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Companies that had successful pivots (github.com/fikrikarim)
362 points by karimf 5 days ago | flag | hide | past | favorite | 221 comments

My favorite part of the Nintendo story is that back when it was a playing card company, the heir to the family business took a trip to America that included a meeting at the largest card company in the world.

He had expected it to have a luxurious, palatial campus… but its entire headquarters turned out to be like the fourth floor of a single building in a generic office park. He was like, “This is the absolute pinnacle I can ever hope for if I succeed beyond my wildest dreams running the playing-card company. I need a new idea.”

You can read all about it in an outstanding book called I Am Error that, beyond extensive interviews with the historic key players, also takes an incredibly deep dive into the technical details.

I also enjoyed all the failed endeavors they tried such as rice, love hotels, a taxi service, and several others. They were truly just throwing things at the wall for a while.




Woah. I hadn’t heard of the foray into love hotels! That’s pretty wild.

Now their headquarters are 7 floors in a generic office park building! The new strategy turned out to be successful I guess :)


I worked on the design of their US HQ in Redmond. Despite anything the architect could dream up, they like the metaphor of the cube...

Wait, "seven floors of an office park building" are all seven floors of this depicted building, lol...

That is a new building, which is 200 meters away from the main one:



I took a walk around there in late 2013, and I was surprised that for such a big company, the buildings are rather unimpressive, and they are located in an otherwise normal neighbourhood, surrounded by... houses (I expected them to be located in an business district).

TBH that is most of silicon valley too. Look at google's or microsoft's campuses

There are basically no houses next to GOOG and MSFT. There's the big 101 highway and the other side is the Bay. South of it is Moffatt, north the nature preserve and then more companies and Palo Alto airport etc.

They aren't the top gaming company though. Tencent has some pretty big offices. Point is that they didn't want to be in a market where the top is that low, then you have to be the best to get a decent size, in computer gaming you can be one of many and still be much bigger.


In fairness, they're probably the best vertically integrated family friendly electronic gaming company, and so long as they don't goof in that specific vertical, they've probably got a lock on it for a while.

At least until Disney truly decides to venture into hardware.

Is Tencent really a gaming company? I suspect the revenue they get from all of their gaming ventures combined would be a drop in the ocean compared to WeChat.

Close to half their revenue comes from games, so yes. Gaming is huge. They do a lot of things, but games is still their core business.



How about The Pokemon Company's headquarters: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Pok%C3%A9mon_Company#/medi... (fyi they don't take up the whole building).

That actually is a playing card company.

Nintendo is still, at its core, a playing card company.

Having family friends as a kid who went to Japan on occasion, I ended up with many Nintendo-made trump card decks that featured, among other things, Mario, Pokemon, and at one point, a JAL-branded one while growing up.

I don't know if the current Club Nintendo trump decks are made by them, but I can tell you that if you run into a Nintendo-branded Hanafuda set, it's probably legit.

The Wizards of the Coast are quite a big company too.

Wizard of the coast is mostly a publishing company. I think the playing cards came later.

Actually they originally hit it big with Magic the Gathering. They bought D&D and the rest much later.

I'm pretty sure Magic the Gathering is still the largest moneymaker for them even now.

Yeah Magic the Gathering is precisely the playing card moneymaker that would have fit Nintendo's aspirations.

They bought TSR, who made D&D

> Netflix had considered offering movies online, but there were speeds and bandwidth problem in mid-2000.

One of the more interesting things I learned from the (outstanding) documentary "Enron - The Smartest Guys in The Room" [0] was that Enron planned an online movie streaming service together with Blockbuster in the late 90ies (to start in 2000), but failed for the same reasons.

> Enron would store the entertainment and encode and stream the entertainment over its global broadband network. Pilot projects in Portland, Seattle and Salt Lake City were created to stream movies to a few dozen apartments from servers set up in the basement. Based on these pilot projects, Enron went ahead and recognized estimated profits of more than $110 million from the Blockbuster deal, even though there were serious questions about technical viability and market demand [1]

But of course Enron "pivoted" to outright fraud some years before that.

[0] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rDyMz1V-GSg

[1] https://pubs.aeaweb.org/doi/pdfplus/10.1257/0895330037658884...

Even after doing multiple assignments on Enron and going through multiple lectures about it, I am still not hundred percent sure what Enron's business was. The most easy to grasp description of their main activity was they were into energy based commodities trading. Yet they had their sticky finger in every industry.

It was such a massive complicatedly diversified company, I think it is reasonable to say if it wasn't whistleblowers we wouldn't have never realized what went wrong.

The natural gas pipeline industry had it's regulations changed around '85 that made it so pipeline operators had to let anyone use their pipes. This meant Enron didn't have to actually own pipes. They could just buy and sell natural gas from the wellhead to the refinery. They made a lot of money doing this. They then tried to copy that to anything else that can conceivably move over a fixed, expensive infrastructure like electrical power lines, broadband lines, water pipes etc. They wanted to be in heavy industry with an "asset lite" model.

The Enron physical pipeline business still exists as Kinder Morgan as Enron sold it off because they didn't want to deal with the physical infrastructure anymore.

Everything else was just financial engineering.

Dealmaking. It was hedge fund run by M&A fanatics.

Enron, Lehman Brothers and similar companies would have easily thrived in the 2020s.

Up until 2015, there was really a true cost of capital. Investors wanted to see real products, real cashflow, else you head straight to bankruptcy.

2015+ changed a lot of things. You can fraud / lie / deceive your way to success if you form a cult around it. Trump, Nikola, NFTs, Crypto, Hertz, Gamestop, AMC, Blackberry, Tilray, Sundial have all shown you can astroturf, gaslight, propagandize a subset of population to fund your fantasies in a world awash with capital and very few assets to invest.

# Rant

It all started with Tesla. Everyone thought Tesla was a load of BS. But post 2018 the sentiment became Tesla will keep growing until the last short investor held their breath.

Tesla showed that classical economic value means squat when ultimately market sentiment determines the price of an asset. I with hundred of people created bots to track the CEO twitter feed to determine a stock price. And it worked to some extent. Head down to dogecoin subreddit, and you will see everyone there is praying and hoping a car manufacturing company CEO shitpost about their coin which might trigger another spike. And this time they will sell for sure. If you are in your 30s you would remember Facebook games like Barn Buddy or Farmvile. The fucked up thing is that now you have similar games where you harvest NFT game characters which are supposedly worth thousands and millions of dollar equivalent money.

