance.” So, when times get tough, should we pivot or persevere? Which one is it?

Apple Co-founder Steve Jobs

For established companies, this is less a dilemma. They often have significant brand equity, goodwill, existing assets, etc. to make a wholesale pivot less attractive — financially speaking. It is just as likely their organizational inertia makes a hairpin pivot simply impossible. Startups, on the other hand, are not tethered to tradition, sunken costs, or inertia. Reinventing a startup’s business seems easier as many have not amassed much brand recognition yet, so they would be “abandoning” less. Heck, just the words “a fresh start” has a nice entrepreneurial ring to it.

But just because startups can more easily pull it off, is pivoting the right move? Let’s again consider the case of that Steve Jobs fella. In 1979, as the Personal Computer market was lifting off yet fragmented, Apple envisioned a drastically different kind of computer — one that distinguished itself on its GUI or Graphical User Interface. “The Macintosh team was what is commonly known as intrapreneurship…a group of people going, in essence, back to the garage but in a large company” said Steve Jobs in a 1985 Newsweek interview.

Apple’s MacIntosh Computer

While it was a plucky 3-year old enjoying the relative success of its Apple II series of computers, Apple in fact began to pivot away from traditional DOS (Apple Disk Operating System) towards the more GUI-based Mac. And while the Mac famously launched in a Ridley Scott directed 1984 commercial, Apple II series PCs would continue to be sold until 1993. Yes, your math is right — that’s a 14-year pivot!

So was legendary Apple, the epitome of startups and the world’s most valuable brand today, THAT slow in executing the proverbial startup pivot? Of course not. A better description of what happened was Apple pivoted AND persevered. In other words, it had its cake and ate it too (at least for 14 years). Whoever said it had to be one or the other?

A screen grab from Apple’s 1984 commercial launching its MacIntosh computer, courtesy of YouTube

There is no reason why startups cannot pivot to take advantage of new opportunities while still continuing to improve its original business. The latter can manifest itself in ongoing improvement of an initial product, continuing to invest in R&D, recruiting the right talent to better execute its original business plan, etc. As a matter of fact, this dual-pronged strategy seems even more applicable given today’s Covid uncertainties. Why is that? Alas, that’s a story for another day so stay tuned.

About the author:

Peter’s first computers were the Apple IIe and Mac SE. During college, he was recruited by Apple to be a Student-to-Student Mac Exhibitor at its Straight Talk About Apple Computers fair held at UC Berkeley. While interning for Chevron, Peter was an active member of its Mac Users Group, contributing to Chevron MUG’s newsletter and attending Apple launch events for the Mac LC, Classic and IIsi. A PC enthusiast, he has worked over 3 years each at IBM and Gateway Inc. during the early 90’s and 00’s, respectively, and is currently Zeacon’s CMO and Chief Strategy Officer.