Creativity is overrated

For a long time, I championed the notion that my startup had not strayed from my original vision. I would proudly and repeatedly tell people that the enterprise technology I envisioned in my college dorm room was still virtually the same nearly two years later. After all, Hublished was my stroke of creative genius, and it felt good to be spot on with a solution to a pain point.

My startup followed, for the most part, a typical trajectory. After theorizing the need for a destination site for businesses and professionals to share and discover webinars, my co-founders and I put together a team and began to build a product. We won the “Ready, FIRE!, Aim” business competition and received an investment from FirstMark Capital’s Managing Director, Lawrence Lenihan. We raised more capital and eventually got into a prestigious enterprise accelerator program.

As staunch adherents to the lean startup methodology, we did our best to incrementally test our hypotheses and take nothing for granted. We released an alpha iteration and tested it with real businesses. Then a beta and more testing. I’ve written extensively before about how much we learned during user testing. We went so far as to redesign the user experience several times to address feedback and concerns. But our vision of expanding access to curated webinars remained intact, consistently proving quite popular with marketers and professionals alike.

The only question that remained was how we would get marketers to share webinars while simultaneously providing them with an audience to discover those webinars. But this elephant in the room — which more closely resembled a chicken and egg — was simply an afterthought for us. It would be trumped by the fact that we were building something really creative that marketers were already enthusiastic about. We were sure that, after launching, marketers would join the site en masse and then promote it to their customers and prospects. Sure, we might have to tweak a few things here and there as we had done after user testing in the past, but the overwhelming majority of what we built would suffice.

We launched and, within two weeks, nearly a hundred companies registered for the site and even started adding tons of webinars. But, to our utter dismay, two things happened. First, almost all the users that initially tested the site immediately disappeared. When I asked them why, I got virtually the same answer every time. They said they loved the idea of a destination site under the pretenses that there’d be an audience, but without an audience they weren’t interested.

Second, none of the new companies that joined the site after launch invited their followers to the site. A quick survey indicated that their reasoning was that they didn’t want to share their leads with competitors. I didn’t understand. Why did companies even bother signing up for the site and sharing tons of content but not tell anyone where to find it?

We thought we’d get enough initial traction to be able to secure more capital so we could increase our exposure at industry conferences and other channels. But without companies pooling their leads together to kick start a Hublished community, we were dead in the water. Or so we thought.

I soon got an email from one of the businesses that registered right after our launch. Then a phone call from another. Before we knew it, we had dozens of marketers asking us the same question: Why didn’t we let them embed their webinars from Hublished onto their own sites? Huh? What were they talking about?

In an effort to build a destination site, we had inevitably built tools to easily design sleek landing pages for upcoming and recorded webinars. Our landing pages come equipped with features that are important to and obvious for webinar marketing, like one-click social registration, time-zone conversion, and calendar integration. Business pages have an interactive section for upcoming webinars and recording webinars, with built-in intelligence to automatically transfer upcoming webinars to the recorded section after they’re over. Apparently, new businesses joined the site after seeing screenshots of these features, which are otherwise not readily available in an industry that has yet to provide the required infrastructure for webinar marketing. Our new users wanted to be able to embed this feature set and technology onto their own sites to eliminate the IT headache they currently experience and to optimize the traffic and interest they already receive. They didn’t care about the destination site — at least not until we could provide them with an audience.

We originally acquired testers by emphasizing our vision of a destination site, so all of our user testing focused on features that promoted the interrelationship between businesses and professionals on Hublished, like color scheme, page layouts, and placement of contact information. No one had ever tested the site or the webinar landing pages to measure their conversion rate effectiveness.

To make matters worse, bug reports were piling up. Numerous features weren’t functioning properly, including our mission critical analytics suite. I remember putting my head down and thinking, “this ship is sinking.”

And then one of our engineers called me over to his desk. “Look at this,” he said, wide-eyed, pointing to a column in a spreadsheet. “I pulled this out of the analytics suite of one of our initial testers to isolate the bug, but ended up finding something much more important.”

He was looking at numbers that spanned across many months of testing — numbers I simply couldn’t believe. Apparently, one of our early testers was not sold on the destination site but instead cared more about the features included inside. While none of their competitors were on the site during initial testing, this business had been inviting their followers to sign up for their webinars using Hublished landing pages, rather than using their own site’s less powerful and more technically tedious, customized landing pages. And our conversion rate — the percentage of people who viewed the landing page and ended up registering for the webinar — was quite impressive.

“I think we need to explore this a bit further,” our engineer told me.

But the idea of switching business models entirely, from a webinar destination site to a monthly, subscription-based embeddable technology, was preposterous. That simply wasn’t what we were doing, and there was no way we were going to be yet another one of those companies that ‘pivots.’ For so long, we reveled in the fact that we didn’t need to change much of anything. We won competitions based on our original idea. We raised funding, got into an accelerator, had tons of press, and worked with many advisors — all because of this idea.

We were determined not to pivot. To us, pivoting was an admission to being wrong. It’s what companies do because they weren’t actually solving a pain point in the first place. That wasn’t us. We simply needed to market our current product better.

So we set up a meeting with Lawrence Lenihan, one of our initial investors and one of the first people to believe in our idea. We explained to him the situation and he helped us think things through.

We knew the reason his business competition we launched out of was called Ready, FIRE!, Aim was because people who spend all their time planning and masterminding an idea never get around to actually testing the idea. But we felt our situation was different — we tested the idea and were willing to make major changes to our site, but we couldn’t simply abandon our ‘vision.’

That’s where we were wrong though. Meeting with Lenihan helped us realize that our vision isn’t a webinar destination site — our vision is to increase access to webinars, and this new route lets us do that most effectively. Lenihan didn’t appear to be surprised that we’d need to switch strategies multiple times to achieve our vision. As we have come to learn, it’s a natural part of the entrepreneurial process.

Our initial fear of pivoting was not unwarranted. Pivoting is notoriously overused as an excuse to shift gears and keep spending money on a business that never really had and continues not to have a viable value proposition. The New Yorker even poked fun at the industry’s obsession with the phrase:

We didn’t want to be the butt of a joke. But, as we discovered after speaking with Lenihan, pivoting is a central component of building a company.

Eric Ries, the pioneer of the Lean Startup Methodology and coiner of the term ‘pivot’ in this context, distinguishes between two types of business maneuvers. Some entrepreneurs wrongfully think they’re pivoting when they “jump to a new vision” without pause. This sort of situation, Ries argues, should require a whole new set of hypotheses that don’t necessarily translate over from the original business, even if many of the same elements and technologies remain. Ries defines the correct form of pivoting as “a change in strategy without a change in vision.”

Ries compares pivoting to using a GPS device. Just like a user’s job is to identify the destination while the GPS adjusts to traffic to find the path of least resistance, entrepreneurs should strive toward a vision but deploy a strategy that adapts to unforeseen obstacles.

Since our ‘pivot epiphany,’ we’ve reframed our value proposition, testing our site as a standalone set of tools rather than a destination site. Our users’ results thus far have been remarkable. We’ve eliminated more than 90% of the technical time it takes marketers to design components of a seamless webinar lifecycle promotion. And that’s while matching or boosting conversion rates by as much as 40%.

To be honest though, I still feel uneasy that we had to pivot. But I’m grateful that, so far, we’ve learned a lot from the experience and our company seems to be on a much stronger path. It’s weird for me — as the creative architect of our original vision and everything up to it — to admit, but entrepreneurship really isn’t about creativity. It’s about evaluating and responding to market reaction. Creativity alone is so overrated.