I’ll admit it. I believed the whole fail fast, pivot quickly aphorism. I’ve heard founders say it, and listened to tails of why failing fast and pivoting quickly worked out for the better. But I didn’t notice the major flaw in this thinking until I spoke with a prolific tech founder.
The idea behind the saying is that you can’t fully predict how a startup will develop, or how a market will receive it. You will fail or you will succeed, so failing fast allows you the time and money to pivot to something that works. It makes sense because history is littered with examples of great products that were just too soon, or not well received. Laserdisc and the Apple Newton come to mind.
While it may be true the “fail fast, pivot quickly” model worked for companies like Slack, we have counterexamples like the creators of Guitar Hero who had to persist for 10 years to finally be successful, explained Rizwan Virk, former CEO of Gameview Studios on The Justin Brady Show.
Rizwan Virk, creator Tap Fish and Director of PlayLabs at MIT.
Rizwan Virk is a Stanford and MIT grad, and the Director of PlayLabs at MIT. He served as CEO when Gameview Studios created the hit app, Tap Fish. In his new book Startup Myths and Models he explains just how silly the fail fast, pivot quickly mantra is.
Originally a gaming company, the creators of the famous work app, Slack, pivoted quickly to become a corporate messaging app. Guitar Hero, however, didn’t have the same luck. The creators of Guitar Hero had to stick with their game concept for a decade before finally finding success. So which is it? Are we supposed to focus and persist, or fail fast and pivot quickly? Virk says… both.
Fail Slowly, Pivot Carefully
Virk explains the fail fast, pivot quickly idea can quickly turn into reckless behavior. While it’s true failure is fuel when handled properly, leaders should be careful “celebrating” failure, as some have suggested.
“Focus, explore, focus” is the proper balance Virk says great startups embrace. “Using the analogy of gold or oil, you may be digging in the wrong spot. You can keep digging but you’re not going to get it. You need to move to the left or right a little bit to see what’s there.” Sometimes leaders can achieve this by digging a “small hole” or a “little Skunkworks” project. Leaders can set strict testing parameters, define clear goals and timelines, therefore limiting failure, instead ensuring the team learns from the mistakes.
Virk has seen this work time and time again. He says the clue when to double down or expand the project is when the small project begins to eclipse the original project. That’s your signal that perhaps you’re onto something big and it might be time to pivot.
“Pivoting should be done using validation that you have gotten while you were trying to sell your first product into the first target market” explains Virk. In other words, don’t fail fast, pivot quickly. Instead, “fail slowly, pivot carefully” is the correct way to go about a startup that just isn’t working.