Pivotal moments. Every entrepreneur has experienced them. They are choices that you made that changed the course of the company.
How did you arrive at your company's "breakthrough idea?" What was the trigger that caused everything to finally begin working like you had imagined it could? Or, when everything began to crater? If the pivotal moment was inseparably tied to a person or a place, how did you meet them or come to be there?
There are lessons to be drawn from every instance of synchronicity. Please share your PIVOTAL MOMENT and, ideally, it may serve as a pay-it-forward source of inspiration for the next entrepreneur!
When I finally realized my life's purpose circa 2008 - the WHY of my existence that precedes the WHO and the HOW & WHAT, then my entire life essence snapped into clear focus and I was able to let go of a vast quantity of what I thought I had to DO and started working rapidly and with great gusto on who I had to BE.
How that started for me was with a growing and nagging sense of "is this all there is?", a dis-satisfaction (dis-ease) followed by a few years of introspection and research into a new framework bounded by my Passions, areas of Genius, Aspirations and what I was Grateful for. These areas of thought developed into the core of my successful life design coaching program.
In order to create my LifeMap and define my Purpose, first, I got clear, for my Self, about: what lit me up, what I had always been effortlessly great at, who I saw myself as forever and what moved me to tears of gratitude - that being to: "help others be brilliant". Simple. I am here to be brilliant. Nothing less. Challenge-oriented. Unlimited. In doing (being) so, I open up space for others to live their brilliance - which in turn, spirals up to feed me.
Those who knew me as a technology and business consultant in 2007 or so, started to see (worry about - haha) me transform each area of my life, letting go of what did not work and experimenting/pushing/challenging/aligning with what did work for my true Self. My true Self, I might add, I later defined (see http://gmeta.com ) as THE referential framework of attibutes (ways of being) that allowed for me living my purpose - on purpose.
My purpose, I say, is to always be that truest version of my Self. By extension, Happiness is active Progress in relation to purposeful performance goals, in the areas of life defined by my true Self. Simple.
So that's my #1 pivot. I now coach others to design and live a life of brilliance such that they can focus and go to work on what really matters to them right now, at any level - not having to wait months or years to figure it out.
My pivot advice? Get a coach (any coach that empowers and excites you). Get clear on your purpose ASAP (we're not here for 3000 years even though some folks seem to treat the non-renewable resource of time that way). Get yourself a simple daily structure (calendar of habits) to ensure you continue to grow and contribute exponentially in this beautiful, unique gift each of us has been given called LIFE.
The difficult path to breakthrough can reveal many new pivots and opportunities:
When I was a product manager for social commerce company, Bazaarvoice, we made it possible to embed a product review submission and display system on retailers' websites. With some coercing, their customers would inevitably write product reviews. Hurrah!
As we evolved to build the next complementary question & answer product, we made the faulty assumption that retailers’ customers would answer questions just as easily as they would write reviews. Instead, we inadvertently opened a floodgate of questions, with only a trickle of answers.
It was a disaster. Our early beta customers were unhappy, and if we didn’t address it soon, the Q&A service would be scuttled. A few of us brainstormed for weeks trying to decide who could answer questions — customer service teams? Manufacturers? Or well-meaning, helpful social samaritans?
The breakthrough came when we started thinking seriously about 3 things: who would be in the best position to answer the questions, where we would find them and when we would prompt them. Hindsight will seem 20/20, but the winning solution was to pose unanswered questions directly in the path of people who had either just reviewed the same product or answered a question about a product.
They were already motivated, and it was opportunistic timing. We essentially created a chaining of content submission opportunities. It was so successful, that we eventually had a higher ratio of answers than questions on average.
This struggle was important, not only because it led us to the answer, but we ended up with three patents, and new product offerings for subject matter experts at the retailer and at the manufacturer to answer open questions about their products. The Q&A service and the derivative Manufacturer / Brand Answers went on to generate millions in recurring revenue for many years.
In the early 2000s, the digital agency business that my partners and I had co-founded together was suffering the same fate as thousands of others across the country were suffering – the triple-whammy of (1) no more Y2K spending (2) the dot-com venture capital bust, and (3) the tragedy of 9/11 that shook the confidence of our nation.
Around that time, in a 24 hour period, we had three major customers cancel contracts totaling around $1M out of our $1.25M order backlog, so roughly 80% of anticipated revenue vanished overnight. We went on red alert to figure out what to do. We locked ourselves in a room with a trusted advisor, and in fairly short order, we developed a short- and long-term strategic response.