I sat through the GME senate hearing and politician interviews. Even a US senate member acknowledged that what makes Tesla's valuation fair but Gamestop's valuation unfair? Based on the accounting numbers they are exactly the same thing. GME has its own meme leader a, a guy who sold his dog toys business to amazon for a billion dollar. I remember people talking up patent, innovation and charismatic leadership of Tesla. I see the same passion in GME people when they talk about GME and some they were NFT deals.

Rant over.

Hertz feels weird to me as an example for two reasons:

1. The company wasn’t really leaning into the thing where they became a meme stock when they filed for bankruptcy for some reason. They did start an at-the-market offering but that was stopped pretty quickly by the courts.

2. It did actually go up for non-meme reasons so the crazy people buying stock of a bankrupt company, or rather, the people who believed what they read on Reddit and bought the stock and didn’t sell it, we’re vindicated as the company did somewhat recover.

I was there when Hertz became memefied. Memefication always starts with atleast some good research.

There was three schools of thoughts with the Hertz saga-

1. Bankrupt companies are required to buyback their shares from the market. If they force the share price to go up the company is required to buyback the stock from the market regardless of the price.

2. People expected that Hertz would get a lifeline from a hedge fund.

3. Hertz car inventory still had value. If you look at used car prices you can see this sentiment was true. They thought Hertz had plenty of good assets that was just affected by the pandemic but after the pandemic prices would go up.

So essentially, it was backed by some logic but when it comes to finance logic validity of that is subjective.

When interest rates rise will this still be true?

Will they ever? The crisis hit in 2008, and in 2022 we've still not recovered, by many metrics, to a pre-2008 level.

Enron planned an online movie streaming service together with Blockbuster in the late 90ies (to start in 2000), but failed for the same reasons.

I lived in Houston during that era, and for some reason a bunch of the local energy companies dabbled in internet video and infrastructure at the time.

As you mentioned, Enron. But there's also Williams (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Williams_Companies). It built one of the first live business news channels. I knew a few people who worked there, but I can't remember the name of it. Naturally, it was focused on energy. The idea was that people in the energy industry would have it on a screen next to their computers in their offices.

It worked, a bit. I saw the channel in the break rooms and lobbies of several oil and gas companies I visited at the time. But, like the Enron/Blockbuster thing, I think it was a little ahead of its time. While today a big oil company would think nothing of deploying thousands of screens to its cubicles around the world, back in those days, it was considered a crazy extravagance. Plus, everyone was still using tubes, not flat screens, so a big chunk of desk real estate would be lost at a time when offices were far more paper-reliant than they are now.

Some of the big oil and gas companies saw how the railroads were getting into telecom, and follow that, as well. (The "SP" in "Sprint" is Southern Pacific Railroad.) They figured if the railroads can run phone calls over microwave relays along their rights-of-way, the oil companies could run fiber through their pipelines. And they did.

Again, I'm most familiar with Williams. It built a huge fiber-optic network across the country by running cables through its pipelines. One of its services was called VYVX (pronounced "viv-ex"). For years and years, it was the primary way to move video between television stations at a time when satellite hookups were a lot more expensive than they are today.

I know at least part of the Williams network became what we know today as Level3. I wonder if the original network is still in use. Kind of ironic to think about all those environmentalist web sites flowing through fiber running through oil pipelines.

There are a few of these that don’t really feel like pivots to me. For example Netflix changing from delivering things via DVD to doing it by streaming just feels like evolving to suit the market. Would we consider a publisher as pivoting because they now sell ebooks and run news websites instead of printing books and magazines?

Netflix went from legal access to any DVD produced, too needing content deals with the entertainment industry and making their own content. The technical difficulties are minor by comparison.

That’s generally what pivoting means, going from chemical to digital cameras for example is a similarly huge jump even if the customers largely stay the same you lost a huge revenue stream from selling and or processing film and now need to spend a lot more on R&D.

Changing from film cameras to digital ones is exactly the sort of thing I wouldn’t call a pivot. Many of the components and skills are identical, but you are adding sensors and storage. That’s just the sort of adaption to an evolving market that any reasonable company should do.

A pivot suggests a sudden and radical change in course. Slack feels like one, companies that have switched from manufacturing to (apparently unrelated) software feel even more so.

I’d also say Nokia doesn’t feel like a pivot. They were a company that did anything internally for which they did not find adequate solutions on the market. They produced a lot of different things over the decades and the radio business is one that found external success and grew over time. Do we consider large conglomerates to have repeatedly pivoted as different portions of their business waxed and waned?

A pivot is mostly a question of abandoning the old model efficiently rather than simply starting to do something else. Kodak was mostly a chemical company, selling film every week and a new camera every decade.

Going from manufacturing pencils to building aircraft doesn’t make use of existing workforce, equipment, or customers so why not just expand into a new industry and keep the old one as long as it was possible? Netflix or digital cameras on the other hand eats into their customer base. Someone buying a digital cameras is no longer buying film from you, it’s a destructive transition.

You're still selling movies and cameras.

If we take this approach EVERYBODY has pivoted. Walmart has online sales that are "eating into" their in store sales. CVS has home delivery, eating into their foot traffic...

> You're still selling movies and cameras.

That doesn't matter, the organization is the people in it, if you have to make huge reorganizations in what the people at your company do then that is a huge pivot that is dangerous and likely to fail. Digital companies are not like other companies, you are thinking of companies where brands is the main thing and you can just slap together a new product in a year. It doesn't work like that in normal businesses, Kodak couldn't just say that all their factories specialized on making goods related to old cameras be repurposed to digital cameras.

Some of the expertise can transfer over, but if that is not your competitive advantage it doesn't matter. Kodaks competitive advantage was not camera lenses etc, so they had no way to pivot to digital cameras. Digital cameras destroyed the business they were good at.

> If we take this approach EVERYBODY has pivoted. Walmart has online sales that are "eating into" their in store sales. CVS has home delivery, eating into their foot traffic...

