He started as a book salesman in the late 1880s. To entice people to buy his books, David H. McConnell gave away free perfume samples. Those proved so popular, he abandoned the books and founded the California Perfume Company in 1886. That company eventually changed its name to Avon in honor of Shakespeare’s hometown. Last year, Avon’s revenue was $1.6 billion.
That’s just one example of successful companies that were founded with one business model, then pivoted to a different business. They thought they were in one business, but the market led them to change their business, either by choice or because their potential for increasing market share vanished.
Twitter is an example of a forced pivot. It started as Odeo, a network for people to find podcasts. It was a bad day for Odeo when iTunes announced it would include a built-in platform for podcasts in every one of its iPods, pretty much obliterating their business overnight. So, the company got to work, hosting hackathons to come up with a new idea. The concept for a microblogging platform was hatched, and Twitter was created in 2006. It’s now worth over $10 billion.
One of my favorite pivot stories is about the American food company Wrigley. William Wrigley Jr’s father was a soap manufacturer, so as a teenager William became a soap salesman. To encourage shop owners to stock his soap on their shelves, William offered free gifts. Baking powder was the most popular, so he dropped selling the soap to focus on that. In 1892, as an incentive, he began offering two packages of free chewing gum with each can of baking powder. Once again, the giveaway was more popular than the actual product he was selling, and he moved to selling chewing gum. Wrigley sold to Mars in 2008 for $23 billion.
Did you know Nokia started as a paper mill in Finland in 1865? It moved to creating rubber goods and telecommunications devices, and a mobile phone in 1992. That year the company sold off all its other divisions to focus on mobile devices. Sadly, it failed to make a successful transition to the smartphone industry, and sold its devices and services division to Microsoft in 2013.
We associate the name Nintendo with Super Mario Bros, Game Boy and Wii. The company was founded in 1889 in Japan by Fusajiro Yamauchi to sell playing cards. Unsuccessful expansion attempts by his great-grandson in the 1960s included getting in the taxi business and “love hotels.” Then one of their engineers began developing electronic toys, which led to video game development, and its large market share of the mobile gaming space. While profits had been in decline, Nintendo seems to be on the upswing based on the potential of the value of its intellectual property.
In addition to knowing how to maximize profits for your company, knowing what business you are actually in allows you to expand and grow in the right direction.
When you aren’t clear what business you are in, efforts to innovate and expand can go astray. As Ty Montague writes in inc.com, “The lion’s share of innovation mistakes still come from companies funneling their efforts into extending the life of some existing platform, instead of spending time getting clear on what business they are really in and then constantly looking for opportunities to apply that definition to new technologies and new markets. Companies that do this will grow robust businesses that can be hard to describe in conventional terms.”
An example he gives is Tesla, which he says isn’t in the car business, but rather in the electric mobility business, so in addition to building cars, it builds infrastructure to support the mobility of electric vehicles.
Every business goes through a metamorphosis of product lines in response to marketplace pressure and technology, and a smart CEO needs to continue to monitor that so he can remain in business by moving forward.
Take a step back and think about your own business. What business are you really in?