You started with an idea. With hard work and a little luck, you secured your first round of funding and hired a few people. Fast forward a few years — you have your product, maybe some customers — you’ll inevitably ask yourself, “Is this working? Is now the time to go all-in and scale up my sales and marketing? Or do I need to pivot?”
This is a question many founders run into early in their company’s life. As a leader at Atlassian and now Freshworks, I’ve learned that it’s your job to stay focused and understand how the market is reacting to your product, to know whether you can take advantage of the moment or if you need to go in a different direction.
If you do decide to scale, there are so many options: hiring a sales team, investing in more marketing, selling self-serve, and so on. And if you decide to pivot, don’t worry — you’re in good company.
Some of the most successful companies in the world might not exist today if they hadn’t pivoted. Slack began as a neverending video game, Shopify was initially an online storefront for selling snowboarding gear, the list goes on. But what about you?
You’ll find advice on how to scale and pivot your company everywhere, from the SaaS gurus on social media to your old roommate from college, and even your parents. They will tell you, “this is the way, the only way,” or “this is how Salesforce, Snowflake, Slack (enter your favorite company starting with the letter ‘S’) did it.” While there’s no doubt listening to advice is not a bad idea, taking it might be.
So log off Twitter and LinkedIn for 2 minutes, tell mom you’ll call her back, and ask yourself these questions instead.
1. Do I really have a product-market fit?
The best way to judge product-market fit is this:
- Someone is actually paying you for the product, and that person is not your cousin
- People are using your product regularly (daily, weekly, monthly — just whatever rate is considered good usage for your product)
- You have a repeatable process that allows you to consistently add customers
Answered yes to all of the above? Seems like scaling up is an option. If not, you should consider a pivot — then ask, rinse, and repeat.
2. Ok, I have product-market fit — how do I scale, and how can my size not be a competitive disadvantage?
A lot of this depends on how big your target market is, how expensive your product is, and how easy it is to get going. If you have a small market and expensive product, you are going to need to pick up the phone. If you have a large market and a more variable price, you have lots of options, including self-serve and high-velocity inbound teams.
Important: Don’t feel locked into repeating how your competition went to market as you may end up putting yourself in a head-to-head battle with them unnecessarily. Can you go after a submarket to gain traction? Can you go bottom-up vs. top-down?
The fact is, your competitors got to where they are now in a different competitive or market reality, so trying to go to market the same way may not be the smart move, and won’t always put you in a competitive position. One size does not fit all.
When I joined Atlassian, for example, their main competitor was selling $500k+ software top-down through big-budget sales teams. By comparison, we were a tiny Australian startup with no name recognition or access to capital.
So, we leveraged the internet and sold our product bottom-up to lower-level buyers through self-serve at just $800. No one thought that was a smart strategy at the time, but it totally worked, and we eventually won the market.
Always look inward at your product and your customers for direction. Also, don’t assume that there is already a dominant player in the market. There are so many examples of smaller companies knocking big Goliaths off their pedestals in just a few years.
3. Am I doing everything to make my customers successful?
At the end of the day, word of mouth, references, and happy customers are the most powerful accelerants to any successful business model.
Ask yourself — can I lean heavily on my product for customer success? Or do my customers require lots of additional services and hand-holding to be successful? How do my customers feel about my product? And if you’re not sure… just ask them!
Meeting your core customers where they are, understanding them deeply, and building trust and empathy with them will help you find more answers than social media ever could.
Should I stay or should I grow
Whether you decide to pivot or scale, know this: to grow your company, you need to be constantly improving, in order to best serve your customers. As part of this improvement, you’ll likely need to evolve or scale in some capacity to see continued growth.
Remember to read the cues — assess market fit but always look internally, and continue to check in with both your team and your customers every step of the way.
Asking yourself questions doesn’t stop with pivot vs. scale. As a successful business, you and your team should continually be asking, “what do we need to be doing to get to the next level?” Always celebrate the wins, but don’t let them make you complacent.