No, not everybody has pivoted. Lots of companies failed to pivot and died. Walmart is aware of this and has started to build expertise around digital sales already, because Walmart doesn't want to die in case digital sales overtakes physical sales.

Kodak actually pivoted to making pharmaceuticals. That leveraged what they where actually good at, high precision chemical manufacturing.

Survivorship bias means you see a lot of company’s that have successfully pivoted, and the brands that failed often get bought up after the fact.

I think Netflix is more of an argument than Kodak. Netflix kept selling access to movies, though the way they did so changed dramatically.

But while Kodak did sell cameras, Kodak sold cameras mostly to drive sales of their film. The film and chemicals were their high margin product ranges.

The pivot to try to drive their earnings mainly from their cameras was a fundamental change of business model in a way that Netflix shift to streaming (or Walmart or CVS online and delivery) wasn't. It turned a long term recurring high-margin revenue stream into a punctuated low-margin revenue stream. (not that they could have prevented the eventual collapse of their film business)

Nokia climbed up the value chain in their vertical. From telephone cable into PCM line concentrators. From those into small exchanges. Then to the DX-200 digital telephone exchange. They merged/bought Televa (small exchanges and Gen0 Cellphones) and bought out Salora from Mobira (Gen0 cellphones and commercial radios). When Gen1 NMT became a thing they started making phones for it and later basestations. With GSM (Gen2) they ware making basestations and handsets from day one.

And they still make basestations and exchanges to this day. So they kainda are at their roots.

Nokia started as a paper mill taking advantage of hydropower, then after starting to generate electricity they combined with a rubber company and started working on cables. They seem like a pretty good example of pivoting even if they aren't as visible in consumer electronics as they used to be.

The key pivot was not changing from film cameras to digital cameras, where indeed many components and skills are identical, but from film business (the majority of which is/was film and development process/chemistry/equipment/services, not cameras) to a camera-only business. Some companies did that pivot, some (like Kodak) did not.

Kodak was never known for good cameras. That was cannon and Nikon who both pivoted to digital. Kodak made great film and didn't have a simple pivot in pictures. Their simple pivot was pharmaceuticals which as others noted they did do.

But it's obviously a lesser degree of pivot than a pivot that discards your current customer base. I also wouldn't be surprised if being a huge buyer of wholesale DVDs got them good contacts in the media/film industry.

Also, the transition from film to digital was more gradual than it appears, as many features now thought of as digital-only were actually available on late generation film cameras.

I'd agree that if you're 1) delivering the same promise to the 2) same customer base -- yes, it isn't as big of a pivot and some of the other companies on the list.

> “The technical difficulties are minor by comparison.”

You mean serving video to a pc? Because I also think about the infrastructure/last mile. And it’s one thing to have 10000 customers and quite another to have 10000000 (or whatever #)

Didn’t they still need to workout deals or licenses with the entertainment industry to rent out the DVDs? Didn’t Blockbuster have to do that to provide VHS and DVDs in the store?

I still think it was a pivot but not for that reason. Evolving can still be pivoting. Netflix shifted their business from providing physical media to streaming media.

No, definitely not, in the US anyone can rent out any physical media legally without any permission from the anyone due to the first sale doctrine. Same as me freely selling or loaning my DVDs and books without asking anyone first.

Before Blockbuster/Hollywood Video came to my town there were dozens of the video rental stores, all of which were mom-and-pop operations.

Nintendo tried to stop video game rentals during the NES era but failed - there was legislation banning video game rentals that was not passed and then they sued blockbuster for making photocopies of their manuals. I think I remember reading that rental stores having to send multiple employees into multiple stores to purchase Nintendo games because Nintendo had an agreement with retailers not to sell multiple copies of the same game to a single person to discourage rental and reseller purchases.

Not quite accurate. If you become a distributor of content, then you fall under the rules for distributors.

That's (part of) why videos typically had that "not for rent" / "only for home viewing" stuff. There's a difference between you lending or renting out a dvd once, versus this being a business model.

How this works out exactly in a US legal context, you ask? Well: always follow legal advice from strangers on the Internet. Also IANAL.

While legally you are correct, you want to make deals anyway, if you do you can get plenty of DVDs in on release day (they might sit in your backroom for a few days to ensure it was shipped fast enough). There are other things you can get in a deal if you make one.

See also: compulsory licensing for music. You don't need the permission of the copyright holder, but licensing deals are usually cheaper than the rate set by law.


The content delivery aspect that Netflix coordinated with ISP's was a pretty phenomenal technical feat, and could be seen as a pivot into networking at scale.

Netflix still runs the DVD service.

if it was so easy Blockbuster should have succeeded in the transition, too.

I actually think Netflix's move towards producing their own shows and movies was more of a "pivot" than going from DVD to online streaming (which I don't see as really any different than Blockbuster going from renting VHS to DVDs).

Yes, I’d agree with that.

> There are a few of these that don’t really feel like pivots to me. For example Netflix changing from delivering things via DVD to doing it by streaming just feels like evolving to suit the market.

Reed Hastings allegedly barred the delivery team executives from his leadership meetings when they were responsible for 100% of the companies revenue. It was a massive, legendary pivot.

Pivots are nothing else but evolving to suit the market, at the cost of an established existing business or use case.

> Would we consider a publisher as pivoting because they now sell ebooks and run news websites instead of printing books and magazines?

I don't see why not, except that their legacy/core businesses are still or until recently responsible for the majority of their revenue [1]. I think there is a difference between adding a new distribution channel and altering the fundamentals of the business. The pivot for publishers has been more from ads -> subs.

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/05/business/media/nyt-earnin...

In one respect, this “pivot” is simply changing the medium for delivery of the service. On the other hand, this represents a major shift in the structure of the company, introducing change in basically every department. It seems very naive to presume this shift would be simply an adjustment of the business structure. I would guess the Netflix business as we know it now would have very little resemblance of what it was during those DVD days.

The real pivot was going from DVD distribution to movie and tv show production. This, of course, only happened because the switch to streaming made it so that Netflix were dependent on content producers. Netflix knew content producers would just create their own streaming service in time and they'd lose all their leverage.

Basically is converting from being Blockbuster to being HBO.

Ted Sarandos, chief content officer for Netflix, once said, "The goal is to become HBO faster than HBO can become us" I worked for HBO when he said that, and took it very seriously.

