Writings by a younger, less handsome man who shares my name


The market isn’t listening to you and you don’t know why.

Your product will change lives. Your company will make investors rich. Your idea has to spread.

But no one cares.

You can tell because every sale is a struggle, investors won’t return your calls and your customers aren’t telling their friends about it.

So you have two options.

The first option is to think like Sisyphus and keep pushing the boulder uphill. The second is to think like gravity and use the hill to make the boulder roll faster.


Are you Sisyphus?

Sisyphus (pronounced “Sis-ih-fuss,” like this) is the mythological king who was condemned to push a boulder uphill for all eternity, only to have it roll back down.

Almost every startup starts out like Sisyphus. The problem is that most startups also end like Sisyphus, stuck in an infinite loop of toil and frustration.

How can you tell if you’re Sisyphus?

Because when you’re Sisyphus, it’s you versus the market. To win you have to do desperate things like buying advertising, tricking users into spamming their friends and making thousands of cold calls.

If you spend enough money and fight hard enough, you may be able to bully the market into submission. Bing advertised its way to a modest share of the search market. Plaxo spammed me until I tried it. A major nonprofit called me at dinner until they caught me at a weak moment.

The big guys can afford to bully the market. You probably can’t.

I know because I’ve tried this approach with startups like Anthillz and TicketLeap and projects like the Gigabit Genius Grant. I’ve seen the story repeated dozens of times in Philly Startup Leaders companies.

There’s no glory in winning this way and it’s a miserable way to lose. Fortunately there’s another way.

Starting a business shouldn’t be so hard

It’s a lie to tell entrepreneurs that starting a business should be hard. The lie goes something like this:

  • Sales is hard, so when your prospects waiver, you should keep calling.
  • Raising money is hard, so when investors blow you off, you should do whatever it takes to track them down and deliver your pitch.
  • Generating traffic is hard, so when users sign up, you should ask for access to their email contacts so you can spam their friends.

The truth is that startups are only hard when you’re wrong about the market.

Here’s what I mean:

  • Sales isn’t hard when your prospects love what you’re selling.
  • Raising money isn’t hard when investors meet prospects that love what you’re selling.
  • Generating traffic isn’t hard when your prospects can’t wait to tell their friends about you, blog about you and rave about you to the press.

In short, running a startup isn’t hard when people love what you’re selling.

Gravity makes things easy

Love works like gravity, it pulls the boulder towards you. Gravity turns the hill into an advantage.

People immediately knew they loved Hot or Not, Chatroulette and Mint and spread them like wildfire. People came to love PayPal and Flickr once those startups pivoted from their original business plans.

Paypal began as a way to transfer money between handheld devices before those devices were mainstream. Flickr began as a multiplayer online game that was much less compelling than the ability to share photos with others in the game.

PayPal and Flickr were wrong about their markets at first. When they got it right, their users loved them and gravity started working in their favor.

Gravity works the same way with causes. Philly Startup Leaders snowballed because startup entrepreneurs love being around each other and couldn’t help but talk about. I think the same will be true of the missioneurs movement once we find our voice.

Startups with gravity have the potential to grow like a powder keg where startups without it are condemned to grow like a movement–and that’s if they grow at all.

How to find your gravity – Secret #1

The first secret to finding your gravity is knowing what gravity feels like.

When you feel yourself pushing a boulder uphill, you’re feeling gravity working against you. It’s not the inevitable struggle of a startup entrepreneur. It’s a fundamental problem with your startup.

Chances are you are solving the wrong problem for the wrong people. You may be presenting your product in the wrong way, but usually early adopters can get through presentation problems and find what there is to love about your product.

When gravity is working with you, you can tell. Early users rave about your product and send you new users who then send you more new users. Investors seek you out because you’re getting traction and people are talking about you. Bloggers profile you because they want to capitalize on your buzz.

Maybe you think your startup is different and can’t work like this. In fact, the opposite is true. It’s almost impossible to make a startup work any other way.

