U-turn or re-route?

What this B2B startup has learned about pivots

Hey y’all! Laura here. Back in October, during Chattanooga’s Startup Week, I hung out with a bootstrapped startup that’s hit $1 million ARR. They’re called Text Request, and they’re an online texting service for businesses; users log in from any device to send and receive texts using their current office phone number.

Their team shared a ton of wisdom, and one idea that stuck with me was this: you should refine often, but pivot carefully. I caught up with Director of Product and Projects, Matt Holland, to dig up more context on what that means and what it’s looked like at Text Request.

In the talk you gave, 10 Lessons to Bootstrap Your Startup to $1 Million and Beyond, you mentioned it's easy to get "pivot happy." What does that look like for a startup?

Matt: Quick disclaimer: “Pivot happy” for one type of business might not look the same for a different type of business, and it won’t look the same at different stages of growth.

Normally, people/companies get pivot happy when they have unrealistic expectations, have not executed on their plans, or a combination of the two:

Unrealistic expectations: Home runs, easy growth, set it and forget it/run on autopilot. These are, normally, unrealistic—at least early on in a plan. You probably haven’t hit on one thing that will propel you to effortless growth. For most businesses, that one thing doesn’t even exist.

We all hope to create processes and funnels that can one day run on their own. The key here is one day, not the first day. It is going to take some, and normally a lot, of refining to nail a process or funnel so that it runs with minimal hands-on effort.

When unrealistic expectations aren’t met, the first inclination is often, “Welp, that’s not working, guess we have to change what we’re doing.” If you don’t give something time to work, and put in the effort to make it work—surprise, surprise—it will never work. You have to set realistic expectations in both production and time frame.

Not Executing: If you’re going to pivot, you need to pivot and take that next step forward. So, you pivot, plan, and execute, so you can confidently move forward.

But you have to be careful of over-planning. You don’t move forward until you execute successfully, and you can’t do that until you stop planning and start doing. Time is a great indicator for this: You want to spend significantly less time planning than you do executing your plan.

This is all a very tricky balancing act. Don’t blindly leap into the abyss, but don’t get caught debating and overthinking every possible strategy. Put a plan in place, and get to executing it. Doing things is the only thing that will move you forward.

In your talk, you made a super helpful distinction between pivots and refinements. In your experience, what's the difference between those two?

Matt: Pivot: What you're doing; the problem you're solving or the product you're creating.

Refine: How you do it; how you reach prospects or what features you build.

Refining should be an almost constant process, while pivoting cannot be.

Refining is saying, “This is good, can we make it a little better?” If you’re always looking for ways to make small improvements, those changes will end up having a big impact. If you spend all your time chasing a big impact change, you end up spending a lot of time spinning your wheels.

Sometimes that big change is needed, but most of the time consistent minor changes is the way to go.

Can you share an example from Text Request?

Matt: Absolutely. In Text Request’s very early days, we had no marketing strategy at all. Thankfully, we saw the light pretty quickly and realized that was a terrible idea. However, thanks to our bootstrap status and commitment to expensive trade shows, we had a marketing budget of zero.  

So, what could we do for free? Well, we could start a blog for free and try some content marketing. Initially, our content strategy was to preach the good gospel of Text Request with the assumption that, if they read it, they will come (purchase).

But when all you do is toot your own horn, people aren’t super interested. What are people really interested in? Getting their questions answered. We started focusing our content on answering the questions our customers and targets were asking. Looping back to ourselves every now and then, but focusing on providing useful content.

Our blog needed some serious time to work, and we almost pivoted away from it a few times. But instead of pivoting and doing something different, we refined what we were doing. It paid off, and today it is still one of our most important channels.

You’ve seen a lot of ups and downs working at Text Request. What else should folks know about surviving a startup?

How cliche can I be? Have fun.

Celebrate the little things and let yourself get excited. There is a lot of excitement starting a business, but after that first year or so, a lot of that can wear off, and the grind can take over.  Startups get so focused on their KPIs and quarterly numbers, their churn rate and investor priorities. All those things have a place, you have got to pay attention to them. But you’ve also got to celebrate and get excited about the little things, weekly.

Got a killer 5-star review? Someone should get a high five, fist bump, or ode of jubilation. A customer upgraded to a higher plan? Air horn. (Don’t worry, there’s an app for your phone. Your coworkers will love you, I promise.)

I don’t care what it looks like for you, celebrate those small victories because they are victories.

We’ve condensed and edited this interview for clarity. A huge thanks to Matt Holland, Director of Product and Projects at Text Request, for sharing his time and more insights than we could fit in this newsletter.