Looks like you can still rent DVDs from Netflix https://dvd.netflix.com/Movies

Wow thanks for sharing this. I know I'm weird but I think I would still rather get DVDs because you have such a wider selection. And you can get very unique and hard to find movies. You're not locked into licensing deals between large movie studios.

Does anyone else think a new blu/dvd shipping company could work well again with same day shipping assuming the continued fragmentation gets worse and worse?

They pivoted from having a bunch of people managing mailing DVD's to people to having a bunch of people managing computer servers. It is really different and there is no reason to assume they would succeed at that, if they built a subpar service they would have lost.

Someone will reinvent cable by bundling services together and charging people for content in which they aren't interested.

It'll happen as soon as the fragmentation is worse enough for people to loose interest and willingness to pay for them separately.

Netflix still runs a dvd rental business, with a much higher offering of titles (less content restriction than with streaming)

>There are a few of these that don’t really feel like pivots to me.

Because no authority dictates the meaning of "pivot", it looks like the concept diverged and became wider:

- "pivot" as switching from a unprofitable or failed business idea to a profitable one. A "phoenix rising from the ashes" type of pivot often associated with startups that finally figured out the elusive "Product Market Fit" instead of shutting down. This seems to be the original meaning popularized in 2011 by Eric Ries "Lean Startup" book : https://www.amazon.com/Lean-Startup-Entrepreneurs-Continuous...

- "pivot" as any change in business focus whether the previous one was profitable or not.

That's a good point. I thought pivot meant "switching from a unprofitable or failed business idea to a profitable one".

In that sense, IIRC Netflix's founder had the early vision to offer streaming services (one day in the future), so it wasn't a pivot. It was part of the plan.

I mean he named his company "Netflix". Does that sound like DVD delivery? No, it sounds like inter(net) + flicks.

Yeah, I would agree. Keeping up with the times and the market is different to pivoting, as is diversifying and monetising. Did Disney "pivot" from hand-made animations to theme parks and digital streaming? More of an evolution, I think.

Yeah... does every new technology change mean a pivot? Or evolution of business strategy?

If Netflix counts as a pivot, I feel like every company more than a few decades old should be on the list. IBM for sure, car companies because they now sell electric cars, banks because they now offer online services...

I agree that Netflix moving from dvds to streaming could be argued as an evolution instead of a pivot, but I would argue that moving from streaming and delivering others’ content to producing their own content was a very significant shift worthy of being called a pivot.

There is a great podcast called Land of the Giants and they have a "season" about Netflix (as well as Amazon, Google, Apple); based on the information I learned there I would certainly say it was a risky pivot.

I certainly view Netflix as a pivot. The things the company has to do, day to day, are just drastically different.

Wasn't the streaming delivery piece intended from the start though, but they just had to wait for the infrastructure to support it so did DVD delivery as a stopgap? I had always assumed this was the case.

the "Net" in netflix was: you could order on the net, only the delivering changed.

Yes, it hinges on the definition of pivot. From a customer point of view, this is a mere evolution. That this imposes vastly different requirements on the underlying business is not really the problem of the customer.

In a similar vein, how would you describe the move of just about every primary, secondary and tertiary educational institutions to online teaching?

I don't consider that a pivot. It was necessary to continue to deliver the basic added value of these institutions. However, that did require a whole slew of new skills from teachers. So sure, YMMV.

So does Amazon, Apple, IBM and hundreds of other companies

Twitch started out as Justin.TV, where Justin Kan wore a camera on his head 24/7 and livestreamed the results.

Then they expanded to a small handful of streamers, then anybody could stream, but it never really took off and they were running out of runway.

Then they noticed that the one area growing faster than any other was videogame streaming, and rebuilt the whole company around that.

Years later a guy named Ice Poseidon took advantage of the fact that Pokemon Go required you to walk around outside to play to do irl streaming, and the deluge of streamers trying to get around the videogame requirement caused them to pivot back to allowing non-videogame streams.

How could I miss that? Added Twitch to the list. Thanks!

A classic non-pivot is the Prodigy service, created as an IBM spinoff in the 1980s as a sort of proto-Amazon. To their great annoyance, instead of shopping, users insisted on chatting with each other all day.

They could have embraced this and beaten AOL to the punch, but instead they issued an edict that from then on, users would only be allowed to send 30 messages a month, and after that, they would cost 25 cents each. This was the start of the company’s death spiral.

Wow, I had no idea. This is such an interesting story!

> The price increases prompted an increase of "underground IDs" (known as 'UG's for shorthand)—where multiple users shared a single account that they turned into private bulletin boards by using emails that were returned (and therefore not billed) due to invalid email addresses. Those invalid addresses were the simple names of the person or people for whom the messages were intended. When those people signed in and checked the email, they would find "returned" messages with their names. They would then "send" a reply by typing the name of the first sender, which would also be returned. When that person logged on next, they would see their message, and the cycle would repeat.


This is a perfect use case for the original meaning of "the customer is always right". If customers want to send messages then you change your business to a message system.

For anyone else who has never heard of them: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prodigy_(online_service)

Century old example showing pivoting is as old as business:

“ When 3M began in 1902, the five founders had a simple goal: to mine for corundum, a mineral ideal for making sandpaper and grinding wheels. Turns out, what they thought was corundum was really another low-grade mineral called anorthosite.”

3M pivoted to selling sand paper without the sand, I.e tape, and that helped them survive long enough to try again at sand paper. (Transparent tape, invented by 3M, helped them grow during the Great Depression because people fixed stuff instead of buying anew.)

Funny to see sandpaper still being improved upon after 100 years: https://youtu.be/NZDCRFi8dKY

My favorite "internal slogan" of 3M is (or was): Make it by the mile, sell it by the inch.

I wish every company had this motto! It's so often that when I need some material, nobody will sell me less than a mile of it.

For those who don't know, 3M means "Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing."

Also interesting: employee email addresses are @mmm.com rather than @3m.com.

They both work though, e.g. everyone has @3m.com as well (unannounced), but culturally, everyone publicizes @mmm.

In the same "what the hell" vein as 3M (or maybe the same vein as Nintendo), the Connecticut Leather Company had a strong pivot into video games in the 80s as Coleco.

