‘Pivoting’ as a Freelancer or Small Business
‘Pivot into a new area’ — it’s a great sound bite, and something you may have heard a lot recently, but what are the practical steps you can take? The good news is, pivoting to a new business model doesn’t have to mean total reinvention.
For many small businesses and freelancers, the economic shutdown has taken its toll. Customers are spending less during the uncertainty, and often stores and freelancers alike are physically unable to go about their business due to restrictions.
I’m sure we’ve all seen the amazing examples of instructors, teachers, and other professionals taking their business online (often by video conferencing software) in order to keep things going. But for others, this isn’t possible, and an economic downturn could mean things are tough for a while to come.
Remember — as a freelancer or small business, you’ve always been pushing forward. It takes a certain type of person to go into business, and you will have had to push through areas that didn’t come as naturally to you — and you can do it again!
What’s a Pivot?
Firstly, it’s worth examining what a pivot usually means for businesses.
Businesses often pivot when their sales dwindle, usually as a result of a changing (or changed) market. Along with the financial reasons already outlined, businesses may need to consider pivoting because a product (or significant element of their business) has become outdated, there’s too much competition in a marketplace, or simply because public tastes have changed.
What differentiates a pivot from other sorts of business progression is the implication that a part of an operation is being discontinued or updated, rather than the company expanding.
But never forget a pivot is a form of progression. While your reasons for needing to pivot may be entwined with sadness or loss, the fact you’ve identified the need for change, and are going after it is a positive thing.
Take Inspiration From The Way Businesses Pivot
Here’s a great summary about when businesses tend to pivot:
“Can this problem be solved with more research, customer development, funding, etc.?” If the answer is “no”, and you really can’t think of a solution, regardless of how improbable it may be, then you should consider pivoting.”
We’ve all seen the big, old businesses — practically institutions — fall by the wayside because they didn’t innovate, or adapt. And at some point, you have to ask, was there a moment they could have used a pivot to save themselves? After all, a business is just a pot of money. One where you need more coming in from your operations to what goes out. Most previously-successful businesses get plenty of warning too. But pivots can be costly, and with a board of directors to appease, the irony is the more successful the business was, the harder it will be to pivot.
For younger businesses, or businesses just starting out, it should be a more agile process. After all, things shouldn’t be so set in stone. Pivoting (diversification) in business might mean finding a new range of products, targeting new customers, or repositioning a business within its current (or a new) marketplace. It can also involve developing an entirely new strand to the business, or in more radical cases, branching off into an entirely different area. It’s also common for companies to take a single aspect of a product, and introduce that to the market in a different form.
Here’s an example. Take a company that is trying to build an AI device. So many innovations are developed while making that one product. Often, a single aspect of the software (or hardware) designed in the process could be licensed to another company, taken forward in its own right, or used in something new. The same might be said of any unsuccessful product in any business that has one key element (even something as small as a patented hinge) that could be sold on its own to other companies.
Pivoting as a Freelancer
When your income relies on selling your skills or knowledge, a market shift can be more detrimental. In these cases, it means more than updating a product line you sell. If the skill you’ve been monetizing is no longer in demand (or you cannot offer your services during a shutdown), it might feel like your business has become an irrelevant business, and you should shut up shop. But in many cases, this isn’t at all true.
Whether you’re a yoga instructor finding your clients have less disposable income (and are canceling sessions), or a musician trying to navigate a career with current venue closures — or anything in between — it’s a challenging time. Equally, if you’re a hairdresser, make-up artist, physiotherapist, or similar, the in-person contact is more essential than for teachers and instructors that can temporarily transition online.
Options for How to Pivot
Perhaps the first thing to do is assess how long the current issue is likely to last for you personally. We all hope the current economic situation is temporary, and just how temporary depends greatly on your industry, public attitude, and wider job losses (affecting public spending going forward). Do your research. Weigh up how long it’s likely to be, and use this to determine which of the following ideas (if any), will work best for your situation.
- Temporary ‘pivot’
For many freelancers, the current situation is likely to improve in the relatively short-term. In the meantime, if you’re stuck not being able to provide your services, there are always services people will need. Many are not ‘skilled’ professions in the typical sense, and therefore, might be good places to start.
Delivering packages, cleaning, dog walking, and the like are all small things that could work to tide you over. Equally, temporary employment in key businesses (like supermarkets) could be a solution that means the work you’re most passionate about is simply suspended, rather than canceled altogether. There are also other ways to raise funds, or make money, using the Internet.
- Small pivot/realignment
Perhaps the wait for normality is too long, or you simply don’t think there is a demand for your line of work anymore. Do not despair. As with our AI example, there is almost certainly an aspect of what you do — something you take for granted, or that you haven’t even considered a marketable skill — that you could earn income from. Freelancers tend to have a versatile arsenal of skills at their disposal — it’s how they started in the first place.
