YouTube, Yelp, and Groupon all pivoted to great success. Here's what lessons Houston startups can take from these pivots. Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

Tons of companies start off as something completely different until they are faced with a challenge that only a change in direction can overcome.

Why should your startup pivot?

Imagine your startup is getting ready to present its product to the world at a tech exhibit. Right before you present, another company shows off their own product. And it's just like yours in every way. Is all lost for your company? No. Because now is the time where you must learn one of the most important principles in business. The startup pivot.

A pivot is a change in strategy. A new approach to your business model. A change in direction.

Companies that pivoted

Did you know that YouTube wasn't always a video sharing platform? That's right. YouTube actually started off as a dating service. You'd send in videos of yourself, essentially selling yourself to potential dates in your area. They even had a catchline: "Tune in, hook up."

Upon realizing the massive potential they had for hosting videos, the company pivoted and is now worth $40 billion. Talk about no regrets.

Yelp started off as an automated system that suggested recommendations from friends. The execution of this idea wasn't well-received. However, the founders recognized that users were writing tons of reviews for businesses just because they enjoyed it. And just like that, Yelp became the billion-dollar third-party directory we all know and love today. It was all because the founders knew enough to pivot.

Groupon actually started off as a social platform whereby people could unite to support charities and socially conscious causes. It was called The Point. This idea soon withered but a branch of The Point proved to be popular: a subdomain called Groupon. This idea turned out to be more popular, as people showed deep interest in pooling together funds to broker a group discount.

What these companies teach about pivoting

These companies' success from pivoting teaches us to focus on what we already have built. If there is an aspect of your business that isn't quite working out, there might actually be a part of your business that is. Look for that part and focus on it. Expand on it. Search for positives within your company and concentrate on developing them into something new and different.

We can also learn to cut our losses. Even if your idea is a genius one, if it's not yielding money, you have to move on. Getting stuck in the "just give it more time it'll work out" quicksand can sink your business fast. If you're hemorrhaging money because of your awesome-on-paper idea, the more chances you give it to succeed, the more money you'll lose. You have to know when to say when.

Another thing these three companies did was to follow the trail of money. They recognized areas of strength, and rode those areas to the bank. They concentrated on the aspects of their startups that yielded the most revenue. And you should too.

Don't be afraid of change. Your company doesn't have to be a success over night. It's okay to give it some time. But there is an art to knowing when give up and try something else. You have to master that art, just like the aforementioned companies did. Open yourself up to bigger possibilities. Sometimes, when working on the idea you thought was so brilliant, you stumble on to a different idea that proves to be more financially auspicious. Then it's time for a startup pivot. It's up to you to spot those instances and run with them, just like YouTube, Yelp, and Groupon did.

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea.

Rene Cantu is the writer and editor at UH Division of Research.

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UH experts join $10M initiative advancing biopharmaceutical manufacturing

teaming up

An engineering project at the University of Houston has been selected to join a $10 million effort to bring biopharmaceutical manufacturing into the future. The National Institute for Innovation in Manufacturing Biopharmaceuticals (NIIMBL) chose the lab of Richard Willson, Huffington-Woestemeyer Professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at UH, as one of eight development projects that it will fund.

Willson and his team are working to develop a mix-and-read antibody measurement system that uses fluorescent materials to determine the amount of antibody present in a sample. The funding for this project is $200,000. This is the first grant UH has received from NIIMBL.

“In the course of the manufacturing processes, it's important to know the concentration of antibody in your sample and this measurement needs to be made many times in a typical manufacturing process,” said Willson in a press release. In the realm of fluorescents, he is also working to pioneer the use of glow sticks to detect biothreats for the U.S. Navy. His discoveries include a fluorescent material that emits one color of light when excited with another color of light.

Antibodies are what immune cells produce in response to alien substances such as bacteria and viruses. Lab-made antibodies, called monoclonal antibodies, have been in use since the 1980s. Antibody treatments now account for some of the world’s top-selling drugs.

“The nice thing about this reagent is that it becomes more fluorescent in the presence of antibodies, and you can determine the amount of antibody present in a sample by using it,” said Willson. “Along with our industrial partners Genentech, Agilent and Bristol Myers Squibb, we think that this might be a useful tool for people who do everything from growing the cells that make the antibodies, to determining concentrations of antibody before purifying them.”