Not sure if the original business needs to be dead for it to be considered a successful pivot. You could include amazon with aws. Or Dassault (planes) with Dassault system (CAD). And all the big asian conglomerates. You could even include the east india company which started as a trading company before becoming a colonial administration! My point is that these pivots are quite common.

Investigating around the whatsapp pivot, I found their old blog.


>So first of all, let’s set the record straight. We have not, we do not and we will not ever sell your personal information to anyone. Period. End of story. Hopefully this clears things up.

Heh... :-)

Technically they didn't ... Facebook/Meta did.

I remember when I had to pay 1€ per year for What's App that was only 8 years ago...

Well since they sold Whatsapp, the company, that was holding all of the data, to Facebook, they literally sold all of the data at once.

They often waived that charge anyway.

The one I never really quite understood was Slack. Who builds an internal chat client, while building an online game, and then decides to build a b2b business around that chat client?

The rest at least have some logic to them. You build something, people use it for something else, so you generalize. Or you pursue a neighboring market or use-case. But the Slack one just seems so random.

Early people at Slack were nerds and unhappy with the communication tools that were available at the time.

So they went the nerd way and hacked together something they would not spend most of the time complaining about. "Hacked together" is important. It was not dedication, it was "scratching your own itch ".

The hack was satisfactorily working. For them.

And when Glitch failed, they were left with (among other things) their communication tool. "Someone" thought it was worth trying to market it, following the proverbial dogfooding strategy, because there was nothing else left to do anyway with Glitch.

And boom. Slack.

Source: memories of an article read many years ago that I can't find traces of, but was quite fascinating.

I've heard similar stories many times, where someone discovers a gap in the market through an actual need that they have while trying to do something else.

Like the Kitopi Cloud Kitchen. The story I heard is that the guy already had a successful sweet business, and got the idea to have little mini distribution kitchens for it, instead of opening a new business everytime he wanted to extend his reach. Then decided to make that idea a whole business model.


Wow, I didn't know Kitopi Cloud Kitchen. This is truly a disruptive idea (I never use this word), as it breaks with the traditional idea that restaurant food cannot be industrialized and has a connection with the chef but also the place.

Even after reading this, it is hard for me to think "I could order food from this restaurant but the actual meal will come from a partner kitchen".

Brilliant from a business perspective, yet somewhat questionable culturally.

Lots of youtubers jumped on this to create their own virtual restaurants. MrBeast Burger being the most popular.

Is it dropshipping for food, or do the restaurant fronts still devise the recipes?

The contracted ghost kitchens just make the food.

One cool part about it is that because the portions are so industrially controlled there a whole slew of reliably calorie counted restaurants available.

I believe the story is: their game failed, and they went back to Sequoia to return $5M in outstanding investment. Sequoia told them to 'keep it, and build something'. So they tried the Slack thing.

What's funny is that he's the same dude who founded Flickr, which also started out as some kind of game. Ha ha.

Shows that VCs are investing in teams, not what happens to be that team‘s current pitch deck du jour.

Good VC's do that.

Also, $5M is a small amount for Sequoia - and it would have been a hassle to deal with, and frankly, probably already written off.

If you have a good founder and a team already moving ... $5M is actually enough to get a small team moving in a new direction so it's a smart choice.

It's a smart choice in modern Valley language though, instinctively, most other investors would have not done that.

While we can give credit to the investors, that only works in a system of plentiful bounty. You need to have large acquirers, tons of talent, etc. etc. in order for that investment logic to make sense.

If I recall correctly, Slack was built utilizing IRC on the backend.

I remember that resonating with me as I was sole developer on an in-house invoicing system at a Fortune 500, and I added a whole corporate chat functionality using IRC libs. It only took a few days to implement. It made me aware how easy it can be to build a billion dollar business by mistake. Too bad not my billion dollar business!

A similar case for a company I previously worked for. They started out making high quality photo albums, I believe targeted primarily at pets. They built in the deep-linking experience, so that you could send links to friends, etc. They eventually realized that every app ends up building in their own linking, and in turn became branch.io

Segment is similarly weird. They were building EdTech and then decided that this boilerplate file called analytics.js was the coolest thing they had built and they pivoted the company around that.

I don't know Segment, but EdTech is all about analytics. Everyone wants hyperspecific data, e.g. do students who attend the first three lectures do better than students who didn't do that, but were there the last lecture?

So not so surprising, "from a certain point of view" [0].

[0] Sir Guinness.

Ok, good point. I think their analytics.js was just tracking website usage, but you're probably right that they were planning on deep-inspecting that data in the way you suggest.

You have a lot of responses, but none actually address your question...

> Who builds an internal chat client, while building an online game, and then decides to build a b2b business around that chat client?

Someone who's done something similar — successfully — once before, that's who. The experience gained from Flickr certainly helped with Slack.

The same people who pivot an MMORPG's screenshot-sharing feature into the top photo site of its era, I guess! Butterfield pulling that off twice just completely floors me.

One day he will get his first successful game company.

There's a fantastic episode of Reid Hoffman's "Masters of Scale" podcast[1] that goes into great detail with one of the founders, Stewart Butterfield. He also did basically the same thing to form Flickr.

[1] https://pca.st/episode/2bbb5eea-de22-4825-8854-014ee29f33a1

Check out the “How I Built This”, Slack is one of the more interesting ones.

It's not that surprising when you know the history. This is the founders' second or third try at live chat with media.

At Ludicorp, in the early oughts, they were building a game called Game Neverending. They built a chat feature into that game. Then they added the ability to drop photos into chat. Digital cameras and cameraphones had just become affordable, so suddenly that was the main feature of the game. Flickr had to drop the single live chat window when they became too popular, and then it became a web-based photo sharing community. But they always had plans to bring it back, they just never got around to it. Once Flickr was acquired by Yahoo those plans became even more difficult to realize.

Like many companies in the middle-oughts, Flickr did everything over IRC. When they were acquired by Yahoo, most of them moved to San Francisco, but some employees never left Canada. So it was a distributed, remote workplace the entire time. It was natural to do everything over IRC and add bots and such to help you do things.

When the Flickr founders left Yahoo, they founded Glitch, and it was also quite distributed, half in Vancouver, BC and half in the Bay Area. I'm not sure how they came to build their own sharing-media-in-IRC solution again, but they had the tools to hand.

