It’s OK if Your Product Changes

by Alex Chriss

4 min read

When most people think of an entrepreneur, they picture someone who is extraordinarily passionate about his or her business idea and vision. Yet, while enthusiasm and drive are certainly part of the story, the trait that truly distinguishes a good entrepreneur from a great one is the ability to balance that passion with flexibility.

Sooner or later, every business will face the unexpected. New competition, shifting tech trends and unexpected customer behaviors are a few of the most common. The ability to aptly respond, adapt and take advantage of these changes is the essential ingredient of successful entrepreneurship.

Some of the most acclaimed companies in the world started out with very different products and services than what they are known for today. Take Pinterest, for example. Today, you know it as the popular social network that allows you to share and discover ideas in collections, but Pinterest actually began as a shopping app called “Tote,” which connected people with retailers. After seeing that most people were simply using the app to save and share items, the founders decided to pivot the site into what it is today.

Pinterest’s story is a classic example of a company pivot, and the same story plays out every day as entrepreneurs and small business owners face tough decisions about changing the direction of their business. Here are three best practices to help entrepreneurs and small business owners through the process.

1. Never stop listening to your customers. In 1998, Rick and Sharon Kazdin started Bright White Paper Co., an internet-based business selling paper products. In those days, thermal poster paper – a very specialized type of paper that reacts to heat and is commonly known for use with receipts – was available in only a handful of colors and from just one manufacturer. But, customers, especially those in the education industry, continued asking for more colors than were currently available. Rick got to work figuring out how to meet this need. After significant trial and error, he developed a process of colorizing thermal paper that resulted in two patents and expanded color choices. Today, Bright White is the only manufacturer in the world to offer up to 30 colors of thermal paper, a competitive edge that has increased their sales and global customer base significantly to include government agencies, realtors, hotels and beyond.

Best practice: Always take customer feedback and behavior into account, and be prepared to change your offering to better meet those needs. You may think you have a great business idea, but listening to feedback and seeing the way customers use your product may tell an entirely different story about the direction of your business.

2. Keep your finger on the pulse. A few years ago, former biotech scientist Randy Musterer, aka “Sushi Randy,” turned his passion for sushi into a business by opening a catering service and full-fledged sushi restaurant called Sushi Confidential, offering a unique dining experience by combining innovation, education and artistry. Knowing the importance of staying current, Randy’s approach is to balance sushi-making tradition with creativity. He constantly has his finger on the pulse of new culinary trends, whether he’s trying out new sushi restaurants, perusing top chefs on Instagram or taking advantage of tools, such as Google Alerts, to keep a tab on headlines for emerging foods. In response to the health food movement and common dietary restrictions, Randy expanded his menu to include creative gluten-free and vegetarian options, and most recently, an entirely vegan menu. The work has paid off: Randy now has two restaurant locations alongside a thriving catering business.

Best practice: Be a constant observer to the world around you. Consumer trends, new regulations, or competitive offerings are just a few examples of outside factors that may have a deep impact on your operation and therefore necessitate a response in your business model and offerings.

3. Be proactive with change. Today, ICE Safety Solutions provides safety training, equipment and services. Founder Pam Isom, a former biologist, knows that life (and business) is about change: Evolution impacts the business world the same way it does organic life. In fact, every three years, Pam forces change in her business by pretending to eliminate one of her service offerings. By imagining a world without a particular service, she’s able to analyze the potential repercussions to her business, while ideating new services that could replace the one that was lost. This mental exercise is what inspired an expansion of offerings, including evacuation training services, a fire extinguisher training program and even a training program to help businesses prepare for armed attackers, among other programs. What was once just a CPR training company is now a full-service safety training, equipment and services firm with over $2 million in annual revenue.

Best practice: Don’t wait for the market to require business change; seek out change proactively. This will help you to continue growing and evolving, while also getting you ahead of trends.

Conclusion

Complacency is every entrepreneur’s worst enemy. No matter how passionate you are about your initial business vision, it’s imperative to keep an open mind and embrace change as the need for it arises. If something comes up in your entrepreneurial journey that threatens or challenges your business identity, don’t shy away from it. Like these small businesses, see it as an opportunity to reinvent your business for the better.

Editor’s note: Originally posted to Inc. on Aug. 31, 2017.

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