How to find your gravity – Secret #2

The second secret to finding your gravity is pivoting as soon as gravity is not on your side.

If gravity is not working for you, your first pivot should be to expose your product to new markets. Someone out there might love your product–you just picked the wrong audience.

You can run quick trials in new markets using hand-to-hand sales and marketing. Gravity will tell you when you get it right.

If gravity still isn’t helping and you aren’t finding passionate customers in any of your markets, it’s time to make your second pivot—a product pivot. A product pivot is when you fundamentally change your product to solve a different problem.

Product pivots are really hard to get right and require trial and error. The best systematic approach I’ve found to choosing your product pivots is the Lean Startup Methodology, pioneered by Eric Ries and Steve Blank.

You’re only going to have time and money for a few product pivots before you die. So the goal here is to choose wisely and pivot quickly.

The bottom line

It’s hard to make the right choices with product pivots. Even the best startup entrepreneurs are wrong more often than they are right, and sometimes they sink their startups in the process.

It’s just part of the game.

What’s tragic is when startups die because they don’t know when to pivot. It’s tragic because it’s more common and totally avoidable.

If you’re struggling to sell, it’s time to pivot. If your users aren’t telling their friends about you, it’s time to pivot. If the press doesn’t want to write about you, it’s time to pivot.

The bottom line is this: Your life as a startup entrepreneur shouldn’t suck. If it does, that should tell you something.

Gravity speaks loudly. Listen to it.

  • http://www.weareallbornentrepreneurs.com Steven Welch

    Well written and true.

    My first company Mitos made a valve. The first prototype stunk and did not address a real need in the market, and our first potential customers told us so. That same customer was also interested in working with us to make minor changes to meet their needs. This showed us that the customer had a real pain point. When we got it right this customer (Amgen) and its engineers became our biggest fans and PR machine. They became our gravity.

    Other products we launched we could not find a customer that really wanted to work with us to do Beta testing. This was always a red flag that the pain point was not great enough.

  • http://twitter.com/anthonypisapia Anthony Pisapia

    Blake,

    Nice post. This all rings very true.

    Something I've personally experienced: the more passionate you are about an idea, the harder it is to listen to “gravity”.

    Startups are equal parts passion and discipline. Passion can get in the way of discipline and strict adherance to discipline is the reason more people aren't entrepreneurs. Both can derail you. I find (as impossible as it sounds) it's best to keep both in check. Your secrets, and the Lean Startup Methodology, go a long way toward doing that. Good stuff.

  • http://www.blakejennelle.com Blake Jennelle

    These two examples are very helpful. Sounds like you tuned in to the enthusiasm or lack-of and adjusted right away. I wonder if we'd be going to far to say that if you can't find a few beta customers not just willing to work with you but thrilled to do so, then that's a major red flag.

  • http://www.blakejennelle.com Blake Jennelle

    I really like the passion/discipline spectrum you lay out. With the blind passion, I wonder if there's a feast/famine element to it too. It could be that startup entrepreneurs cling to their hopes because they don't feel confident that they can find a better idea.

  • http://www.edcallahan.info Ed Callahan

    Great post Blake. Sisyphus and gravity. Also, as Anthony said earlier, – passion vs discipline. Start-ups would do well to implement a framework to run their business which causes them to state definitively what their core focus so it can act as a filter when they waver. But they shouldn't fight gravity! You are so right. If you are not solving an URGENT business problem, pivot. Go with the flow and stay disciplined! Measure everything and fail quickly. Again, great post.

  • http://twitter.com/edcallahan Ed Callahan

    Great post Blake. Sisyphus and gravity. Also, as Anthony said earlier, – passion vs discipline. Start-ups would do well to implement a framework to run their business which causes them to state definitively what their core focus so it can act as a filter when they waver. But they shouldn't fight gravity! You are so right. If you are not solving an URGENT business problem, pivot. Go with the flow and stay disciplined! Measure everything and fail quickly. Again, great post.

