4 Ways To Pivot When You're a Lean Startup
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Andrew Taylor and Kyle Torrington are the first to admit that it took them too long to pivot their business. “We believe in the lean start-up methodology,” says Andrew. “And if you believe in it, you need to live it.”
In fact, it took just six months for the co-founders to change their business model and rebrand the company from LexNove to Legal Legends. In the world of lean start-ups though, six months is too long.
“When we first launched, we completed the Ignitor Accelerator Programme,” says Kyle. “It was an invaluable experience, and it introduced us to lean start-up methodology and how to implement lean start-up principles in your business. It’s not just about the launch, it’s about the years that follow.
“It’s a set of principles that keep your business relevant and sustainable, but it also requires you to fail fast and adjust your model continuously in a ‘build-measure-learn’ feedback loop. The problem was that even though we understood and believed in the theory, executing pivots in a business is easier said than done.”
“We’d even recognised friction points and underlying assumptions we had around our business and target market that were proving incorrect,” agrees Andrew, “and it still took us a few months to act.”
Why? What prevented two smart entrepreneurs who understood their business, target market and what they needed to do, from acting immediately? It’s a dilemma that business owners will find all too familiar, and it starts with the original idea, and is compounded by industry experts falling in love with your innovative solutions — even though you’re struggling to monetise the business.
Here’s how they pivoted their business and achieved 50% month on month growth as a result.
1. Recognise The gap between vision and reality
“The idea behind LexNove was to make legal services more accessible and affordable for SMEs,” explains Kyle. As lawyers, they were exposed to the reasons why legal services were daunting, and often unaffordable for start-ups and SMEs, and they believed there was a way to address those gaps.
They started by researching what was available globally, and discovered that in the US and UK, similar online reverse bidding sites existed that connected SMEs in need of legal services with law firms who bid for the business.
In theory, this would create a more competitive environment and more affordable prices for SMEs. It would also take the uncertainty out of legal billings, which traditionally charged by the hour, and give a project a flat rate.
“There was nothing like it in South Africa, but the idea had already been tested and proven in other markets,” says Andrew. The co-founders contracted outside developers, resigned in late 2014, and launched LexNove in June 2015.
The business was innovative, on-point and addressed a real market need. Experts and the media lauded it as the future of legal services. But it was proving very difficult to monetise.
“Our beachhead market was SMEs. We’d identified a disconnect between entrepreneurs and traditional legal services, but what we’d failed to really consider was the fact that start-ups and SMEs are very careful with their cash. If the choice is between legal services and survival, understandably they’ll choose survival,” says Kyle.
“Ask almost any established business owner what they wish they’d done differently in their start-up days though, and they almost always say they wish they’d had the right contracts, agreements and intellectual property protection in place. It’s far more expensive to fix later. But when you’re in that space, other costs take precedence.”
Nevertheless, Kyle and Andrew managed to build a strong user base on the site — they’d contacted firms via LinkedIn and their networks to get the law firms on their site, and used Facebook and online advertising to bring users to the site.
They categorised and collated bids and chased the legal firms to ensure they bid on contracts. But, getting users to convert was difficult, and it was only at this stage that LexNove received its percentage of the business. Up until that point, everything they did was free.
It was turning out to be a lot of effort for very small rewards. “Another problem was that deals that did convert introduced a business to a legal firm, and they did future business directly with each other — there was big platform leakage as the SME didn’t come back to the site.
“The legal world is a high-touch, high-trust environment — people want to know and trust their lawyers, and so even though we had provided a ‘matching’ service, once the match was made we were no longer the ‘go to’ legal provider for the SME,” explains Kyle. “We thought people would keep coming back to the site. The reality was quite different.”
Most importantly, the site was failing to do what Andrew and Kyle had intended in the first place — it wasn’t bringing down legal fees. Because the site used outside legal practitioners and couldn’t control or even influence their fee setting, the price point remained aligned with more traditional firms instead of reducing to levels start-ups could afford.
2. Choose a new direction
It’s not always easy to let go of an idea that you’ve nurtured and worked on for so long, particularly when you’re lauded for it. But if you can’t monetise your idea, then it’s not a viable business.
