10 historic business pivots that led to major success

By: Jeff St Onge


Founded in 1938 as a company that moved dried fish and flour from Korea to China, Samsung went through a series of transitions in subsequent decades, selling insurance, textiles, and then electronics.

The first black-and-white TV Samsung sold was in 1970, and by the turn of the century, it had hundreds of personal computers, VCRs, tape recorders, washing machines, microwaves, and hard drives out on the market. Samsung nows rakes in over $50 billion each quarter.



We all know Nintendo for innovating and inspiring an era of mass-produced video games, such as Super Mario and Donkey Kong. However, the company existed several centuries before that, and dabbled in producing everything from playing cards to vacuum cleaners, instant rice, a taxi company and even a short-stay hotel chain (also called a “love hotel,” I’ll leave it up to you to figure out what that is). It was in 1966 that Nintendo started producing electronic games and consoles, which gained wide popularity over the following 30 years.



The most legendary pivot in social media history is the transformation of Odeo into Twitter.  Odeo began as a network where people could find and subscribe to podcasts, but the founders feared the company’s demise when iTunes began taking over the podcast niche.  After giving the employees two weeks to come up with new ideas, the company decided to make a drastic change and run with the idea of a status-updating micro-blogging platform conceived by Jack Dorsey and Biz Stone.



Hewlett-Packard has shifted focus since it launched as an engineering company in 1947. It began by creating a slew of electrical testing products, including audio and signal generators, but in 1968 introduced the first large-scale personal computer. Personal consumer-friendly computers did not catch on until the 1990’s, when HP focused solely on getting Americans to buy home computers and diverged the production of their testing equipment into a separate company. Since then it has focsused mainly on computers and printing/scanning accessories.



When Yelp first began, it wasn’t full of amusing recommendations for quirky taco places in Austin and don’t-go-here rants about bad sushi in Oakland. In 2004, Jeremy Stoppelman and Russel Simmons started an automated system for emailing recommendation requests to friends. It turned out that what people liked most was the “Real Reviews” feature; instead of responding to requests, they most enjoyed writing unsolicited reviews on local businesses, just for kicks. The founders changed up their plan and went forward with the new idea, which now has more than 17 million reviews published online. Sometimes, it’s good to compare yourself to others.



Wrigley didn’t always sell gum. Mr. Wrigley Jr. moved to Chicago in the 1890’s and took up work as a soap and baking powder salesman. He got the idea of offering free chewing gum with his purchases, and the gum proved to be more popular than his actual product.  Wrigley went on to manufacture his own chewing gum brands, Juicy Fruit, Spearmint and eventually Doublemint. Today the company grosses billions in revenue and is one of the most recognizable brands in American history.



From 1910 to 1935 Michio Suzuki was best known as the inventor and purveyor of weaving loom machines that powered Japan’s silk industry. An inventor at heart, Suzuki started looking for other products to produce in the interest of diversification and moved into automotive and now this automotive company may be best known in the U.S. today for their high-performance motorcycles and sports vehicles.



Almost 15 years ago, YouTube launched as a dating website, and its first slogan may be one of the cringiest: “Tune in, hook up.” In the early days, the site was flopping, so the founders decided to post an ad on Craigslist in LA and Las Vegas, asking single women to upload biographical videos for $20 apiece.

So instead of continuing down the dating path founders thought to be “obvious,” cofounder Steve Chen said YouTube began to let users do the defining. Google bought YouTube just a year after its first video was uploaded for $1.6 billion.



When Android started, the goal was to create a camera platform with a cloud portion for storing photos online, and for smart cameras to connect to PCs. A pitch to investors in April 2004 showed a camera connected “wired or wireless” to a home computer, which then linked to an “Android Datacenter.”

The growth in digital cameras was gradually slowing as the technology became mainstream. They promptly changed their business plan… and the pitch five months later declared it to be an “open-source handset solution.”

The exact same platform, the exact same operating system we built for cameras, that became Android for cellphones. Android kept its software core, including its Java core (Which was the cause of a large lawsuit with Oracle).

There was an opportunity at the time because even as hardware costs fell steeply due to commoditization, software vendors were charging the same amount for the OS, eating up a large share of manufacturers’ budgets.

Android thought different creating a pick and shovel business model where they considered its product to be a platform for selling other services and products. Clearly, this would need scale, so they aimed for growth, not per-unit income and gave it away for an unbeatable price; free.



Ben Silbermann started out working at Google, but as a non-engineer at Google, he felt there was only so far that he could go in that culture. He kept talking about doing a startup but it was his girlfriend who told him, “You should either do it or stop talking about it.”

Ben set out to transform every cell phone into a clothing retail outlet with an app called Tote. It was an app for the iPhone. It pulled data from online product catalogs to create a meta catalog for shoppers on the go. You could find particular products across retailers, sorted by location.

Months after launching, it was clear that Tote wasn’t going to work. The pivot from mobile app Tote to a web-based platform was a very progressive iteration and “there wasn’t any grand vision.”

Ben wanted the product’s purpose to be vague so that it could be used by everyone for anything. He learned this lesson from Twitter.

Over Thanksgiving dinner, Silbermann’s girlfriend thought of a name for it: Pinterest. The rest is history.