Fail Fast, Pivot Quickly Is Not A Good Strategy

I’ll admit it. I believed the whole fail fast, pivot quickly aphorism. I’ve heard founders say it, and I’ve seen examples of why failing fast and pivoting quickly worked out for the better. But I didn’t notice the major flaw in this thinking.

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.

And while it may be true the “fail fast, pivot quickly” model worked for companies like Slack, we have counterexamples like Guitar Hero that had to stick with it for 10 years to finally be succesful, explained Rizwan Virk, former CEO of Gameview Studios on The Justin Brady Show.

Rizwan Virk created Tap Fish. Downloaded over 50 million times.

Rizwan Virk, MIT
Rizwan Virk 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 and pivot quickly mantra is.

He points to Slack. Originally a gaming company, they pivoted quickly to become a corporate messaging app. Guitar Hero, however, didn’t have the same luck. They had to stick with it 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

Startup Myths and Models by Rizwan Virk
Buy Startup Myths and Models by Rizwan Virk

If the fail fast, pivot quickly idea is a bad strategy, what should we do?

“Focus, explore, focus” is the 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.” He says sometimes you do this by digging a small hole or a “little Skunkworks” project.

Virk has seen this wor time and time again. When the test project begins to eclipse the original project, that’s likely a signal 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.


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