Willson’s team also includes Katerina Kourentzi, research associate professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at UH; Yan Chen, Agilent; Midori Greenwood-Goodwin, Genentech/Roche; and Mathura Raman, Bristol-Myers Squibb.

“One really distinguishing feature of this project is the tight coupling to industry,” said Kourentzi. “We got a lot of guidance from our industrial partners who volunteer to work with us through NIIMBL.” And through that, the technology could make it to the market in record time.

Here's what it takes to be a middle class earner in Houston in 2024

by the numbers

No one wants to hear that they aren't making enough money to be considered "middle class," but those income ceilings are getting more difficult to maintain year after year across the Houston area. And a new report has revealed The Woodlands has the No. 10 highest income ceiling for American middle class earners in 2024.

According to the 2024 edition of SmartAsset's annual "What It Takes to Be Middle Class in America" report, middle class households in The Woodlands would need to make between $91,548 and $274,670 a year to be labeled "middle class." Additionally, the suburb's median middle class household income comes out to $137,335 a year.

The report used a variation of Pew Research's definition of a middle class household, stating the salary range is "two-thirds to double the median U.S. salary." To determine income limits, the report analyzed data from the Census Bureau's 2022 one-year American Community Survey. New to the 2024 report, SmartAsset widened its analysis of income data from 100 to 345 of the largest American cities.

The Woodlands' middle class income thresholds are egregiously higher than the national average, the study found.

"In a large U.S. city, a middle-class income averages between $52,000 and $155,000," the report says. "The median household income across all 345 cities is $77,345, making middle-class income limits fall between $51,558 and $154,590."

Sugar Land was right behind The Woodlands, ranking No. 13 out of all 345 U.S. cities, with households needing to make between $88,502 and $265,532 a year to maintain their "middle class" status.

In a shocking turn of events, Houston plummeted into No. 254 this year after ranking among the top 100 in SmartAsset's 2023 report. At the time, a Houston household needed to make between $37,184 and $110,998 a year to be considered middle class. But the latest findings from the 2024 report show the necessary salary range to maintain a middle class designation in Houston is now between $40,280 and $120,852 a year.

The study's findings are shedding light on further growing financial stress and affordability struggles throughout the U.S., likely heightened by inflation and cost of living increases.

"As a middle-class American, there is some expectation for living a lifestyle of relative comfort," the report said. "But as costs have increased significantly over the last few years, the middle class is now feeling a squeeze in their finances."

Here’s what it takes to be middle class in other Houston-area cities:

  • No. 34 – Atascocita: between $71,748 and $215,266 a year
  • No. 39 – League City: between $69,904 and $209,734 a year
  • No. 45 – Pearland: between $69,990 and $206,992 a year
  • No. 211 – Conroe: between $43,814 and $131,456 a year
  • No. 273 – Pasadena: between $38,048 and $114,156 a year

Middle class income thresholds within the top 10 U.S. cities
The Woodlands wasn't the only Texas city to earn a spot in the top 10. Frisco, a suburb outside of Dallas, ranked two spots higher to claim No. 8 in the national comparison of U.S. cities with the highest income thresholds to be labeled middle class.

Middle class households in Frisco need to make between $97,266 and $291,828 a year, with the median household income at $145,914, according to the report.

Unsurprisingly, half of the top 10 cities with the highest middle class income ceilings are in California. The report found households in four of the five cities could be bringing in over $300,000 a year in income and still be classified as middle class.

California’s overall high cost-of-living means residents in the No. 1 city of Sunnyvale would need to make between $113,176 and $339,562 a year to be labeled middle class. Sunnyvale overtook Fremont for the top spot in the report in 2024.

The top 10 cities with the highest middle class ceilings are:

  • No. 1 – Sunnyvale, California
  • No. 2 – Fremont, California
  • No. 3 – San Mateo, California
  • No. 4 – Santa Clara, California
  • No. 5 – Bellevue, Washington
  • No. 6 – Highlands Ranch, Colorado
  • No. 7 – Carlsbad, California
  • No. 8 – Frisco, Texas
  • No. 9 – Naperville, Illinois
  • No. 10 – The Woodlands, Texas

The full report and its methodology can be found on smartasset.com.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.