Lean’s Great Dilemma: Persist or Pivot

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.

1 Comment Lean’s Great Dilemma: Persist or Pivot

  1. jonathanjaeger December 19, 2012 at 12:36 pm

    I’m in the process of reading The Lean Startup book and just finished the part about Votizen/2gov — really interesting to see the iterations of the product and the numbers behind it. One great insight was that your runway is not how much cash you have in the bank because if you cut expenses to the point you’re slowing down your learning process, you’re only delaying the death of your startup. Rather, you should focus on runway in terms of how many pivots can you do until you find your product and market that will turn into a sustainable business.

    The key, in my opinion, is to find the industry and niche that you love to work on so whether you succeed or fail you still had a great time doing it. When to give up and move on to a new idea should be a gut instinct mixed with your current life circumstances and interest in your product. But at the end of the day, you can’t be stubborn when looking at the data, and you have to know how many more changes in your product you can endure personally (or as a team).

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