How to Escape from Pivot Limbo

August 24, 2014 , 8 Comments

Picture this: you’ve come up with an idea for a new product or service (or any kind of value based business) and you’ve decided you’ll create a minimum viable product so you can test your idea against the real world market as quickly as possible. Perhaps you create an information product, like I recommended in a previous post.

You’ve kept costs and time investment low, thus minimizing risk. So, the worst that could happen is that no one’s interested and you move on to the next thing, right?

According to one of our readers, there’s a far worse possible outcome: you could get stuck in Pivot Limbo… forever (que dramatic music). Read on to discover what Pivot Limbo is and how to escape…

Treading Water

When you release your minimum viable product, the ideal outcomes are that either your product is at least somewhat of a success and you grow a bit of an audience or it’s a complete failure. In the former case, you can start building a better product based on the feedback from your new audience. In the latter case, you move on to something new.

But what if you’re stuck somewhere in between? What if you make the occasional sale, but not enough to recoup your costs and not enough to really grow an audience? What if the project seems to show promise, but no matter what you do, you can’t get the ball rolling properly?

The worst thing that can happen is that you get stuck treading water on one and the same project for months or years to come, without it ever making a good return on your investment.

This situation is what I call Pivot Limbo.

[thrive_text_block color=’note’ headline=’Side Note: What is a “Pivot”?’]Pivot is a Lean Startup term, which refers to changing the direction your product development and marketing takes.

As an example, let’s say you’re selling a Thingamabob. In your initial research, you concluded that what people really want from a Thingamabob is for it to be fast, so that’s what you focus your development and marketing message on. But once you listen to how early customers talk about your product, you might see that what they really love about your Thingamabob is how pretty it is and they keep asking if you have a shiny version of it.

Based on this you pivot and start creating a shiny version of the product (Thingamabob 2.0) and change your message from “this is the fastest Thingamabob” to “this is the shiniest Thingamabob”.[/thrive_text_block]

The Escape Plan

Getting stuck in Pivot Limbo is a very real risk of starting a new company, but fear not: I’ve got a solid escape plan for you.

Ask yourself:


If you find yourself in Pivot Limbo, there are only 3 possible causes:

1) There Are Not Enough People in Your Target Market


Maybe you’ve niched down too far with your product idea or maybe your product idea is “too original” and as a result, the total number of people who could be interested in the product is simply too small to sustain a business. In this scenario, you might be seeing high conversion rates on your site, but you can’t get more than a small trickle of traffic.

Note that if you’ve done your market research right, this shouldn’t ever happen in the first place (learn more about market research in this post).

[thrive_text_block color=’light’ headline=”]How to confirm that this is the problem: look for other businesses in your niche. The best way to figure our whether a niche is viable or not is to see whether there are already established businesses around. If there are, you know for a fact that there’s commercial interest in the market. People are already spending money on this, so they could be spending it on your product.[/thrive_text_block]

[thrive_text_block color=’green’ headline=’The Solution’]If you can confirm that the total target audience is simply too small, the solution is simple: cut your losses and move on.

There’s no point in wasting your time on a product that simply doesn’t have a viable market. And don’t let anyone tell you that you’re supposed to “create your own market” and how that’s somehow superior to entering an existing market. I’ve never seen anyone talk about this who’s actually done it. It’s just an idea that sounds cool. So, forget about this project and move on to something better.[/thrive_text_block]

2) There Are Enough People, But You Aren’t Reaching Them


This is a more common scenario, in which you are in a market that could sustain your business, but no one knows about your product yet. In other words: your problem is hat you aren’t getting any traffic.

[thrive_text_block color=’light’ headline=”]How to confirm that this is the problem: if you’ve done your market research correctly, you should know exactly who your target audience is. If you know this and you can clearly see that they are buying products from your competitors, discussing things on forums and social media, visiting niche blogs and websites by the thousands etc. then you know that they could be visiting your site, too.[/thrive_text_block]

[thrive_text_block color=’green’ headline=’The Solution’]If this is the problem, immediately stop working on your website, your product and your offer. Before you get at least some traffic, none of those matter.

Remember that the goal is to test your idea against the market, so the very least you need is some traffic going to a landing page, where the conversion rate will give you a basic indication of whether people are interested in your product.