Andrew and Kyle could have continued to plug away. Perhaps if they’d waited long enough, the local market would have caught up to US and European standards, where the business model did work.
Instead, they took a step back, critically reviewed the business, and started implementing the methods they’d learnt around the principles of the lean start-up methodology.
First, they needed to understand why their target market wasn’t responding to the service they were offering. They were addressing a real need, so what was the problem?
“The idea of online legal services in South Africa was new, but ecommerce isn’t,” says Kyle. “The problem is that users were expecting instant gratification. Instead, it took 48 hours to process bids.
“SME owners arrived on the site, and there were no prices, so you were still unsure what you’d get quoted. We realised that uncertainty around prices is a problem for a target market that isn’t well versed in legal services.”
“Even if the uncertainty had been cleared up, there was a secondary problem,” adds Andrew. “What an SME owner is willing to pay for certain legal services versus what law firms charge is miles apart. Services were just seen as too expensive.”
“Our key driver was still to make the law affordable for SMEs,” says Kyle. “We want to capture the 90% of the SME market that can’t afford traditional legal services by revolutionising the way law is done, while still offering quality legal services. LexNove wasn’t achieving this goal. We needed a new solution.”
This understanding, coupled with the challenges they were facing, led to one key question: What did they need from their target market? The answer was clear — they needed to capture and hold the full value of each client using their service, and they needed to offer that service at a price point SMEs could afford.
3. Shift the business model
The co-founders started by addressing their name. “We’d read somewhere that two syllable names were easier to remember, which was where LexNove (based on LexNova, which means new law), came from.
“But we’d fallen into an old trap. We chose a Latin name for a business that was supposed to be democratising legal services,” says Andrew. “We needed a new name that was memorable, made sense, and told our customers exactly what we do.”
Legal Legends was born from a skunkworks project inside LexNove. Andrew and Kyle kept LexNove operational, and let existing customers and partners know they were trying out a new product on the side.
A skunkworks project is developed primarily for the sake of radical innovation, so it allowed the co-founders to test their theories and the lessons they had learnt with LexNove without immediately shifting their business model.
Today, the tagline on the site reads, ‘Fixed priced legendary legal services for entrepreneurs’, immediately followed by a ‘shop now’ button that takes you to a fixed-price menu.
So, how did Andrew and Kyle achieve their goal? True to lean start-up principles, they did it with a lot of hard work, testing, measuring, adjusting and implementing. Working with outside developers meant long lead times, so Kyle learnt to code.
They also paid careful attention to how their customers responded to their offerings. Once the business had pivoted as a result of lessons learnt from LexNove, it began to experience 50% monthly growth.
“Our goal was to achieve the creation of intelligent automated contracts, which are automatically curated based on user preferences,” says Kyle. “Our biggest challenge was how to bring our prices down and find an annuity income model.” The answer was automation and instalment payment plans.
In its new format, Legal Legends is actually a far more unique offering than LexNove was, but it’s also a familiar ecommerce platform that South Africans are more familiar with, and therefore more comfortable using. “We realised we were asking people to spend R10 000 on a reverse bidding site, with no credibility or track record,” explains Andrew.
“The new site has a menu with prices. There are no hidden costs or surprises. We started with 50 of our most common services, and listed them as products, the way you would see books listed on Amazon, or products on Takealot. We then advertised our products through online and other means.
“A user can purchase a product in under one minute, and then they fill out a digitised questionnaire. This information gives us the details we need to customise the agreement they have bought.”
Once Andrew and Kyle had a clear understanding of their value proposition, the rest fell into place. In the legal world, costs are directly related to time. Lawyers charge by the hour, so to reduce costs, you need to reduce the time you spend on a service or contract. “We also understood that we needed to communicate a price point and what you get for it upfront — this was essential,” says Andrew.
4. Find a model that scales
To then deliver a quality product, the co-founders used the 8020 principle. “We determined 80% of a contract or agreement can be automated, and only 20% needs to be customised,” says Kyle. “We then designed questionnaires that would give us the information we needed to create the contracts, and developed customised software to automate the process.”
