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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

 
 

Impact Hub Houston has signed a new lease for the Downtown Houston Launch Pad, Rice students re-think dorm design, and more local innovation news. Photo courtesy of The Cannon

Houston's innovation ecosystem has been booming with news, and not all make the news. For this roundup of short stories within Houston innovation, a Houston startup incubator has a new home, a local school creates AI-focused program, Astros manager taps into sports tech, and more.

Impact Hub Houston makes downtown partnership

Impact Hub Houston has a new headquarters in downtown. Photo courtesy of Central Houston

Impact Hub Houston, a nonprofit organization that promotes and accelerates sustainability-focused startups, is resident partner at Downtown Launchpad, according to Central Houston and the Downtown Redevelopment Authority.

The organization now has a 10-year lease and a new headquarters for its team and events. Impact Hub joins two accelerator programs — MassChallenge Texas and gener8tor — which both have a global presence and launched in Houston in the past two years.

"We celebrate Central Houston's vision in launching this 'vertical village' and appreciate their ongoing support in including Impact Hub Houston as a part of it," says Grace Rodriguez, CEO and executive director of Impact Hub Houston, in a news release. "It takes a village to raise an entrepreneur, and now we have that village with the infrastructure and community to raise generations of diverse innovators. It's another exciting step towards our goal to build an authentically inclusive and equitable entrepreneurial ecosystem that looks like Houston and works for all in our region."

HCC introduces artificial intelligence program

Data science startup based in Houston focus on neuroscience software nabs $3.78M grant

A local college system is training the future AI workforce. Getty Images

Houston Community College is the first community college in the state to introduce a new program focused on artificial intelligence. The new Associate of Applied Science degree program has been approved by Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, according to a press release from HCC, and is available for the fall 2020 semester at HCC Southwest, HCC Northeast and HCC Southeast.

"It is the latest of HCC's ongoing efforts to embrace new technologies and keep a pulse on the ever-changing needs of the industry," HCC Chancellor Cesar Maldonado says in the release. "Offering an innovative program like AI will allow our students to take advantage of all the accelerated job openings in Houston, in Texas and beyond."

The new program exists to fill the rising need for AI professionals. Last year, the job site indeed.com identified machine learning engineers at the top of its annual list of the 25 best jobs, citing a 344 percent increase in job postings from 2015 to 2018 with an annual base salary of $146,000.

"Because of a dire shortage of AI specialists, many companies are offering big salaries," says G. Brown, Ph.D., program coordinator of Networking and Telecommunications at HCC Southwest, in the release. "AI specialists are in high demand by companies like Microsoft, Apple and Amazon, as well as NASA and SpaceX."

Rice project re-envisions dorm layouts

The dorm design created socially-distant spaces that can be used in times of a pandemic. Photo via rice.edu

Two Rice University students received top marks in the 2020 American Institute of Architects Houston (AIAH) Gulf Coast Green Student Competition for their pandemic-proof dorm design. Carrie Li and Mai Okimoto, both 2022 Rice master's of architecture students, won first place in the competition that challenged students to design a dorm for the University of Houston-Downtown that would adhere to the Centers for Disease Control's social distancing guidelines.

"Carrie and Mai's timely and innovative proposal is beautifully conceived, highly resolved and elegantly presented," says interim dean, John J. Casbarian, in a news release. "I am particularly struck by how seamlessly it addresses the pressing issues of flooding, natural ventilation and social distancing, and how well sited it is in relation to UHD while mitigating the adversity of the freeway expansion.The competition consisted of eight teams from Texas and Louisiana which presented to judges from Kirksey, PDR Corporation, Gensler, Walter P Moore and UH-D. Li and Okimoto's project features 432 units across three villages and even factored in the area's flooding challenges.

"[Our design] aims to: allow social interaction to happen on different scales, from the one-on-one connection to larger scale gatherings; provide the users with safe but varied circulation paths, through which natural ventilation also occurs; treat dining as a key socializing program; and address the site's flooding risks and impacts of the I-45 corridor expansion," Li says in the release.

