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Eight famous (and staggeringly successful) business pivots

During this global crisis as the COVID-19 pandemic causes an unprecedented shift in the economic landscape, businesses are adapting and pivoting to survive. It’s a time for creativity, for being bold and decisive and for thinking outside the box. It’s also a time for businesses to use their skills and facilities to find gaps in the market. And then quickly fill them.

In fact, pivoting can provide a platform for growth once the world starts to recover. Businesses that have pivoted to keep afloat are often those in the best position to leverage opportunities moving forward.

While this period of pivoting is unparalleled, there have been many iconic companies who’ve had to transform to survive. By transforming, sometimes with a complete 180-degree shift, these well-known brands have pivoted to staggering success.

Nintendo

During the 1900s Nintendo was the largest card-selling business in Japan. Over the years it tried its hand as a taxi service, short-stay ‘love hotel’ chain, ramen noodle manufacturer and vacuum cleaner business. In the 1980s, Nintendo pivoted into the games and electronic toys industry and the rest, as they say, is history. With the success of arcade games Donkey Kong and Mario Bros, Nintendo launched innovative gaming consoles such as Game Boy and Nintendo Switch. In 2018, Nintendo earned nearly US$10 billion in profit.

Twitter

Needing no introduction, Twitter actually began life as Odeo, a podcasting platform. However, the launch of Apples iTunes swamped the market, rendering Odeo obsolete. Employees were given two weeks to come up with new business ideas. During a company brainstorming session Jack Dorsey presented the idea of sharing your ‘status’ – what you’re doing, thinking or feeling. Twitter launched in 2006 with Dorsey at the helm. Today, although worth about US$19 billion, pundits are suggesting it may be time for the company to pivot again.

Play-Doh

Launched in the 1930s as a wall cleaner, Kutol was designed to clean the black residue that coal heaters left on walls. However, demand for the cleaner declined dramatically over the next two decades as oil and gas heating became more popular. Looking for a new direction, the company heard of a schoolteacher using the product in arts and crafts classes. Kutol quickly reincarnated as Play-Doh, a multi-coloured modelling compound. Now owned by Hasbro, Play-Doh has a market cap of about US$14 billion with more than two billion cans of Play-Doh distributed worldwide.

Flickr

Launched in 2004 as an online role-playing game called Game Neverending, the game’s photo-sharing tool turned out to be one of its most popular features. Leveraging this, the company decided to concentrate specifically on online photography and pivoted to become Flickr. The company was acquired by Yahoo! in 2005.

Starbucks

In 1971, Starbucks was launched as a business selling espresso makers and coffee beans. However, in 1983 after a visit to Italy, CEO Howard Schultz decided to actually brew the Starbucks coffee beans in a European-style coffee house. Starbucks had found its business destiny and now the world-famous chain boasts 31,256 stores worldwide.

Instagram

Instagram began life as Burbn, a Foursquare-like app, that allowed users to check in at their favourite spots, share photos and arrange catch-ups. It was originally intended as a part-time project for Co-Founder Kevin Systrom to learn coding. However, when Systrom noticed the photo sharing feature was most commonly used, he declared Burbn a “false start” and streamlined the app to create Instagram. Within hours of its launch, Instagram had more followers than Burbn had made in a year. Just two years later, it was bought by Facebook for US$1 billion.

Airbnb

In 2007, friends Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia rented out air mattresses in their San Fransisco apartment to conference attendees. All nearby hotels were booked out and demand for accommodation was high. They called their service Air Bed and Breakfast. However they soon realised this business model wouldn’t be sustainable unless there were conferences. So they pivoted opening the concept to travellers looking for cheap accommodation and an authentic local experience. Today, Airbnb is estimated to be worth about US$38 billion.

YouTube

“Tune In, Hook Up” was the unofficial slogan of the video-dating site YouTube that launched on Valentine’s Day in 2005. The concept never took off. So when the co-founders realised users were using the site differently than they’d intended, they pivoted. The breakthrough came when Co-Founder Jawed Karim posted the first-ever video famously saying elephants have “really, really, really long trunks”. This inspired users to post silly videos of themselves on the site. In 2006, YouTube was bought by Google for US$1.65 billion. It’s now the most popular video sharing site on the internet with an estimated worth up to US$160 billion.

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