Lean’s Great Dilemma: Persist or Pivot

Giff Constable lean, startups

The Lean Startup Conference finished with a discussion between Marc Andreessen and Eric Ries. Two points rose to the fore: “lean is not an excuse to avoid sales and marketing” (side note: agree, but lean helps you decide when to scale up those efforts); and “persistence is still really important.”

The last point is the great dilemma of lean. When do you pivot or quit, and when do you persevere?

There is no firm answer. I doubt there will ever be one. This isn’t color by numbers.

Entrepreneurs need incredible fortitude, resilience, and persistence, because success does not comes easy. Even the seemingly “instant hits” are very hard to build.


It is easy to applaud deep persistence as a venture capitalist, when you have the luxury of a portfolio and cash in the bank.

Entrepreneurs do not have a portfolio, so the question is one of degree and limit. This is something every entrepreneur has to decide on her own.

In the face of adversity:
– How passionate are you about the vision?
– How much do you still believe? (in the problem, the solution, the model, the team, etc)
– How much sacrifice are you willing to take on?
– How much sacrifice (and breakage) are you willing to take in your personal life and those around you?

When you look around the startup world, you see many businesses whose current manifestation will never turn into a viable business. Should those entrepreneurs waste years of their life chasing that dream down a rabbit hole? That would be a travesty.

My recommendations:
Be persistent about the big things (vision), not the little things.

Don’t apply another startup’s trajectory to your own. Stay in your context and your reality. (related: don’t ever believe press articles about a startup’s “life history”)

Don’t give up easily, but look for clear signs that things are working. Look for non-incremental progress. Persisting with a flatlined startup, waiting for a lucky break, is like playing the lottery. There are winners at that game, but the odds truly suck.

I believe that it takes most startups 2 full years to truly find their legs, and 5 years to build themselves to a position of strength. Entrepreneurship is not a game of overnight wins, even though there are the very occasional outliers.

Deciding to pivot, or shut down, is brutally painful and comes with a multi-month hangover. But life is short. Spend it on things that matter to you.