  • http://www.ecquire.com Tal Raviv

    I'm glad you pointed out that the first step isn't to question the product, but question the market choice. I've definitely dedicated many days to pretending like my company had a totally different business plan, just to see how that would go.

    Another exercise I think is incredibly useful (in the case of web startups especially) is literally calling customers/users up for a chat. I'm always astounded at how willing people are to giving feedback and happy to take 20 minutes out of their day to help me. It's also helped me realize most of my assumptions about signups, marketing, and churn are completely backwards.

  • http://www.ecquire.com Tal Raviv

    I'm glad you pointed out that the first step isn't to question the product, but question the market choice. I've definitely dedicated many days to pretending like my company had a totally different business plan, just to see how that would go.

    Another exercise I think is incredibly useful (in the case of web startups especially) is literally calling customers/users up for a chat. I'm always astounded at how willing people are to giving feedback and happy to take 20 minutes out of their day to help me. It's also helped me realize most of my assumptions about signups, marketing, and churn are completely backwards.

  • http://www.robertshedd.com Robert Shedd

    Love this post, Blake! I think this is great advice for how to figure out when it's time to pivot.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Justin-Goldman/9339850 Justin Goldman

    Blake, I really enjoyed this post. It's really all about the strength of your value proposition. I related to this post from a different angle though. My first company (LionMenus.com and 17 other sites) had a strong value proposition when we started and thus we had gravity on our side. But as time went on our value proposition began to weaken and we didn't see it as we were focused on repeating what we had done over and over again. Suddenly we found ourselves (5 years later) pushing a boulder for the first time and that's when we needed to reinvent ourselves (which is just essentially the same as a pivot for a later stage company).

  • http://www.blakejennelle.com Blake Jennelle

    You're totally speaking my language Ed when you talk about core focus. This is at the heart of http://www.missioneurs.com — the idea that mission is the reason the business exists and that mission acts as a trusty guide in challenging times.

  • http://www.blakejennelle.com Blake Jennelle

    I've always thought that startups could learn a lot from your eagerness to talk to you customers Tal. Many startups seem scared to do it. To me, an entrepreneur who doesn't like talking to customers is like a pediatrician who doesn't like talking to kids.

  • http://www.blakejennelle.com Blake Jennelle

    Thanks Robert. You're recent pivot is a great example of listening to gravity and seeking it out.

  • http://www.blakejennelle.com Blake Jennelle

    That's interesting Justin. I hadn't thought about when markets and your gravity shift away from you over time. Odd as it might sound, I had a similar experience towards the end of my pro poker career. The game was changing and collusion was taking over, and I was slow to notice it and adapt. You forget that the market is a moving target and that you can lose it as easily as you can find it.

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  • http://aymeric.gaurat.net Aymeric

    Funny how we used different metaphors to describe the same concept. You call it gravity, I call it the flow.
    If you feel you are going counter current, you must rethink about what you are doing:

    The blog post I wrote about the topic: The Kayakist Entrepreneur

  • http://www.blakejennelle.com Blake Jennelle

    Love your post, we're totally on the same page. Thanks for sharing with me and the folks reading this blog.

  • Dan Copeland

    Entertainers can pivot as well, when they can't connect with an audience in one country. A friend of mine represents a recording artist, and when she found little success in the US, he pivoted her to Europe, where she now enjoys great success. After a while, you'll know the value of an asset, or portfolios, and where they'll be received well.

  • http://cera.us cera

    Just saw this video by Derek Sivers, and it made me think of this post: http://youtu.be/mBlJVazr4A0

  • http://www.blakejennelle.com Blake Jennelle

    This video is right on, thanks for posting Chris. Sivers has another similar concept of “Hell yeah or no” that I think about a lot: http://sivers.org/hellyeah

  • http://cera.us cera

    HELL YEAH!  Awesome article.  Thanks for sharing!