Pivot or Persevere: The hardest part of being a founder


In this article, I am not only writing about Pivot or Persevere but also frustration, when to give up, and when to keep going. Plus, I’ll talk about what’s coming up in Slidebean.

I want to level with you guys. Most of the time, I'm telling you someone else's failure story or something we did right so that you can learn from it. Today, I'm not going to that. Instead, I want to talk about something that bothers me.

Most of the motivational content for entrepreneurs focuses on "not giving up." "The entrepreneurs that make it are the ones that don't give up on their dreams." I think that's a dangerous statement.

A "not giving up" mindset is dangerous because most startups fail. Most should fail, as a matter of fact. Failure teaches us about problems with our product or our thesis about the market.

Many, if not most, ideas will not be unicorns–that's just how it is. In fact, failing my first company taught me hard lessons that, in time, have saved Slidebean.

So, this mindset is primarily dangerous because we have to learn when to give up and realize that we're wrong. Then, sometimes, we have to choose whether to pivot or persevere.

What’s an Easy Pivot?

In essence, a startup is a thesis made up of three variables: Audience, Pain Point, and Product. (Other people call this Customer, Problem, or Solution Hypothesis- but it's essentially the same thing). You "assume" that this group of people have this problem and that the solution to that problem is that product. If you get all of those three correct, you have Product-Market Fit.

The word pivot is frequent in these early stages of the company. Here's an example. The guys from the Lean Validation Board tell you to come up with a group of assumptions, test them as fast as you can, and if one of your assumptions is wrong, you have to pivot.

The book Lean Startup (which is, by the way, an essential book for entrepreneurs) also touches on this. It 'says, "A startup's runway is the number of pivots it can still make."

When you start a company, build your first product, and hack with your co-founders, it’s a creative period with fast iterations. At this moment, pivoting is cool.

The first thesis

For example, at the early stage, our Problem Thesis was that making presentations was complex and inefficient. Our solution hypothesis was a user experience that would limit the user, protect them from their own temptation to overcrowd the slides, and give them perfect slides every single time.

It didn't work. We were wrong about the product: people felt limited. We were also wrong about the audience, "anyone who makes presentations" is not really willing to pay money for a product when they have so many free alternatives out there.

So, in retrospect, these pivots were fun and easy. We questioned our product and changed directions fast. Plus, the feedback loop happened regularly.

Then, we found ourselves in front of a different pivot. We were a company that had raised some money from investors, had 30 employees, and a product that makes a few million dollars a year but wasn't growing.

When the company gets bigger, things are very different. Pivoting isn't cool anymore; it's painful.

Hard Pivots

Some signs of problems with your hypotheses are very evident: low conversion, customer complaints, low NPS scores. Others take longer to surface, like churn. If you have a high-churn product, that's probably a sign that one of your assumptions is flawed.

Our presentation product struggled with churn since the get-go. For years, we have struggled with this; people who came paid for our product but left after only a few months.

We found a better product-market fit with startups: and the numbers agreed. Lower churn, better conversion- and that's why Slidebean went from 'presentation builder' to 'pitch-deck builder.' And that combination was good, except for a market problem.

If we think of TAM or the Total Addressable Market, - it's not that big. In a nutshell, TAM for our pitch deck builder is founders looking to raise venture capital who are not comfortable using PowerPoint, who don't have a graphic designer on the team- and that's just too small of a group.

Image for Pivot or Persevere: Caya sitting down, next to the letters TAM, and Total Addressable Market below

Tough decisions: to pivot or persevere?

This was probably the most challenging decision process we've been through at Slidebean. First, we had to accept that our pitch deck builder would not get us to where we wanted to be as a company.

For years. For years we kept pushing, adding new features, trying to outdo ourselves on the product, coming up with new marketing hacks and campaigns. Failing to see growth was very frustrating, but I think that deep down, we had understood for a while that we were a bit stuck.

The problem was that doing something about it meant "giving up" on the pitch deck product. It meant moving our engineers from working on this idea to something different, which is very dangerous from a motivation standpoint. So this company, this product they were hired for, is suddenly giving up on it and working on something else.

