Persevere or Pivot?

By Frank Brodie, Wharton MBA 2014; Co-Founder, Maculens

I’ve quickly discovered that an entrepreneurial endeavor that sounds sexy and successful when explained in 30 seconds over a beer can be far from it.  This past year I worked on a new startup, Maculens, which produces an optical coating that reduces discomfort and glare from oncoming headlights at nighttime. There’s a little science involved but it’s not rocket science, and the revenue model is a lot more straightforward than social-anything; we make product and then sell product.

In this process we received constant and conflicting advice from opticians, experienced retailers, industry experts, venture capitalists, angel investors, our professors, our friends — even my mother put her two cents in.

We would try out new ideas and quickly become encouraged or discouraged by early results. Even when a bold plan was outlined, the original planning was abandoned within a few meetings as new ideas populated our conversations and opportunities arose. Over the last nine months our product development has swung wildly from exploring licensing deals to market testing in doctors’ offices to creating a specialized sports product. Each member of our team could be influenced by different sources and those that spoke loudest could often drive the project in their preferred direction.

This is not to say that we’ve wasted time or that we haven’t made progress — Maculens has made incredible strides over the last year and we’re very excited about the year to come. However, I wonder if we were too easily swayed by our own machinations. The big question is: in the face of new data, how do you know when to persevere or when to pivot?

We are still deep in the midst of figuring out the answer for Maculens, but I have some new principles that I’m trying to keep in mind as we move forward:

1)   What’s the cost?

We don’t have unlimited time, energy or money. Each new meeting, pitch, test, prototype or design costs some of each. Before committing to something, we have an honest discussion of the costs involved and ask ourselves if this is the right way to go.

2)   What does success look like?

What will it mean if this project/test/idea/pitch works out? Does it bring us meaningful progress? Are there alternatives for getting there?

3)   Why are we pivoting?

Going for something new usually means turning away from something old. Why are we giving up on it? Do we have enough data to say that it’s not worth pursuing? Has it actually become irrelevant or are we just getting lazy/bored/antsy?

All these questions seem obvious when written out in black and white, but the answers can yield some real insight into the evolution of your business strategy. And they can be far from obvious in the excitement of the moment.

We owe our deepest gratitude to the Wharton community for their unwavering support and patience as we have presented them with these questions and quandaries.

 

Frank BrodieBio: Frank is a 5th year student in the MD/MBA program at the University of Pennsylvania. He founded Maculens along with another MBA student and two physicians. They recently won second place in the Wharton Business Plan Competition and are members of the Wharton Venture Initiation Program. This summer Frank received a Wharton Venture Award to focus on his startup full time.

3 comments on “Persevere or Pivot?

  1. Your experience is not unique, especially with the creative juices that flow through entrepreneurs. The answer is FOCUS. Your initial market “research” should have supported your initial hypothesis and it needs time to truly test in market. With limited resources in all its forms, you must choose and focus. As a serial entrepreneur and an advisor to over 20 early stage companies, I have watched the “wheel spinning” of new products, new channels, new whatever to find the quick path to the Holy Grail – and watched them burn through millions of dollars without ever having proven the market for anything. Entrepreneurship is a quest not a sprint – and a successful quest never loses focus.

  2. Frank, you have succeeded in a pithy way of posing one of the fundamental dilemmas of entrepreneurship. By not oversimplifying the dilemma, you have performed a service. Dan (“Worthless, Impossible and Stupid”)

  3. This isn’t really an examination of a “pivot” but of the challenge in developing a “license first” strategy. If your goal is to make your baby desirable to anyone and everyone, then of course you must alter its mission as per their (potential licensees) highest perceived value.

    A better strategy, but one that demands commitment, is to man the helm and steer this technology towards what you feel is its highest and best purpose. That is the challenge of entrepreneurs, to ignore casual opinion, to consider expert opinion for what it is, based on history(not the future), and go for it.

    Any technology that lacks an entrepreneur’s passion and vision to launch it into the market is an orphan, facing a steep path to success.

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