A fun aside: as Glitch was failing, but before they pivoted to Slack, they downsized. And a lot of those downsized employees reformed as "Tomfoolery" and created a product called "Anchor", which was basically Slack! There aren't a lot of traces that this thing ever existed but here's an article from Fast Company:


I assume that those employees realized that their internal tools were actually the best thing that they had made. Anchor was led by a former Yahoo executive who had I think been COO at Glitch. Tomfoolery/Anchor didn't get much traction and was acquihired by Yahoo just a few months later - most of those employees were ex-Yahoo anyway.

A few months later Glitch pivoted to Slack and the rest is history.

It's unclear to me why Tomfoolery failed when they had all the knowledge about how Glitch's Slack worked and a head start of many months. I remember a period in 2013 when a group I was involved in was choosing between Flowdock (yet another thing that was basically Slack) and Anchor and the recently-launched Slack. Anchor didn't have the rich integrations of Flowdock. Slack was very new and immature and was worse than both of them. But Slack improved faster and people like Stewart Butterfield had way more goodwill.

Discord did the same, but it was originally just for one community.

I run a small business, and know others who do the same. Honestly, I think pivoting is the norm rather than the exception.

Many of the people I know started in a similar place, but their businesses evolved into all kinds of weird and wacky enterprises.

I also run a small business and I agree with this. I think it becomes more notable when you have to change the heading on a large company and all its bureaucracy.

It really begs the question "what is a company?" if one can shift between such disparate markets. Surely mission doesn't define a company then. Perhaps ability to accumulate capital for a means?

An organized team of people used to working with each other?


I had a client who once sold anti-virus software and even ZetaOS.

Somehow they pivoted to selling mobile speakers and toys.

If a startup takes in investor money that whole "Fake it till you make it" is not going to be cute anymore, or maybe it's always been risky?

I'm curious to see what Elisabeth gets. (I know she was blatant, but I bet there were hundreds like her? Maybe not as blatant, especially with a medical device)

If a lawyer happens to read this, how would one protect oneself from lawsuits if their original idea peters out, and they need to pivot on investor money?

There's always Wrigley's that went from offering gum as an incentive to buy soap to just selling the gum... "Make something people want"

> In 1891, 29-year-old William Wrigley Jr. (1861–1932) came to Chicago from Philadelphia with $32 and the idea to start a business selling Wrigley's Scouring Soap.[14] Wrigley offered premiums as an incentive to buy his soap, such as baking powder. Later in his career, he switched to the baking powder business, in which he began offering two packages of chewing gum for each purchase of a can of baking powder. The popular premium, chewing gum, began to seem more promising, prompting another switch in product focus. Wrigley also became the majority owner of the Chicago Cubs in 1921.

-- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wrigley_Company

I'm thinking of Epic Games and their game Fortnite. The game was some kind of tower defence at the begining. They swithed to battle royal and made one of the most played video game of all time.

Ok, it's a small pivot, but it changed the company and gave them so much money that they were able to create their own game store (and fight Apple in court).

> They swithed to battle royal and made one of the most played video game of all time.

More specifically, they saw the success of PUBG and decided to copy it immediately. I suppose that still counts as a successful pivot!

You'll have to follow the popularity trail further back to early 2010's Minecraft hunger games servers.

(Rather I suppose the popular 2008 book The Hunger Games.)

I mean if we're doing this, you can probably go back to the 1999 Japanese book "Battle Royale", which lent its style to the popular UHC Minecraft mod well before "The Hunger Games" mods came out.

There's pre-cliff bleszinski Fortnite, and post-cliff bleszinski fortnite. It would have not become as huge as it is now if he had not been ousted.

I recently learned from a loading screen message that Discord has almost the same origin story as Slack. They were making a mobile MOBA called Fates Forever but pivoted when they realised how poor the current systems for communicating in games like MOBAs are. Unlike Slack though, I don't think code was shared between the projects.


MP3.com was initially a search engine.

The nice thing about running a search engine, even if it only ever gets a trickle of traffic and could never compete with the big players, is that you can look at the logs and spot trends early. The founder noticed people were searching for something called “mp3”, saw the domain was available, bought it, and then looked up what it was and eventually rebuilt the company around it.

Valve: They used to make games, now they make money.

With a brief foray into the hat making business in-between

Nokia is incorrect (afiu the tire/rubber business was span-off some years ago Nokian), even the source cites it better "The company has operated in various industries over the past 150 years. It was founded as a pulp mill and had long been associated with rubber and cables, but since the 1990s has focused on large-scale telecommunications infrastructure, technology development, and licensing."

Yeah the source sentence is awfully vague to the point of confusing. Nokia was a paper mill, and their own website says as much in less ambiguous terms - https://www.nokia.com/about-us/company/our-history/

Isn't Twitter also wrong? I thought it didn't pivot and was created to communicate effectively during riots and stuff like that?

An amazing discovery, thank you. Some companies names like BioWare, WhatsApp or YouTube totally makes sense now.

While this is helpful, just looking at successful pivots suffers from survivorship bias. Anyone have examples of failed pivots?

All failed companies. ;)

Nintendo existed for nearly one hundred years before they started making video games. Saying that all they did up until then was not successful is ridiculous - you do not run a company for an entire century by not being successful.

That's not what the article says. It says that Nintendo tried to pivot away from the playing card business into several other businesses, each of which ended up failing except for electronic toys/video games.

Given that Nintendo no longer operates a taxi service, love hotels, or sell instant rice, I would say the article is correct about that statement.

Playing cards is not among the things listed as having failed; it's as if some of you guys go out of your way to fail to understand basic English.

Another example is Unsplash.

Unsplash was originally a marketing attempt by a company named Crew, a marketplace startup trying to connect businesses with freelance designers.

After Unsplash took off and the talent marketplace didn’t, the company became Unsplash.

This was really interesting, a lot of these I never knew about, like Segment was originally pitched to YC as a classroom tool.

Related, though, perhaps it's just a bit of semantics, but in general, I consider a "pivot" to be where a company hasn't found traction with their current product, so unless they switch they're going to die.