As for how to get the traffic: I recommend that you A) pay for it and/or B) find someone with reach in the space and collaborate with them.[/thrive_text_block]

3) You’re Reaching the Target Audience, But They Aren’t Converting


This is really the best of the three problems to have because if you have a decent amount of traffic, you can test different options and rapidly get feedback about what works and what doesn’t. The more traffic you get, the faster you can improve your offer.

[thrive_text_block color=’light’ headline=”]How to confirm that this is the problem: the main thing here is that you have to make sure you’re getting the right kind of traffic. A smaller amount of visitors who are in your target audience is far more valuable than a large amount of junk traffic.

Check your analytics to see your traffic sources and ensure that visitors are coming from the right kind of places (topically related sites, targeted ads etc.).[/thrive_text_block]

[thrive_text_block color=’green’ headline=’The Solution’]The solution to this problem lies in communicating with your visitors in some way, so you can start getting real insights into the market. Here are three suggestions for how to do so:

Lower the Barrier of Entry

If you are currently selling something, consider creating a free giveaway or lowering the price drastically. The main objective is not (yet) to make a profit, it’s to get the opportunity to talk to potential buyers. Lowering the barrier of entry generally increases the conversion rate.

Intercept Visitors Before They Leave

Use some tool for getting feedback such as one of these plugins, Olark, Qualaroo or countless others. You can use these tools to ask specific questions (“at this point, what is preventing you from making a purchase?”) or engage visitors in a conversation, even before any conversion is achieved.

Randomly Test Your Landing Page

Ideally, you want to create split-tests based on informed decisions. However, especially in the early stages, just randomly testing different ideas is also a valid method. Try changing the wording of you offer. Try emphasizing a different feature or different aspect. Try long vs. short landing pages. As mentioned before: the more traffic you’re getting, the faster your tests will yield results.[/thrive_text_block]

The basic idea of all this is to get to the “feedback loop” point of the lean startup process: if you’re selling something and no one’s buying, give something away for free instead and then send out a survey to your new mailing list. If you’re getting traffic but no one’s converting, start talking to your visitors before they convert.

Baby Love & Deadlines

To escape Pivot Limbo, you have to face the fact that the answer may be that you need to get out and start something new. Some projects fail. Indeed, many projects fail.

The problem is that your own idea and your own project tends to be your baby and you love it and want to protect it. It can be very difficult to admit that the whole idea is simply flawed and the best thing to do is to walk away from it.

Here are 3 remedies to apply to the baby love problem:

1) Raise Your Standards

You’re launching your minimum viable product in order to get market feedback and learn how to move on. You’re looking for the early product to either succeed or fail. In this, you must make sure that you have high enough standards for what you consider a success.

Look for a clear winner. Look for something that gets people truly excited and than gains momentum without it being a constant struggle. If you’re stuck in Pivot Limbo, that alone might be an indicator of the project being doomed to fail. Don’t settle for a project that is perpetually struggling and takes all your time and energy just to barely break even.

2) Set a Deadline

How do you know when a project whether a project is clearly failing or whether you just haven’t invested enough in it yet? After all, some failure is to be expected before success comes along and if you drop every project at the first sign of adversity, you’ll never achieve anything.

The solution is to set a deadline. Decide that you’ll give it your all and try whatever you can to make the project take off… but only for the next 90 days.

Set a clear goal that must be fulfilled before the deadline. For example: you need to have a mailing list of highly interested prospects and that list must be growing at the rate of at least 15 leads per day. If you achieve this, it can be considered a success and you’re starting to build the basis for a successful product.

Setting a deadline and a clear goal is the most effective way to avoid Pivot Limbo because the real issue with Pivot Limbo is that you perpetually feel like the project is “almost” succeeding and that the breakthrough might be just around the next corner.

3) Have Other Projects Ready

I’ve created many products and some of them would have been perfect candidates for getting me stuck in Pivot Limbo. Yes, that’s right: not every one of my products was a stellar success. But I never got stuck either, because I always had other projects to move on to.

This is the reason why my first recommendation above was to raise your standards. In fact, I’ve probably taken this a bit too far, but because I know I can very quickly produce an MVP of something new, I only pursue projects that do extremely well.