Trial and Error: the key to pivots

We started doing it with little experiments- experiments that didn't mean a huge time commitment from anyone but could give us ideas of other paths to follow.

We tested this product called advocado–which put our AI presentation engine to a different use. Following the Lean Startup approach, we made a little video to see how people would react, but nobody got too excited about it, so we scratched it.

We also made this platform called FounderHub–which was a kind of startup checklist/guide on the steps you have to follow if you want to raise capital. That was a 2-3 month development project that actually did decently well: we still have hundreds of monthly active users, but we just never found a way to monetize it.

In the end, our willingness to carve out resources from our pitch deck builder to build something new was us accepting that there was more potential on these other projects. That helped us cope with it a bit.

That's how we ended up on Youtube and then created this newsletter, by the way. Beyond the views and credibility, these channels motivated the rest of the team and me to believe in ourselves again and have the talent to build things.

It was only after two years of doing these little experiments that we were finally ready to let go, to accept that we needed a new focus as a company and to cope with it.

Pivot or Persevere: fit?

So we essentially 'paused' our builder to work on three new axes. First, our consulting branch, Agency. That part came from user demand, really. After seeing our videos on pitch decks and fundraising, founders wanted our help, not help from a SaaS product, but from us. Trust me, we tried pushing them to our builder, but they were looking for humans and designers.

We tested the waters and found a formula. Now we work with about 50 companies every month. Probably the sexiest story is UpKeep–these guys raised their Series B this year with a deck we wrote. The credit is theirs. We just wrote the story and made it look cool.

Second, it's what we are launching today. Our first, genuinely new product since we started Slidebean- it's called Recurring.

Our new product: Recurring

This product sprung from a problem we discovered ourselves as a startup. We weren't keeping good track of our stack, and we found no software for a company of our size. It's on ProductHunt today- so if you can spare 2 minutes, go and drop us a comment.

We've been secretly working on this for over a year. In the process, we've seen competitors spring out. They've made us question our value propositions: can we still beat them even though they were first to market.

This is a self-assessment process I think you should do every time. Every time a new competitor came out, we asked ourselves, do we pivot or persevere? Do we still have a better position on the market than this company?

For Recurring, after looking at all the competitors–we still believe we do. But, for our pitch deck builder, maybe not. We have some solid competitors now, with more funding, more connections, and perhaps it's time to pivot.

So the third axis, I can't really talk about (yet)- but it's where Slidebean is headed. No longer a pitch deck builder but a suite of tools and the rest of what's happening next year.

Finally, there's an important issue I want to discuss, and it's on failure.

Dealing with failure (CEO Conversations)

I've had a couple of very curious experiences in the last few weeks: I found myself in conversations with CEOs of startups much larger than Slidebean.

As I sit down with these fellow founders, the conversations have quickly evolved into very personal stuff. It's like, when you see another startup CEO in front of you, you can let down your guard, you can cut the bullshit. It's not about selling or pitching your company or fundraising, which is the mode we usually have to be in.

There is a bit of a facade we have to keep: it's the truth. Fake it 'till you make it, you know? You can't pitch your startup to investors saying that you are not sure about whether this experiment will work or not. You can't pitch saying you're tired.

Struggles are real

When your company is struggling, you can't really tell anyone, can you? So if you plan to make up your burn rate with revenue or raise more money, you have to continue selling your company either way- and it's very tiring.

So the person in front of you understands you. They know the struggle, and they've been through the same amount of all-nighters and stress. And it's pretty cool to be able to get into those conversations sometimes. So make sure you find fellow founders in your same role, and take time to have those conversations- we are sometimes desperate to have them.

Finally, learn to give up. Give yourself a deadline on anything you do, and if things haven't worked out by then, quit. Or pivot. Life is too short to be stuck on a company that's not what you want it to be.

It's painful. Depending on where you are in the world, failed startups in the past will boost or affect your reputation, but remember, what you learn from failure can absolutely be applied to anything you do in the future.

CEO at Slidebean/FounderHub. TEDx Speaker. 500 Startups Alum. 40-under-40.
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