Medium’s Many Pivots

The startup world has always been enamored with the idea of “the pivot”—or recognizing a previously unseen business opportunity and adapting your company’s offering to serve that, rather than stick to your original mission.
It’s easy to see why this concept has gained traction in the Valley. Startups pride themselves on being nimble and agile, and on valuing results above all else. If you spot a better idea or opportunity, there’s no use in being precious about sticking to your original idea. Indeed, this willingness to drop everything and pivot when the opportunity comes along has served many companies well. Famous examples of these companies include Flickr, Nokia, Groupon and Pinterest.

Finding A New Direction

It obviously matters how you pivot. Are you clearly explaining why you’ve changed course? Are you abandoning old users and hoping they’ll become new users? And are you honoring the commitments you made in your old business proposition and not burning bridges on your way to your new venture? In addition to this, however, it also matters how many times you pivot.
In a sense, radically changing your business proposition to serve a new niche or user follows the law of diminishing returns. The first time you take the big risk and succeed, there are huge gains to be made. The second or third time, you might be trying your luck a little too hard. The fifth or sixth time, it actually might start becoming a damaging image for your brand and preclude future success—no matter what your new business model is.

Medium’s Pivot Profile

A prime example of this “too many pivots” problem is the blogging site Medium. Founded by Ev Williams, one of the original founders of Twitter, Medium has always had a shape-shifting persona. But in 2016, it seemed to really galvanize behind an editorial-focused model, creating and curating quality content as a way to get more and more users on the platform. As The Verge reported: “Williams said Medium grew in popularity as a product last year, with 300 percent growth in readers and published posts. (The company claims about 60 million monthly readers.) It also invited more than a dozen boutique publishers to move their businesses to the platform, including the Awl Network and Bill Simmons’ new publication The Ringer. Medium split ad revenue with the publishers, generating the company’s first real revenue.”
While that in itself was a pivot, this ad-based model seemed to gain traction and have the respect of many people in the industry. But it didn’t last long. Medium soon laid off 50 of these editorial staffers (a third of its workforce) in early 2017, and has since announced yet another business model it’s getting behind: a subscription model, which asks users to pitch in $5 for the site’s most premium content, and allows authors to monetize their own content.

One Pivot Too Many?

However, an exposé in Buzzfeed explains that in the wake of yet another pivot, the company seems to have alienated many of the marquee users it hopes will use, and evangelize on behalf of, its new business model: “This is far from the first big change — or, to use the term of art, “pivot” — for Medium, which has tried and discarded at least five business models in as many years. Interviews with 17 sources close to Medium paint a picture of a company that has plenty of buzz but no stable strategy, and that has cycled through and in some cases alienated the writers, editors, and publishing executives it purports to put first.”
It’s highly possible that Medium’s new business model—arguably its fifth since its founding—has all the makings of success. However, it’s hard to deny that it’s frequent pivots up until this point impinges in the likelihood of that success by damaging its reputation. Medium’s future remains to be seen, but the lesson is already clear: it not only matters how you pivot, but also how often.