Fail Fast, Pivot Quickly Is Not A Good Strategy

I’ll admit, for a while I believed the whole fail fast, pivot quickly aphorism. I’ve heard founders say it, and I’ve seen examples of why failing fast and pivoting quickly worked out for the better. But I didn’t notice the flaw in this thinking.

The idea behind the saying is that you can’t fully predict how a startup will develop, or how a market will receive it. You will fail or you will succeed, so failing fast allows you the time and money to pivot to something that works. It makes sense because history is littered with examples of great products that were just too soon, or not well received. Laserdisc and the Apple Newton come to mind.

While we have the whole “fail fast, pivot quickly” model that worked for companies like Slack, we have counterexamples like Guitary Hero that stuck with it for 10 years, explained Rizwan Virk, former CEO of Gameview Studios on The Justin Brady Show.

Rizwan Virk created Tap Fish. Downloaded 50 million times.

Rizwan Virk, MIT
Rizwan Virk at MIT

Rizwan Virk is a Stanford and MIT grad, and the Director of PlayLabs at MIT. He served as CEO when Gameview Studios created the hit app Tap Fish. His new book Startup Myths and Models just came out.

He told me Slack was originally a gaming company but pivoted quickly to become a corporate messaging app. Guitar Hero, however, didn’t have the same luck. They had to stick with it for a decade before finally finding success. So, are we supposed to focus and persist, or fail fast, pivot quickly? Virk says both.


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Fail Slowly, Pivot Carefully

Startup Myths and Models by Rizwan Virk
Buy Startup Myths and Models by Rizwan Virk

If fail fast, pivot quickly is a bad strategy, what’s a good one? “Focus, explore, focus” is the balance Virk says. “Using the analogy of gold or oil, you may be digging in the wrong spot. You can keep digging but you’re not going to get it. You need to move to the left or right a little bit to see what’s there.” He says sometimes you do this by digging a small hole or a “little Skunkworks” project.

Virk has seen this work. Sometimes the test project starts to eclipse the original project which is a signal to pivot. You should never just pivot from your first failure, you should use your first startup only as validation. “Pivoting should be done using validation that you have gotten while you were trying to sell your first product into the first target market” explains in his book.

In other words, don’t fail fast, pivot quickly. Instead, “fail slowly, pivot carefully” is the correct way to go about a startup that just isn’t working.


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