There’s a lot of talk about pivoting these days. A little too much talk, in my estimation.
A “pivot” happens when a company or brand changes some aspect of its core business idea.
To be sure, there have been some notably successful pivots: Netflix, Starbucks, even Wrigley. (Originally a manufacturer not of gum, but of soap and baking powder.)
The media loves a pivot. This is in part because of survivorship bias, and in part because the hook is built right in: “Brand makes bold move and wins big!”
You hear less about brands that pivot and fail, unless they’re high-profile. Some brands pivot and then straight-up die, like Oldsmobile, whose late-stage stabs at hipster posturing were a little embarrassing. And once Olds is dead and gone, there’s not much media value in writing about it more than once.
Because the winning pivots are overweighted, and the losing pivots are less visible, we may be inclined to think that pivoting is always a shrewd move. As both a brand strategist and a freelancing coach, my advice to you is: Think long and hard before you pivot.
Pivoting Pitfall #1: The Wrong Solution to a Problem
There’s a foundational question of strategy that is too often overlooked:
What is the problem we are trying to solve?
A pivot is a major undertaking. Pivots change everything: Your offering, your strategies, your target, your messaging. You have to convince the market that you used to stand for X, and now you stand for a rather different Y. In practice, that’s difficult to do.
For pivoting to be the right strategy, it needs to not only solve a major problem, but also be the best possible solution to that problem.
In freelancing, the most common major problem is “I can’t find enough of the clients I want.”
There are two primary causes of this problem:
- Insufficient demand for your services
- Insufficient marketing of your services
Cause #1 is actually fairly rare. We can (and should) add a fresh twist to our services, but in most cases, the demand for such services has been established.
Our ability to harness that demand is usually the larger issue.
In some ways, we freelancers are not unlike plumbers. We don’t need to reinvent the plumbing industry; we just need to consistently (a) do excellent plumbing and (b) remind people who need plumbing that we’re a terrific choice.
If you’re in that rare situation in which demand for your services is the underlying issue, a pivot may be in order.
But if you have a marketing problem, pivoting is like building a new boat when you could have just changed course.
Pivoting Pitfall #2: Pivoting Too Often
There’s another downside to pivoting: Do it too often, and you’ll permanently burn trust.
I’ve known a few “serial pivoters” – the kind of people who, in a span of two years, have been a realtor AND a life coach AND a yoga teacher AND a travel blogger.
They don’t build expertise and they don’t stick with anything long enough to see the results. And it’s tough to do business with someone if you’re not sure they’ll be around in a year.
You can’t build authority by hopping to a new lily pad every three months.
Your Default Mode: Don’t Pivot – Persevere
If you hit a stumbling block, pivoting shouldn’t be your first choice. As we’ve established, it may be more of an undertaking than your challenge requires.
Allow me to suggest a thoroughly unsexy but remarkably effective alternative:
Good old steady consistency. Dogged incremental progress.
Think of perseverance on two fronts: The quality of your work, and the quality of the marketing that brings you more work.
The quality of your work is not so much about broadening your services – though that’s an option – as it is about deepening them.
When you go deep in one area, you tend to get pretty good at it. You’ll signal expertise because you are, in fact, an expert.
The quality of your marketing is, first and foremost, about recognizing that marketing is one of your primary tasks. While most of us – myself included – went indie because we love to do the work, we can’t do the work if we don’t have clients to do it for. And our marketing can always get better.
So ask yourself:
- What’s worked well, and how can I double down on that?
- What’s worked less well, and what would happen if I cut that out entirely?
- What’s a new marketing experiment I could add to my menu?
Stay the course, and your prospects will take you more seriously. You’ll outlast the serial pivoters, and that alone will be a source of competitive advantage.
Who would you rather hire: The plumber who has replaced a single leaky faucet, or the plumber who’s been at it for years and was recommended by a friend of yours? Clients evaluate you along the same lines.
It will take the market some time to trust that you’re serious about what you do. So stay the course. Show up consistently. Get a little better every day. Keep improving your services and the marketing of your services.
If in doubt, don’t pivot. Persevere.
Your time is valuable, and I hope I’ve rewarded it. If so, your shares are greatly appreciated, as I try to spread the gospel to as many freelancers as possible.
I have a limited number of slots available for 1-1 coaching. I’m not some guy who’s been freelancing for a minute – I’ve been doing it since 1997, with brands you’ve actually heard of. Click here to find out more about how my customized coaching can help you level up.
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