Most successful business pivots in history
Updated 16th October 2018
Adaptability is crucial to success. The actor Ronald Regan tried politics in 1954, footballer Gordon Ramsey gave up dreams of a career with Glasgow Rangers for one in the kitchen, and insurance salesman Luciano Pavarotti swapped spreadsheets for singing.
Most people don’t find success first time round, and this goes for businesses too. Start-ups and SMEs often change tack in the early days, and even global monoliths have to pivot sometimes, whether in response to market forces, innovative technologies or new competition.
Here are some examples of big business pivots that might surprise you:
Ever heard of Odeo? No?
It was the podcast network created by the founders of Twitter, back in the early noughties. But fearing competition from iTunes, and realising that early podcasts weren’t as popular as they were expecting, in 2005 the team gave themselves two weeks to invent something else.
Their choice? A 40-character micro-blogging platform, originally called Twttr. Commentators were initially sceptical of this massive shift in direction, but the team soon realised they’d hit on something special. And 336 million users later, we’d have to agree.
Wrigley has not one, but two, pivots under its belt.
The story goes that William Wrigley Jr. moved to Chicago in the 1890’s to work as a soap salesman. Differentiating one soap from another wasn’t easy, so to encourage more purchases, Mr Wrigley started offering free baking powder with every purchase of soap.
The baking powder proved so successful that he focused on just selling that, while offering chewing gum as the free incentive with every purchase.
No prizes for guessing what happened next. The iconic Wrigley chewing gum was born and is still going strong, with products sold in 180 countries around the world.
Not many people know that Nokia began as a sedate Finnish paper mill on the Nokianvirta river, way back in 1865.
However, the company was destined for greater things and after a few years in the paper business, one of the founders spotted an opportunity to move into electricity generation in the late 1800s.
That paved the way for acquisitions by first, a rubber company and then a cabling firm, leading to a deft pivot into electronics devices in the 1950s, and then mobile phones in 1992. And while the company may have struggled to adapt to the smartphone era - and been gobbled up by Microsoft in 2014 – with more than 150 years in business, it’s certainly had a pretty good run.
Long before mobile phones, email and social media, Western Union was the world’s first communications empire.
Founded in 1851, its international telegraph network grew to a million miles of telegraph lines and two international undersea cables, and at its peak the company sent 200 million telegrams worldwide.
However, with the rise of the telephone and internet, Western Union unsurprisingly had to diversify its offer, moving into the money transfers that we know it for today.
And as the world goes digital, the pivot continues, as Western Union aims to compete with the rise of digital money transfer services, such as Transferwise, by recently launching its new digital bank account transfer .
The global coffee giant didn’t always serve freshly brewed coffee for consumers in need of a rapid caffeine hit.
Instead, Starbucks opened in 1971 selling espresso makers and coffee beans, which customers would take away with them to make at home.
The first latte didn’t arrive until 13 years later in 1984, when Harold Schultz (current Chairman, president and CEO), was inspired by other cafes during a trip to Italy.
His European excursion clearly paid off, with Starbucks now an immovable feature of street corners around the world and the company reporting a whopping $6.31 billion in sales this July.
This is just a handful of the thousands business pivots made throughout history, and they all hold valuable lessons for entrepreneurs today. If your product or service isn’t doing it for your target market, or you have an inkling of something that could work better, pivoting could be the best decision you ever made. And if you’re not sure how to approach it, check out our helpful blog: have you got the guts to pivot?
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