MOO In The Financial Times

A pivotal moment in the life of a start-up

By Jonathan Moules (link to full article on ft.com)

When Alicia Navarro set up her company four years ago, she believed she had a great business plan.

Navarro had noted that people often have better experiences when they make group decisions about key activities, such as planning a holiday or buying a sofa. So she set up a social decision-making website.

But the business, Skimlinks, was not quite right. The technology was being built by a team of developers in Romania, while Navarro was based in Sydney, Australia – trying to nurture the start-up at the same time as holding down a full-time job.

Rather than give in and try a completely new business, however, Navarro went about altering some of the elements of her original idea. This process is described in the US as “pivoting”, derived from the way basketball players move around the court.

Mark Suster, general partner at Los Angeles-based venture capital firm GRP Partners, says that the ability to pivot is one of the key characteristics of a successful entrepreneur.

“Every entrepreneur starts with an idea that they believe makes sense,” he says. “But then your customers start using your products, your competitors come out with new offerings and your partners decide to launch a similar product rather than working with you. You’re forced to pivot on a regular basis.”

He notes that almost all software start-ups in Silicon Valley now build their businesses on this basis. Google and PayPal, two of the Valley’s biggest recent success stories, both pivoted, Suster notes.

“Minimum viable product is the mantra of the Valley. Rather than launching a bloated product that the market does not want, you look and learn.”

Often, he says, the market does not know what it wants. This makes it all the more important to get something out there, then refine it using feedback from customers and focus groups.

Navarro made multiple pivots with her business. First, she relocated from Sydney to London’s Shoreditch district to be close to the internet business cluster, which is locally nicknamed the Silicon Roundabout.

She then marketed her business as a white label service to online publishers who wanted the service on their website.

Navarro won customers, got friends to invest and secured a bank loan, allowing her to employ four people. But it was still a fairly hand-to-mouth existence.

“Every month, it was a nightmare working out how I would do payroll, but I always found a way, and kept it going,” she says.

But the global recession hit, and Navarro found herself facing the prospect of bankruptcy. It was then that she made what she has since realised was her smartest pivot to date.

“As I was pitching my company to potential clients and investors, it struck me that what everyone was interested in wasn’t my fabulous website, but this techie back-end solution.”

She made her pivot at 10pm one Friday night, when she cold-called a large electronics forum website and offered them her technology. They said yes, and Navarro promised to get something to them within a fortnight. It meant changing a model that Navarro and her team had worked on for two years, but they were all won over.

“Over the next two weeks, I went out and sold the concept to some huge UK content networks and my team converted what we had built into something other publishers could use,” Navarro explains.

A month after relaunching the business, in December 2008, Navarro had an agreement with an equity investor. A year later, the business was breaking even and serving over 500,000 websites worldwide, working with 8,000 retailers as well as winning dozens of awards for innovation.

The business is, in many ways, entirely different from the original plan, but Navarro believes pivoting made the difference between success and failure.

“That late-night decision to pivot is what saved us,” she says.

Another successful pivoter is Richard Moross, founder of Moo.com. The business started life in 2004 as a social networking website, with the twist that users could send their details to one another on real business cards.

“It was basically Facebook with cards,” Moross says. However, Moo was not taking off in the way Moross had originally intended. “People loved the little cards, but they didn’t want to join another social network.”

The first pivot – although Moross describes it as “more of a pirouette” – was to drop the social networking site entirely.

Instead, Moo started working with established social networks, such as Flickr, the picture website, giving users the ability to put downloaded images onto paper business cards.

Moross’s other pivot was to extend Moo’s portfolio of cards beyond its original mini-cards to more conventional shapes.

Not all these ideas worked, such as folded notecards, necessitating another pivot back to the core business proposition.

Pivoting is all very well, but a good entrepreneur focuses on what he or she is good at. In Moo’s case, Moross notes that he could have gone for the consumer market by selling lots of different greetings cards, but pulled back from this because it would have required a very different business model.

“I guess we have learnt a lot about what works and what doesn’t work,” Moross says. “When I started out, I was very stubborn. I had something I wanted to do and I wanted to do it my way. I am still stubborn on some things but I am also very flexible on what customers want.”

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Batteries not included: Why business cards still matter in the 21st century

Article written by me for Xerox’s Digital Printing Hotspot Blog.

Having just returned from the ‘South By South West Interactive’ (SXSWi) conference in Austin, Texas, I was struck by the volume of press that followed on the topic of digital business cards and the threat of a world without print. “The business card is dead!”, their articles exclaimed. But, whilst the journalists seemed excited by the idea of this digital future, the reality amongst conference attendees couldn’t have been more different.

SXSWi is one of the largest technology conferences on the planet, bringing 10,000 internet geeks together from around the world to hang out, eat great BBQ and talk tech. It’s a mecca for technology professionals, and as a result you’d expect it to be all about rejecting analogue and embracing digital. However, in this, my 4th year at the conference, I’ve never seen so many amazing business cards and amongst them, not one digital business card exchange: zero, zilch, zip.

It seems the rumors of their demise have been greatly exaggerated: even amongst the world’s earliest of early adopters, business cards are very much alive, and kicking!

As a forward-thinking online print company moo.com has spent a lot of time rethinking and reinventing the humble, 300 year old, business card. We’ve driven innovation in print technology and design and have set new standards in product quality and community marketing. Whilst many push the limits of print to drive down costs, increase automation and sell ever-increasing quantities at low, low prices, we see things a little differently.

For print to survive this digital revolution we have to stop competing with ones and zeros, stop trying to match the cost and distribution dynamics of digital and get back to our roots: bold, beautiful, high quality print: premium and proud. It seems to be working for MOO: almost 50% of the cards I was given at SXSWi were printed by us. This audience of technophiles represent the future, the cutting edge of society. So what can we, the print industry, learn from them about how the world is changing and seek out new and lucrative opportunities?

Well first, we have to admit that the world is changing. We’re all living increasingly virtual lives, spending almost all of our days in front of our computer screens: talking on Skype, listening to music on Last.fm and sharing links with friends on Twitter. Our social and professional lives are now playing out over the web, where our profiles are rich and dynamic. We’ve created these vibrant virtual identities on the internet, but what about the real world? With this virtual migration you would think that the opportunity for print would be diminishing, I couldn’t disagree more.

With all this online interaction, when the opportunity arises to meet people in the real world: more than ever before we need to make an impression, and nothing impresses more than great print design. However, to keep favor, print needs to meet the needs of this new generation: digital has set a standard of dynamic, high quality, custom design with the likes of WordPress and MySpace. As leaders of the print industry we need to focus our efforts on creating exciting new, customized print products, that compliment our virtual lives and work in harmony with the web. The big opportunity for print is here, and it’s best friends with the web.

SXSWi is the perfect metaphor for the physical/virtual opportunity. Why do all these self-confessed geeks fly half-way round the world to meet up? Why don’t they just do the conference in Second Life or on Cisco’s amazing TelePresence technology? Why? Because despite incredible advances in technology we’re all still human beings. We like to meet people face to face, shake their hand and chat over a beer. In business, as in life, you only get one chance to make a first impression and the real world is still where it’s at.

A digital business card is just data, it lacks any personality; whereas a well-designed, physical business card speaks volumes about the owner: it’s design, color, paper, size, shape, fonts and other flourishes make everyone different from the last. Business cards make a lasting, memorable impression in a way that no digital product could ever match. In a tough economy, where small businesses need to stand out, and where every new business relationship matters, just like for the attendees of SXSWi, the world needs great print. Let’s give it to them.