[thrive_text_block color=’light’ headline=’Example 1′]A few years ago, I released a product called Offer Countdown and got a handful of sales. There were several issues with the marketing message, the audience we marketed to and much more, plus since we did make some sales, the product showed promise. But we pretty much walked away from it, because we already had a new product ready. With just as little marketing effort, we sold several hundred copies of Ghost URL in just a few days, so that’s what we focused our efforts on instead.[/thrive_text_block]

[thrive_text_block color=’light’ headline=’Example 2′]Another software product called Webinar Connect (now no longer available) was a similar story: when we released the product, we only made a small number of sales. The product was good and conversions were great, as long as we got the right people to visit the page. However, our existing list of customers and subscribers turned out not to be the right audience.

We could have invested a few months into building up the right audience for the product, reached out to affiliates with better suited audiences and eventually made the product successful. Instead, we invested this time into working on our next product, which was far more successful.[/thrive_text_block]

What I hope you can take from these examples is that it’s not always about whether a product can be a success. It’s also about how much time and energy you have to invest into making it a success and whether you invest that time and energy more wisely.

That concludes my guide for getting your startup un-stuck. Special thanks to Howard for his comment on my post about how to start a software business.

[thrive_text_block color=’note’ headline=’Summary’]

Step 1: Identify the Problem

Where’s your target audience? Are you reaching them? Is your landing page converting?

Step 2: Attack the Problem

Work on getting more traffic or improving and testing your offer, depending on what the problem in your specific case is.

Step 3: Raise Your Standards and Set Deadlines

Don’t settle for products that get a lukewarm reaction from your target audience or cost all your time and nerves to get off the ground. Be willing to walk away if the project doesn’t show clear signs of success within 90 days.

Step 4: Practice Your Startup Muscle

Realize that market research, recognizing business opportunities, generating ideas and creating good minimum viable products are all learnable skills. You don’t have to get it right the first time, just keep practicing and you’ll continue improving your skills.[/thrive_text_block]

If you have any questions or thoughts you’d like to share, please leave a comment below!

Shane's Signature

About ​Shane Melaugh

I'm the founder of ActiveGrowth and Thrive Themes and over the last years, I've created and marketed a dozen different software, information and SaaS products. Apart from running my business, I spend most of my time reading, learning, developing skills and helping other people develop theirs. On ActiveGrowth, I want to help you become a better entrepreneur and product creator. Read more about my story here.

​Related Articles

  • “According to one of our readers, there’s a far worse possible outcome”

    Just out of curiousity, was I the one? I do recall making such an observation, because it’s happened to me more than once.

    The first time was offline. I started a computer store, back when computer stores where new and rare (in the 1980’s). It started off moderately successful, but then did poorer every subsequent month, as I tried to run it as a one-man shown, working 80 hours/wk. Of course, that wasn’t my only mistake. I did a post-mortem in which I counted ten mistakes, any one of which would have doomed the business. I called it quits after one year and a loss of $10,000.

    I think my usual mistake has been trying to do everything myself. That leads to dropping important details — and burnout. This time around, I am dabbling in some outsourcing.

    • Yes, that’s you. You’re credited with name and link at the end of the post. :)

      I had a similar business that dragged on for two years, by the way. So it’s a mistake I’m all too familiar with…

  • Hello Shane,

    What you describe is so much “me” ! I have a product I’d like to launch since one and a half year already … I’ve found many reasons/excuses to explain “why” I haven’t done it yet :-(
    Your post really speaks to me, and I’m scared to delegate things, beleive I would do it much better and faster myself, which turns out to be really wrong.

    So thanks for the highlight !


    btw, I love your drawings ! keep doing them :-) Which app did you use to draw them ?

    • Thank you for your comment, Magalie!

      I’m very happy to hear that my post connected with you like this. I now fully expect that you’ll come back with a comment and tell me that you’ve finally launched your product. Seriously, I’ll be waiting. Get it done and tell me how it went. :)

      I made the drawings in Photoshop.

  • You hit the nail on the head Shane ! Appreciate the suggested plugins to engage the visitor before they leave my website. I am gleaning some very useful information with your weekly updates !

  • from step 3 to Step 5 ? what is the step 4 shane :D

    Thanks for writing this awesome blog post

  • {"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}

    ​Develop the Ultimate Entrepreneurial Superpower: Productivity!

    ​Countless "wantrepreneurs" fail to achieve their business goals - not because of a lack of knowledge, but because of a lack of productive, effective implementation. Don't be one of them.