The short-term strategy was what we called the “Minimum wage plan.” In just 30 days, we reduced our full-time staff from 45 to 15. We reduced everyone’s monthly compensation to the same, minimum amount required by law in the state of Texas: $1,100 per month. As a result of this extreme cost cutting strategy, we stopped the bleeding and remained profitable over the short-term and profits were shared at the end of each month. In fact, as it turns out, every one of our 15 employees was retained and actually received higher compensation than they did before. Everyone except for the owners – we made less.
Also, we decided to rethink the delivery model, so we could continue to deliver a whole product and continuum of customer care with significantly fewer people. Our commitment was to build a partner network of specialists. We only retained customer-facing people who were versatile. We did away with specialization, pushing it to the partner network, and emphasized versatility and people skills.
Lastly, we exercised a special clause in our lease that gave us leverage to renegotiate. Ultimately we consolidated our 15 people into one floor of our three story facility, and the landlord found a new tenant to occupy the other two floors. What a blessing because our lease was fairly rich and we needed every penny to share with our employees.
The short-term strategy was the necessary temporary shock treatment, required to keep the business alive. But it wasn’t a good long-term plan, because there was no motivation for the ownership team to change into anything beyond a minimum effort stop-gap situation. And the employees who accepted to work under the minimum wage plan were not built for taking those kinds of risks for more than six months.
For the long-term plan, we knew we needed to breathe new life into the firm and, to do that, we decided we had bring in new partners. So, we turned fist to our employees and asked them to apply. Two responded by stepping up to buy-in as owners. And, while I’m not going to sugar-coat the story to say it was easy, we operated the company another 11 years before we finally decided it was time to move on.
During that time, in addition to the new ownership, I’d offer three other main tent poles that were essential to building an enduring company around long-term relationships.
First, no one burned bridges. At the same time we took on two new owners, two of my original partners exited the ownership team. But, rather than walking away angry or uncommunicative, we all repositioned our relationships with each other. This allowed me to call upon them for their unique talents for quite some time afterwards.
Second, we had a core team that was deeply committed to each other, at a personal level, with a lot of history together. For a small company that, at its largest during the best years, grew to around 50 full-time employees, we had 10 employees with us for 12 years.
Third, we truly amazing customer relationships. We had the good fortune (also due to hard work on our team’s part) of winning business with some key Japanese-based companies with American operations. Working with them truly changed the way I viewed long-term customer/vendor relationships.
The lighthouse example was one of those customers continuing to do business with us for 17 years, probably accounting for a third of all of our revenues during that time. But, we had other, incredible long-term customer relationships during that time as well. I’ll always be grateful for their trust and belief in us; likewise, I’ll never take for granted being flexible and patient with a customer than has proven they value our work, even when the inevitable changes to their internal processes cause short-term duress to your project schedules or cash flow.
We started Tech Cocktail as a grass roots organization, as a passion project. The “cocktail” name had a double meaning, to better connect the diverse ingredients of a community and, of course, to have a good time doing it. We started in Chicago, then DC, Boulder, Boston, and beyond. Up until 2010, we were nearly exclusively focused on doing these events, to better connect community and showcase innovation that was occurring online and off.
The first pivotal moment for us was in 2010, when we decided to work on it full-time. Up until then, for three and a half years, my associates and I had kept our “day jobs” and bootstrapped Tech Cocktail on proverbial “nights and weekends.”
But, it got to the point where we knew we couldn’t do both, especially with the opportunity to grow the online publishing component. I was doing product development for AOL at the same time, flying coast to coast, and it was just getting too hard.
It was a tough decision, because I was in a pretty comfortable position at AOL. However, I ultimately determined that “if I don’t do this right now, I’ll forever feel a sense of loss” and I didn’t want that to happen.
When we shifted to full-time, my primary co-founder and I continued to bootstrap the business for a couple more years. We felt that giving ourselves that time, with the benefit of full control, was important for figuring out how we were going to really grow the business, long-term.
Those first few years were not easy. There were a number of times when we asked ourselves “should we continue to do this?” We weren’t paying ourselves, which was a big change, because we used to make a pretty good amount of money, along with all of the perks that go with a good company job.
Eventually, in 2013, we reached a second pivotal moment, when we raised our first round of funding. We had determined, by that point, that our path to more growth was to strengthen our event footprint, first, and then follow it up with a very strong online presence, second.
