Adapt Or Die: MBA Entrepreneurs Pivot To Start-Up Success

For start-up success in today's competitive markets, start-ups often have to adapt or die. Pivoting is driving MBA entrepreneurs to business success.

Adapt or die.

That is fast becoming the mantra for small businesses world-wide.

Sujit Bhattacharya may have thought his MBA team hit the jackpot when they co-founded CL Educate.

“It started off as a very small start-up which helped students who had qualified for the final stages of business school… get past the group discussion and personal interview tests,” said Sujit, who joined the company in 2000. It was “very successful” for a couple of years.

It didn’t last long. “The schools found it difficult getting jobs for their students and demand for admissions was falling for three years consecutively. That led to a loss of demand for us – a fairly challenging time,” said Sujit.

He had to go back to the drawing board. “We did go through phases of low demand,” he said. So the company began adding a range of other subject offerings. They also added formal classroom programs.

Today the company is one of Asia's leading edu-corporates. The business is based in India. CL Educate now has 225 learning centres in 175 locations across the sub-continent. The business employs 1,000 people – 10% of whom are MBAs. The company has four different verticals – test-prep, vocational training, K-12 education and higher education.

The other sections balanced out the growth slow-down they saw on the MBA side. “And there were other segments, such as test-prep for law, which really started accelerating at a rapid rate,” said Sujit. “The increased focus on hiring in the banking sector is [also] giving our banking test-prep a boost.”

Adapting your focus is not a new aspect of business. But it is becoming essential for todays’ start-ups. Markets are now developing faster and in the UK alone, there are thought to be more than half a million small businesses.

Pivoting – changing an entrepreneurial strategy – has led to success for some. WhatsApp, founded in 2009, started with a different model and adapted its strategy according to its user-base. Five years on, it has more than 500 million users. The company was acquired by Facebook for $19 billion in October last year. Instagram and Twitter also pivoted. Nintendo, the gaming giant, first sold vacuum cleaners.

Some big companies agree that adaptability is essential. “Really great companies modify their ideas. They see the core proposition needs to change… and you keep working it until you get it to be successful,” said Steve Ballmer, the former Microsoft CEO, at a recent MBA event in Oxford.

But he added: “Only a small percentage are (sic) colossal successes. You have to set your mind on having the tenacity to stick with the idea, or a modification of an idea.”

Alexandre Sagakian knows that pivoting can propel a business to new heights. It took 18 months to develop a successful business plan for his market research company, Directpanel Research. He went through much trial and error.

“We thought about a platform that would allow any product manager to ask questions to a target audience and get results – a self-served platform. That was the original idea,” said Alexandre.

“We quickly realized after the launch that the market wasn’t ready. So, we had to give up quickly and instead of doing market research we moved toward working directly with brands. That was our major strategy.”

Things picked up and he raised €600,000 in seed-funding after completing an MBA in France. About a decade later he sold the company for an undisclosed amount to Bolloré Group, the French investment firm.

He then transitioned jobs to manage the company's integration into Groupe Bollorés’ operations. Alexandre was responsible for leveraging online research throughout the organization. He left after 10 months and joined Techstars, a start-up accelerator, in London.

However, he thinks a clear business plan is not as important as a good start-up team. “I believe in team – then product. It’s counter-intuitive sometimes, [but] find your team before the idea,” said Alexandre. “Eighty percent of company success is all about execution and that’s about the team.”

Ramanan Krishnamoorthy's business plan became a write-off almost immediately as it was written. NovelTea Pty Ltd, the company he co-founded during an MBA at AGSM in Australia, lacked competitiveness in its infancy. When he submitted the plan to his professors, he flunked the class.

“We thought: if we can’t even ace the class, how can we expect to run a business?” said Ram, who now supplies hand-crafted premium vodka to more than 30 bars in Sydney and Melbourne. After launching in 2010, he plans to expand into Brisbane and eventually the whole of Australia.

“We realised there was little differentiation between other brands and lots of competition,” said Ram. “So we sat down, really worked on it, and re-positioned it. We ended up with an A.”

The company produces LongLeaf; a tea-infused vodka. Ram utilizes his family’s business in Sri Lanka, which manufactures and sells traditional tea.

But a business plan isn’t set in stone. Pivoting was clearly necessary for NovelTea Pty Ltd to break into a competitive market.

Yet Ram thinks it was his MBA network that has allowed the business to prosper – not a strong business plan. “But more than that, the MBA teaches you to never stop learning,” he said. “It has been an immense help and would I be here without it? Probably not.”

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