Like another commenter who mentioned Netflix, that feels very different than some of these companies that were just evolving or growing with the market. I mean, in one sense, since technology is always changing you better evolve at some point or you're guaranteed to die. Moving from DVDs by mail to streaming was a pretty obvious switch, and not something that really took Netflix by surprise (though they famously had some major hiccups as they tried to make that switch).

In general, though, lots of interesting and cool stories here!

That list I think is a good lesson/motivator that the "golden" product youre developing may not become the product defining your company but instead a side project.

Makes you wonder what you are actually building then, if it wasn't the product that ended up making you succesful.

I notice a few of these stories involve stumbling on an itch that badly needed scratching while doing something else with as much purpose. One of the big challenges of entrepreneurship in software is finding a problem worth working on when you're not actually experiencing any problems that aren't software related.

In that sense, perhaps you're building up experience in a new industry when building an idea, which introduces you to new problems, sometimes better problems.

Mentions Western Union but no mention of American Express (express mail -> financial services)? Western Union hardly even counts as a pivot because their original money wiring service operated entirely through their telegraph network, which is where the term "wiring" came from.

Here is more background about the nature of the pivots at WU.

WU had already pivoted once in the 1970s to become a satellite communication company being one of the first companies to have five birds in orbit. (Westar series)

Sometime around 1980(?) things were so bad they went into chapter 11, bankruptcy protection. At a senior executive meeting the reports were all bad. A guy named Art Tarini spoke up and said "What about money transfer? Can't we do something with that?" The reply was something like "Art if you think you can help give it a try"

Art setup a call centre and had a small sales force to sign up agents in small stores in the north east side of the USA as money transfer locations and created paper forms to record the transaction details. All agent transactions were sent over the telephone.

They were scheduled to be in bankruptcy court at the end of the year, but the new money transfer business was making so much money they cancelled it.

Told to me by Art Tarini in 2001. (Paraphrased from memory)

Later on (1990?) a computer terminal was created with Turbo C, communicating over modems to a back office system. In 1989 when US law changed to allowed transfers to other countries somebody asked "I wonder if Mexicans in the USA would want to send money home?" A new platform was created to handle foreign exchange and the rest is history.

Telegraph service was shutdown in 2006. It was still doing ~$10M per year in revenue then. Money transfers were about $4B.

To be fair, Netflix's DVD via email business model was very successful before they pivoted to streaming while many of the others initial idea was ... <hrm>

In the case of Netflix, here goes a company that smartly and efficiently adapted to changing market conditions rather than "pivoting".

In 2006, I even knew people here in Germany who were "renting mailorder DVDs from the US".

It dawned to me a few years ago that this service was Netflix, before they went streaming.

> Segment - Classroom lecture tool - When the product was deployed in the classroom, all the students opened their laptop and went straight to Facebook instead of using the program.

There is an excellent YC podcast featuring Segment's founder that walked through this pivot. Excellent listen: https://www.ycombinator.com/library/6B-on-finding-product-ma...

Apple. Went from being an unprofitable 1990s personal computer manufacturer like IBM, Dell, Compaq, etc. to being a high end AV consumer electronics company like Sony.

(1) I don't think "we've added other business lines while making our existing business lines more successful" can truly be described as a "pivot". Apple is still a personal computer manufacturer, and is selling more Macs than ever.

(2) I really don't think you can call Apple "a high-end AV consumer electronics company". Sony makes televisions, receivers, speakers, soundbars, Blu-Ray players, turntables, and $3000+ digital music players. You can argue that the iPod brought Apple back from the brink, but I don't think you can argue that any iPod was a high-end music player; the only video player they make is the Apple TV, and their audio equipment is limited to Beats headphones, AirPods, and one smart speaker of middling quality (and dubious smarts).

I founded a company called Milo (https://www.getmilo.com/) - we started as a “One Medical For Pets” modern veterinary clinic and actually had 3 hospitals before realizing that the real value was in the software we had built to make our teams more efficient. Now we’re pure SaaS

It is definitely challenging to pivot and fighting sunk cost bias is massively hard


I am not sure you will see my message as I’m late to the party but I would like to reach out to you.

Apollo GraphQL (which just raised a $130M Series D) pivoted from Meteor, a company built around supporting the frontend framework MeteorJS.


Interesting fact, Nintendo still makes playing cards, including the standard 52 card decks.

Ran into one once, very high quality plastic cards.

Wonder how long the list is for companies with unsuccessful pivots

I am not sure Shopify belongs to the list. It didn’t exactly pivot, Tobi Lutke made a website with Rails to sell snowboards, and realized there is an untapped market for SaaS e-commerce product, so he generalized the framework powering the website.

I find this to be one of the most interesting kinds of pivots - the original business idea wasn't good enough, but along the way they encountered problems with no good solution, and were savvy enough to go to market with that solution once they came up with it.

Well, does Toni still sell snowboards?

Same applies to Slack then

How’s that not a pivot?

Acorn to ARM.

Pivot is a bittersweet description, and ARM was a new spin-off founded in 1990 alongside Apple. Acorn renamed itself to Element 14 Ltd in 1998 and sold off the assets from their home computer business. They built DSL kit for a couple of years before ending up as part of Broadcom.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arm_Ltd. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Element_14_(company)

What is interesting too is that none of the other microcomputer manufacturers of the time tried to create their own CPU.

We have IBM + the rest of the mainframe guys and Sun.

Not that it helped Acorn survive, of course! Right up until the end, RISC OS ran on interrupts, too much delicate kernel code, cooperative multitasking, and unprotected memory.

They weren't the only CPU pioneers; Argonaut didn't think it unreasonable to create a custom CPU to push polygons on a Nintendo cartridge - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Super_FX

The Super_FX seems to be a coprocessor. More companies created silicon ( Commodore? ), but not CPUs AFAIK.

It was a whole new RISC CPU. Lots of co-processors are whole CPUs. Argonaut spun a company off, and it's still shipping - the inventor said it outsold ARM and MIPS before the PS1 (from https://web.archive.org/web/20071217092221/http://www.armcha... )

Didn't Element 14 manufacture Raspberry Pis at some point?

We can add this to the debate above about whether Netflix was really a pivot. Acorn made computers and eventually decided they needed their own processor. I'm sure one could debate whether that was evolution or revolution, but what we know for sure is that Acorn is not around today and ARM (the spin-off) is.