Part of this could involve retraining, or branching out into similar areas you are passionate about. Re-examine your own skill set, and preconceived ideas about them.
If you’re in office management, you’re probably great at organizing. This is a marketable skill in the form of a home declutterer. If a big part of your business is creating spreadsheets, perhaps you could teach others how to do it. If you built a website to sell yourself and it gets a lot of traffic, there may be other freelancers who would pay for your expertise. Something within your multitasking, multi-skilled profession could very well be worth some money in its own right.
- Full 360 Pivot
As we all learned from that classic scene in Friends, sometimes a more serious pivot is needed. Perhaps you could do some of the ideas above, but they don’t seem long-term, or you want to build up to something new while you do them.
This is the point it may be worth asking yourself different kinds of questions that are slightly more philosophical, and that look forward. What are the areas that have been under-served in your current career? Do you have latent creativity that can now be explored, and come front-and-center?
This isn’t about shifting everything. It may be that a short course coupled with the skills you have will allow you to discover a whole new career avenue. Maybe you’ve seen someone doing something and thought ‘I could do that!’ or ‘I think I would enjoy that career!’. Now could be the time to find out how to make it real.
Needless to say, making big changes could be riskier, but if you put the same passion into it as you did into your original idea, could you make it work? Are there, as we’ve mentioned, assets and skills that you’ve learned along the way that would make it easier to do this time versus when you started out? The answer is almost certainly yes in some areas.
How a Pivot Affects Your Business/Personal Story
Whichever method you choose, the next question is how you position the change. We aren’t going into marketing specifics here (as these vary from industry to industry) but something more at the heart of your business — the story. Businesses and freelancers alike all rely to an extent on a story and a personal brand.
We invested hours defining what our unique selling point is, and carving out a niche. We have targeted our customers in a way that reflects, not only our operations, but our personalities. Perhaps the most daunting thing about a so-called ‘pivot’ in a new direction is how it will affect this identity.
The McDonald’s/Pret a Manger example is a good reference point here. One is a fast-food giant, while the other has a slightly more trendy, wholesome image as an up-market sandwich seller. From 2001 to 2008 McDonald’s was a key investor in Pret. While both are targeted at different demographics, they both shared a common pot of money. But they kept their company identities (stories) very separate.
Many companies are linked in ways that aren’t always immediately obvious. If your personal or brand image doesn’t suit the new direction (which may only be temporary), it’s worth noting that a new website, or doing business through another channel, is always an option.
Redefining your brand might even be fun. Perhaps you can boil it back to a key ethos — a philosophy at the heart of your business that spans multiple new areas, like integrity, or always beating a price. Bigger brands that deal in multiple industries tend to have overall company mantras and guidelines that can be applied to everything.
A minor tweak to your story or ethos, if done with care, probably won’t matter as much to anyone else as it does to you. That isn’t a flippant remark — we simply internalize a lot of our businesses, but the truth is, once a customer or client trusts us and what we do, that is the most important thing.
Which brings us onto the next point. A previous client or customer base is an incredibly valuable commodity. Is there a way you can pivot and still resonate with them?
Even if in an entirely different area or industry, with the right angle and tone of voice, you may be able to drum up some new business with a mail-out, or by updating the site your customers visit regularly.
You could even explain the pivot to your most loyal customers. Perhaps offer to still give the old service if they want it — if it’s a possibility to do both together. Nobody says you have to stop your old service because you’re starting something else. To quote a Sondheim lyric I’m fond of: ‘Why not both instead? / There’s the answer if you’re clever’.
Treat the Internet With Respect
However hard up for cash you are, be careful not to sell your soul. Things tend to stick around on the net, so it’s worth being a bit careful. To give a personal example, I was offered a job interview at a notorious newspaper company. I needed money badly at that time, but I was concerned that working for a company with such a poor reputation would come back to haunt me, and potentially prevent me from getting other job offers in the future.
I shared these concerns with the job agent, who informed me, in a voice drenched with faux-concern: ‘Yes, a lot of people say that about working at (insert your least favorite tabloid name), but they just leave their morals and opinions at the door!’. I did not go for the interview.
Move Forwards, Always
Without wanting to preach to the choir, however unsettling the current climate is, as a skilled worker you should always remember there’s something you have to give. It may take a little time to find it, but there is always a way to pivot into a new area on a personal level.
As a small business or freelancer, there may be a time when you should call it quits, but the fact you are trying to pivot probably suggests you’re quite on the ball. The one thing you can be certain of in business is that what works now may not tomorrow.