City of Houston passes small business-focused economic relief initiative

A new program from the city of Houston is helping to provide funds for businesses affected by COVID-19. Getty Images

Last week, Mayor Sylvester Turner and the Houston City Council passed the city's Small Business Economic Relief Program, funded with $15 million of the City's allocated CARES Act 2020 funds. Small businesses can apply for up to $50,000 and the grant can be used for payroll, accounts payable, rent, mortgage, PPE for employees, marketing strategies, including creating an online presence and other sales alternatives.

"We know small businesses throughout Houston have suffered greatly due to the global pandemic, and it could take months or years before the business climate returns to normal," says Mayor Sylvester Turner in a news release. "I thank Vice Mayor Pro-Tem Martha Castex Tatum and other council members for bringing this program forward. We are working on other relief packages that will keep us Houston Strong as we navigate the public health crisis."

The program will be administered by Houston's Office of Business Opportunity and the Houston Business Development Inc.

To qualify for the SBERP, businesses must be located in Houston, have been in business for at least one year, provide evidence for revenue decrease due to COVID-19-caused closures, have less than $2 million in gross annual revenue pre-COVID-19, be in good standing with the city, and commit to complete technical assistance.

"The SBERP will help all sizes of small businesses move one step closer toward financial recovery. This program is intended to maximize the long-term, positive impact of these small businesses on our local economy through their contribution to job retention and the continued availability of their services," says Marsha Murray, director for the Office of Business Opportunity, in the release. "If our local small businesses did not qualify for other federal or local programs, or did not receive enough funds to mitigate the impact of the crisis, we encourage them to apply for this program."

Astros manager joins venture capital firm

Not only is Dusty Baker at the helm of the 2017 World Series-winning Astros, but he's also a founding partner of a sports-focused venture capital firm. Getty Images

The Houston Astros manager, Dusty Baker, is a founding partner of a new venture capital firm focused on sports tech and innovation. New York-based Turn2 Equity Partners is a new fund is beginning with a focus on amateur and professional baseball markets.

"For decades, baseball players, managers and executives have lended their credibility to brands as endorsers," Baker says in a press release. "With the establishment of Turn2 Equity, for the first time, faces of the game have the opportunity to own and influence people at all levels."

Co-founded by sports venture capitalists Jarett Sims and Peter Stein, the firm's team also includes Jim Duquette, New York Mets general manager; Bobby Evans, who was formerly with the San Francisco Giants as general manager; and John Haegele, the former CEO of Van Wagner Sports & Entertainment.

GotSpot Inc. wins veterans competition

A Houston startup that's using technology to optimize short-term real estate space took home a prize in a virtual pitch competition. Image via LinkedIn

Houston-based GotSpot Inc. has claimed another pitching competition prize for veteran-owned businesses. Reda Hicks, founder of the Houston startup, received third place and $10,000 at the Ford Fund Virtual Pitch Competition last month. Memphis-based Pure Light Clean Air Services took first place and $15,000 and Raleigh, North Carolina-based Blue Recruit won second place and $10,000.

"The experiences, teamwork and skills learned in service of our country can serve as a solid foundation for these men and women as they build sustainable businesses," says Yisel Cabrera, manager of the Ford Motor Company Fund, in a news release. "We're proud to work with Bunker Labs to assist these inspiring entrepreneurs as they pursue new roads to success."

Calling all energy startups

Upstream startups can submit to a new virtual pitch competition. Photo via atce.org

The Society of Petroleum Engineers is calling for applications from energy startups to compete in a virtual pitch competition. Applications for the ATCE Startup Village, which is a collaboration between SPE and the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, are live online and due by August 14. The competition will take place Tuesday, October 13.

The competition is free to compete and to apply, and open to early stage upstream technology companies. Each company selected to present will have 5 to 8 minutes to provide a "quick pitch" about their company to a group of venture capitalists, angel investors, and industry leaders. Judging will be based on innovative technology, commercial strategy and business plan, market potential, and management team and advisers.

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