Holy crap I had no idea! We had an Acorn in my primary school back in the stone age.

Added ARM to the list. Thanks!

Foursquare comes to mind. They were the "location check-in app" hotness for a while. They abandoned the app and now are a significant player in the surveillance ^H^H^H "location-based experiences" space.

Pixar - ‘How a bad hardware company turned itself into a great movie studio’

Added Pixar to the list. Thanks!

Mt. Gox

What was originally a Magic The Gathering Online Exchange became a massive crypto empire eventually toppled by greed and mismanagement.

Although apparently it never actually operated as a trading card exchange… that’s just what the domain was originally “intended” for.

"2007, the service went live for approximately three months before McCaleb moved on to other projects, having decided it was not worth his time"

lol, interesting.

It might be interesting to classify the various kinds of pivots. For example, one that gets covered from time-to-time is the one where customers start using the product differently than the founders intended. The examples here are WhatsApp, Yelp, Flickr, Groupon, Play-Doh, Segment. But there are a lot more like that.

If you had a language for talking about pivots and why they happen, it might be possible to avoid (or induce them) more deliberately.

What’s the difference between a pivot and an expansion? Did Netflix pivot to online streaming, or did they expand into online streaming?

I think at least for me, before working at an early start-up, the wrong idea is that pivots are exceptional.

No, pivots are what startup do.

They are born out of pivots, since the founder(s) could not find a way to implement their ideas in other venues.

So all startups pivots, and all successful had pivoted successfully.

While reading that list, I had a realization that many good 'pivots' arent so much pivots as upgrades of a successful feature into a product. I wonder if anyone had tried to formalize that into a product development methodology.

Didn't Figma start out as a drone company? Compared to that a lot of these seem like reaches

Oh man, I didn't know that Groupon started as The Point, a tool to help people organize to work towards a goal. The biggest goal ended up being to save money..

Does anyone know of a service today for helping people organize around a cause?

Very nice, never too late to pivot

p.s. you could also add FanDuel to the list https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/FanDuel#History

Some of those are so unrelated I'd hardly call them pivots. More like currently successful companies that used to do something completely different under same brand name

This is great. I’m curious to know what the line is between pivot and new company. Is it same successive founders? Same domain? Same cap table?

Anyone else annoyed that the way this table is laid out the pivot comes first before original idea. My brain doesn't work this way...

Fun to think that games spun out fickr and slack. I wish we saw more kids looking up to Fake and Butterfield rather than say, Musk.

MicroSoft's first products were programming languages for PCs. BASIC for the Altair in 1975.

I didn’t see TomTom in the list. After Google stole Maps TomTom successfully pivoted to health.

Facebook is not in the list... They pivoted from friendlist -> wall -> timeline(twitter)

Pretty sure there was some sort of "hot-or-not" in there as well near the start.

omg forgot haha hot or not was cool though.

> The company then decided that the market for cameras was not large enough for its goals

Such a Cave Johnson move.

Education tech startup -> musical.ly -> acquired by Bytedance -> TikTok

Did musical.ly pivot to become TikTok, or did Bytedance already have TikTok when they acquired musical.ly? I thought it was the latter, and that's more growth hacking than pivoting.

What about unsuccessful pivots? Like Borland pivoted from compiler to services.

Valve: We used to make games; Now we make money.

Apple Computer and Microsoft seem notably absent.

Love the list. Thanks for putting it together.

And of course the pivot to end all pivots:

APPLE!!! Which started as a company that made computers, then became a company that made mobile music players, and now is a company that makes phones.

I don’t think Apple can count as a pivot because they never abandoned their core/existing business, and most of their activities are surrounded by and complimentary to their core business of general purpose computing devices.

A smartphone itself is just as general purpose as the Macintosh or Apple II.

I would classify Apple as “growing into a conglomerate,” not “pivoting.”

Apple right now has a movie screening in theaters, but I don’t even call that a pivot. It’s a complementary product to Apple’s main business, because TV+ subscriptions have been fueled by its built-in-to-the-OS nature. Buy an iPhone, get it free for a year, and now you’re hooked. Putting the content in theaters is just a cherry on top.

Maybe you could argue that offering the iPod and iTunes on Windows was a pivot. The iPod being wholly disconnected from the Mac was like a different business, and it dominated Apple’s revenue for a while.

If Apple had discontinued the Mac and focused on iPods, this would qualify as a pivot. But what ended up happening was that the iPod enhanced Mac sales and led to the Mac essentially being made into a portable device with the iPhone (“iPhone runs OS X” as Steve Jobs said in the keynote).

The Apple Watch could be a strong argument for a pivot product, as it’s essentially an entry into the jewelry market. The Apple Watch business is supercharged by selling interchangeable bands, which have nothing to do with computing. However, it’s still not a pivot: it requires an iPhone, which itself is basically a Mac, and the Watch itself is also still just another general purpose computing device based on macOS/OS X/NextSTEP.

Or every car company that started as a company that made gasoline consuming cars and now is producing rolling electric computers.

Or every other company, which now essentially makes computers.

My phone thinks of my car as one of its accessories.

Then they made the commercial with the kid saying “What’s a computer?” in the backyard which still enrages everyone I know when it is mentioned.

An example that is missing is MongoDB.

Samsung was exporting dried Korean fish

It wouldn’t surprise me much if they still do that. It is a highly diversified company. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samsung:

Notable Samsung industrial affiliates include Samsung Electronics (the world's largest information technology company, consumer electronics maker and chipmaker measured by 2017 revenues), Samsung Heavy Industries (the world's 2nd largest shipbuilder measured by 2010 revenues), and Samsung Engineering and Samsung C&T Corporation (respectively the world's 13th and 36th largest construction companies). Other notable subsidiaries include Samsung Life Insurance (the world's 14th largest life insurance company), Samsung Everland (operator of Everland Resort, the oldest theme park in South Korea) and Cheil Worldwide (the world's 15th largest advertising agency, as measured by 2012 revenues)

Reading https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samsung_C%26T_Corporation it doesn’t seem they still trade in dried fish, but who knows?

Intel- memory to microprocessors?

Google: Don’t be evil

This promotes thinking in terms of survivorship bias IMO.

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