We believed the event presence would create a strong fan following. That strategy has proved to be the right one for us, with millions of readers now and a strong revenue base that has shifted from event sponsorships to online, native advertising that the brands who work with us more highly value.
"It's not whether you get knocked down. It's whether you get up."
- Vince Lombardi
July 17th, 2013 I was knocked down. Unlike I had ever been before.
I slouched down into a booth at Manuel's Mexican restaurant on Congress. Moments earlier I had arrived with every metric memorized, great news of a newly signed contract, and a vision for a billion dollar business.
Over chicken quesadillas, I chewed quietly as I learned the metrics were of the vanity type, the contract was a dead-end, and the vision was more unstable than a jenga stack.
My vision to turn the world's 23 million books into mobile, social, trivia games and then do the same to the training industry was destined to go down like the titanic and I was merely rearranging the deck chairs.
The quote, as I distinctly remember was "you should stop doing this, no one will ever invest it. it's not a good idea."
I had done what we all do: sacrifice. Everything. Friendships, savings, family, sleep, etc were "all in." And it was over. And he was right.
For two days I didn't leave bed. And then a weird thing happened, I remembered a part of the conversation I missed (while the air was trying to return to my lungs).
The next sentences after "it's not a good idea..." were: "but you're doing a lot of things right. Mobile, education, game mechanics and social all make sense together.. just go do it for things people have to learn."
And there it was, the pivot. And it has made all the difference.
I frequently have people come to me with what they perceive to be great ideas for a new event-based venture, like SXSW, and ask my advice for the most important things they should do to get started. I tell them the following:
• Great: events can be a lot of fun to organize!...but,
• They are very labor-intensive,
• They generally take a long while to make a profit, if not at least take off, and
• While there are metrics that you can identify and follow to determine your progress towards profitability or traction, it is ultimately a completely subjective decision as to whether or not to continue
For example, there were many points with SXSW Interactive (right until about our tenth year) when the growth was negligible at best. The event wasn’t turning a profit and it didn't seem like it was ever going to do such. Thus, if the decision had been left entirely up to me, I probably would have pulled the plug.
But, the people I work with disagreed and, as it turns out, pulling the plug would have been exactly the wrong thing to do. Because, right about that time is when SXSW began to pick up steam, becoming what it is today.
My pivotal moment was the “dot com” bust: specifically, the weekend that I had to let go a third of our staff. I made every call myself; it took me all weekend, with my wife by my side holding my head up. Then, my partners and leadership team and I had to come together with the remaining two-thirds of the staff and figure out exactly what we were going to do. Where we were going to go?
The mistake we had made during the years preceding the bust was, in very general terms, trying to be “everything to everyone.” If a project was IT-related, we would consider it. But, after the dot com bust, big companies became very selective, opting for specialists. We were a generalist at the time, not a specialist, so we had to decide how we were going to differentiate ourselves, as a company. Whatever decision we made, we knew our focus had to be clear in our minds, as well as in our customers’ minds. We needed to learn to say “no” to projects that fell outside of this focus.
We ultimately pivoted, rather than focusing on an industry or technology specialty, instead choosing a vendor relationship: we became 100% focused on Microsoft products and solutions. With that focus, we set a goal to close down all of our non-Microsoft clients within one year, which was tough. The real test came when I turned down a $3 million project with an existing client of ours that wasn’t with Microsoft.
That single decision to focus on the Microsoft partnership, for better or for worse, transformed my company for the following decade. It allowed us to skyrocket when the economy came back in 2003, growing the firm to among the largest and most successful Microsoft-focused partners in the country.
In 1989, I was a contract recruiter at Tandem Computers here in Austin. My job was to recruit UNIX kernel hackers. I had a lot to learn, because our products were very technical, which turned out to be good, because it meant I had to ask a lot of questions.
I found a sysadmin (system administrator) who introduced me to a text-based communications system, i.e., the pre-world-wide-web internet! With this sysadmin’s help, I posted a position to hire a UNIX kernel specialist. This was the perfect experiment to test the power of the early internet, because the majority of people on it at that time were familiar with UNIX.
I didn’t know that then, until I walked into the office the next day and my email had responses from all over the country. Immediately, the light bulb came on over my head, in terms of the potential to build a dynamic database of job applicants and their ever-changing circumstances, instead of a static database of resumes’.
From that day forward, I began going down the path of building a dynamic application and database that eventually became the technology behind Hire.com. It took seven years, but we launched Hire.com in 1997, which became a global Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) company, with Prudential, FedEx, IBM, and many other customers, before the industry even began using that terminology.