Wednesday, June 3, 2015

A Successful Pivot for Peter Pan

My twice-annual trip to New York City last weekend (Mecca for musical theatre junkies like my family and me) reminded me about the power of the pivot.

For the uninitiated, a pivot is when the people running an enterprise recognize that the business model they are using just doesn’t work. Not surprisingly, this can be rather common with a startup. Rather than continuing to bang their heads against the wall, the team will pivot away from the existing model and toward a new business opportunity (often, but not always, related to the original business). 

A few examples of well-known companies that have pivoted successfully:

  • Twitter began as a network where people could subscribe to podcasts. Once iTunes entered the market, company employees were given two weeks to come up with new ideas.  The winning one was status updating via a “micro blog.” (I can’t help wondering if I gave that example in 140 characters or less)[Editor: No!]
  • Stewart Butterfield, a founder of a business originally focused on building a “never-ending online gaming platform” (sounds a little like Purgatory, if you ask me) managed to salvage the popular photo-sharing tool built for the platform and turn it into Flickr.
  • Even Starbucks didn’t start with the plan to own a shop (or two) on every corner of the planet. It originally was focused on selling espresso makers and coffee beans.
  • While Nintendo may be well known today for Donkey Kong, Zelda, and those ever-popular plumbing brothers, Mario and Luigi, it actually has existed for centuries and pivoted many times. Believe it or not, it once made vacuum cleaners, produced instant rice, and even owned a short-stay hotel chain (called a “love hotel”—use your imagination…)!

I’ve definitely seen some successful pivots by entrepreneurs in my career working with them. Of course, I’ve also seen a few businesses that pivoted over and over again (sort of like a ballerina) and never were able to find the right business model.

I’m sure readers (unless they’ve already stopped reading) are asking themselves, “What does this all have to do with a trip to NYC?” Well, it was a typical trip for us (six musicals in four days). It was easy to like “Something Rotten,” the clever new show (nominated for 10 Tony Awards) about a couple of playwrights living in Shakespearean times who decide to create the world’s first musical to compete with The Bard.  But I was surprised how much we all liked “Finding Neverland,” especially given the negative critical reaction to it.  To me, this show, based on the Johnny Depp film of the same name about where J. M. Barrie got his inspiration for “Peter Pan,” is a rare example of a pivot that actually worked.

Typically, bringing in a “show doctor” or having extended re-writes and preview periods is a recipe for failure (“Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” anyone?), but Harvey Weinstein, the producer of “Finding Neverland,” seems to have gotten it right. You can read more of the details here.  In short, Weinstein discarded the $20 million version of the musical (which originally premiered in Britain) and brought in a completely new creative team, including Tony Award-winning director Diane Paulus. The details are fascinating to me because I love musicals and the entrepreneurial spirit that led Weinstein to successfully pivot the way he did. 

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