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What Houston startups can learn from the power of the pivot

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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Building Houston

 
 

Cheers Health has expanded its product line as it evolves as a wellness-focused brand. Photo courtesy of Cheers

Houston-based startup Cheers first got a wave of brand devotees after it was passed over by investors on Shark Tank in 2018. In the years since, Cheers secured an impressive investment, launched new products, and became a staple hangover cure for customers. When the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted businesses, the company rose to the occasion and experienced its first profitable year as drinking and wellness habits changed across America.

Cheers initially started its company under the name Thrive+ with a hangover-friendly pill that promised to minimize the not-so-fun side effects that come after a night out. The capsules support the liver by replacing lost vitamins, reduce GABAa rebound and lower the alcohol-induced acetaldehyde toxicity levels in the body. The company's legacy product complemented social calendars and nights on the town, providing next day relief.

With COVID-19 lockdowns and social distancing measures, the days of pub crawls and social events were numbered. Cheers founder Brooks Powell saw the massive behavior change in people consuming alcohol, and leaned into his vision of becoming more than just a hangover cure but an "alcohol-related health company," he says.

When the pandemic first hit, Powell and his team noticed an immediate dip in sales — a relatable story for businesses in the grips of COVID-19.

"There is a three day period where we went from having the best month in company history to the worst month in company history, over a 72 hour stretch," he remarks.

He soon called an emergency board meeting and rattled off worst-case "doomsday" scenarios, he says.

"Thankfully, we never had to do any of these strategies because, ultimately, the team was able to rally around the new positioning for the brand which was far more focused on alcohol-related health," he says.

"We found that a lot less people were getting hangovers during 2020, because generally when you binge drink, you tend to binge drink with other people," he explains.

He noticed that health became an important focus for people, some who began to drink less due to the lack of social gatherings. On the contrary, some consumers began to drink more to fill the idle time.

According to a JAMA Network report, there was a 54 percent increase in national sales of alcohol for the week stay-at-home orders began last March, as compared to the year prior.

"All of a sudden, you have all of these people who probably aren't binge drinking but they're just frequently consuming alcohol. Their drinks per week are shooting up, and they're worried about liver health," explains Powell.

Outside of day-after support, Cheers leaned into its long-term health products to help drinkers consume alcohol in a healthier way. Cheers Restore, a dissolvable powder consumers can mix into their water, rehydrates the body by optimizing sodium and glucose molecules.

For continued support, Cheers Protect is a daily supplement designed to increase glutathione — an antioxidant that plays a key role in liver detoxification — and support overall liver health. Cheers Protect, which was launched in 2019, became a focus for the company as they pivoted its brand strategy and marketing to accommodate consumer behavior.

"The Cheers brand is just trying to reflect the mission statement, which is bringing people together through promoting fun, responsible and health-conscious alcohol consumption," says Powell. "It fits with our vision statement, which is a world where everyone can enjoy alcohol throughout a long, healthy and happy lifetime,."

At the close of 2020, Cheers had generated $10.4 million in revenue and over $1.7m in profit — its first profitable year since launch.

During the brand's mission to stay afloat during the pandemic, the Cheers team was also laying the groundwork for its entry into the retail space. When Powell launched the company during his junior year at Princeton University, bringing Cheers to brick-and-mortar stores had always been a goal. He envisioned liquor and grocery stores where Cheers was sold next to alcohol as a complementary item. "It's like getting sunscreen before going to the beach, they kind of go hand in hand," he says.

"When we spoke with retailers, specifically bars and liquor stores, what we learned is that a lot of these places were hesitant to put pills near alcohol," he says. Wanting an attractive and accessible mode of alcohol-support, the Cheers team created the Cheers Restore beverage.

Utilizing the technology Cheers developed with Princeton University researchers, the Cheers Restore beverage incorporates the benefits of the pill in a liquid, sugar-free form. The company states that its in-vivo study found that the drink is up to 19 times more bioavailable than pure dihydromyricetin (DHM), a Japanese raisin tree extract found in Cheers products and other hangover-related cures.

"What we figured out is that if you combine DHM — our main ingredient — with something called capric acid, which is an extract from coconut oil, the bioavailability shoots way up," says Powell. He notes the unique taste profile and the "creaminess" capric acid provides. "Now you have this lightly carbonated, zero-sugar, lemon sherbert, essentially liver support, hangover beverage that tastes great in 12 ounces and can mix with alcohol," he explains.

The Cheers Restore beverage is already hitting the Houston-area, where its found a home on menus at Present Company. The company has also run promotions with Houston hangouts like Memorial Trail Ice House, Drift, and The Powder Keg.

Currently, the beverage is only available in retail capacity and cannot be ordered on the Cheers website. As Powell focuses on expanding Cheers Restore beverage presence in the region, he welcomes the idea of expanding nationally in the future to come. While eager customers await the drink's national availability, they can actively invest in Cheers through the company's recently-launched online public offering.

Though repivoting a company and launching a new product is exciting, the process did not come without its caveats and stressors. While Cheers profited as a business in 2020, the staff and its founder weren't immune to the struggles of COVID-19.

"I think 2020 was the first year that it really became real for me that Cheers is far more than just some sort of alcohol-related health brand and its products," says Powell. "Cheers is really its employees and everything that goes into being a successful, durable company that people essentially bet their careers on and their family's well-being on and so forth," he continues.

"It really does weigh on you in a different way that it's never weighed on you before," says Powell, describing the stress of the pandemic. The experience was "enlightening," he says, and he wants others to know it's not embarrassing to need help.

"There is no lack of great leaders out there that at long periods of their life they needed help in some way," he says. "For me that was 2020 and being in the grinder and feeling the stress of the unknown and all of that, but it could happen to anyone," he continues.

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