There’s an ancient Greek myth about a king called Sisyphus, who committed a terrible crime against the gods and was condemned to an eternity of hard labour! He was forced to spend each and every day carrying a huge boulder – a great big rock – up a mountain, only to see the thing roll all the way back down again once he’d got it to the summit! It’s a story I’ve come to strongly identify with over recent months as it seemed like a metaphor for my own existence! I kept telling myself that the secret to setting up a successful business lay in learning to love pushing the boulder uphill, but in the end, it all got too much for me and I realised something had to change.
Andrew and I set up Lexical Lab three years ago, initially to provide an online space for teachers who wanted to learn more about lexical teaching. We planned to write a few blog posts, post up some photos from places we’d been to and not a lot else, to be honest. We then got on with our writing, finishing off the second edition of Outcomes and publishing a methodology book called Teaching Lexically with Delta. After all of that, we got involved with trying to set up and run a language school, which is when the story of Sisyphus really started becoming very real for us both!
As we slowly came to see we weren’t cut out for running a full-time school, we realised we would need to pivot. In business terms, if you pivot, you change your strategy and your direction. It’s a fairly common thing for start-ups to have to do as they try to work out how best to find the right customers, and the best way to position themselves in the market. For lots of companies, pivoting can be a painful process: staff often get laid off – or made redundant. In other words, they lose their jobs – not because they’ve done anything wrong, but simply because there’s not enough money coming in to justify keeping them. However, pivoting is also a chance to show you’ve learned from the past and are ready to apply these insights in new areas.
One of the most famous pivots was performed by Groupon, which started out in 2007 as something called The Point. The idea was that campaigns that were for the good of society could raise funds from donors who’d only have to actually pay if the funds raised reached a tipping point that would allow the jobs to get done. Groupon then started as a side project, applying the same tipping point concept to unlocking discounts on activities and services. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the public’s desire for special deals on spa days and Brazilian waxes outweighed its desire to fix up the local park, and Groupon soon became the main business. Its format quickly spread around the world via a seemingly endless procession of ‘clones’, many of which Groupon has bought in order to expand its empire. The initial pivot proved incredibly successful.
For Lexical Lab, our desire to pivot has less to do with seeking growth or profit and more to do with ensuring a healthier work-life balance. We’re going to run a six-week summer school in London, offering a small number of our own language and teacher development courses; we’re going to teach a few lessons a week online; we’re going to carry on writing classroom material and talking at conferences and blogging and doing these word of the day posts . . . and we’re also going to be spending more time with our families, and more time reading, listening to music, going on long walks, cycling, watching football, checking out new exhibitions, and maybe even just sitting in the pub!
We’ll be changing the website around a bit over the next few weeks, so keep your eyes peeled to see more about what we have planned!
- Can you think of any other companies who have pivoted? Why? Did the pivot work for them?
- Are you happy with your own work-life balance?
- Have you ever read / seen anything that felt like a metaphor for your own existence?
- Have you heard of Groupon? Have you ever used it?