Legal Legends now uses in-house lawyers, contracting out to other lawyers when necessary. Through the questionnaires and automated process, the time taken to deliver a fully customised contract is made dramatically more efficient, and pricing is much lower. In many cases, customers are paying less than a third of traditional legal costs.
“We keep iterating by adhering to the ‘build-measure-learn’ feedback loop. Automation and the questionnaires take a lot of time upfront, but once they’re up, 90% of the work is done for each client who follows. It allows us to do the work in-house, charge less, and to earn annuity income, while maintaining the standard of service and expertise we’ve become known for.”
The result is far more repeat business, and a much higher level of comfort for first-time users arriving on the site.
A ‘build-measure-learn’ feedback loop has also meant that Kyle and Andrew are continuously looking for additional ways to make it even easier for SMEs to do business with them. One such solution is the introduction of interest-free instalment debits.
“The first instalment significantly de-risks our exposure and reduces our risk, but giving our clients the opportunity to pay for the service in regular debit orders also helps them carry a cost that they might otherwise forgo. We are now capturing the market we wanted in the first place,” says Kyle.
“We remain accessible, but we’ve automated as much as possible without sacrificing on quality, and offer skype meetings over meetings in person. We’re now the custodians of the relationships we build with users of the site, but have found ways to significantly reduce the amount of unnecessary time spent with each client, which has resulted in a completely new cost structure,” says Andrew.
“We wanted to be an Airbnb or Uber that connected the market with service providers. The high-touch, high-trust nature of law was an issue, and our solution didn’t reduce the price point of these services, which was the main focus of the business. To do that we needed to capture the full value of each client, and radically adjust how we do law.
“An automated free legal health check we’ve designed is a great tool to convert clients, and if we do convert them, we start with information in hand that reduces the time taken to develop the contracts or agreements they need. “Plus, we can scale the business without increasing overheads — we’ve increased our own capacity and decreased time taken per transaction. That’s the definition of scale.”
The Lean Start-up Model
The Lean Start-up philosophy was developed by Eric Ries, a Silicon Valley-based entrepreneur who also sat on venture capital advisory boards. He published The Lean Startup in 2011, igniting a movement around a new way of doing business.
The model follows key precepts that include:
- Taking untested products to market. The fact that too many start-ups begin with an idea for a product that they think people want, spending months (or even years) perfecting that product without ever testing it in the market with prospective customers. When they fail to reach broad uptake from customers, it’s often because they never spoke to prospective customers and determined whether or not the product was interesting. The earlier you can determine customer feedback, the quicker you can adjust your model to suit market needs.
- The ‘build-measure-learn’ feedback loop is a core component of lean start-up methodology. The first step is figuring out the problem that needs to be solved and then developing a minimum viable product (MVP) to begin the process of learning as quickly as possible. Once the MVP is established, a start-up can work on tuning the engine. This will involve measurement and learning and must include actionable metrics that can demonstrate cause and effect.
- Utilising an investigative development method called the ‘Five Whys’. This involves asking simple questions to study and solve problems across the business journey. When this process of measuring and learning is done correctly, it will be clear that a company is either moving the drivers of the business model or not. If not, it is a sign that it is time to pivot or make a structural course correction to test a new fundamental hypothesis about the product, strategy and engine of growth.
- Lean isn’t only about spending less money. It’s also not only about failing fast and as cheaply as possible. It’s about putting a process in place, and following a methodology around product development that allows the business to course correct.
- Progress in manufacturing is measured by the production of high quality goods. The unit of progress for lean start-ups is validated learning. This is a rigorous method for demonstrating progress when an entrepreneur is embedded in the soil of extreme uncertainty. Once entrepreneurs embrace validated learning, the development process can shrink substantially. When you focus on figuring the right thing to build — the thing customers want and will pay for, rather than an idea you think is good — you need not spend months waiting for a product beta launch to change the company’s direction. Instead, entrepreneurs can adapt their plans incrementally, inch by inch, minute by minute.