Curtis Priest’s childhood bedroom had a large poster on one wall titled “All I Need to Know About Life I Learned from Star Trek.” On it was a lesson he’d come to keenly appreciate in his later entrepreneurial career: don’t put all your ranking officers in one shuttlecraft.
Translated out of Trekkie speak, it’s the old aphorism about investing too heavily in any one thing. And it’s a mistake Priest, the founder and CEO of web design and development agencyPixelcarve Inc, made at great professional cost some years ago. “We invested a ton of time, money, [and] resources into becoming a leader in this one particular technology platform that was quite ubiquitous,” he recalls.
For a long time, the strategy proved successful, and Pixelcarve—which Priest started at after high school from his parents’ basement and later partnered with a cousin to grow—became well-known for that kind of work. But the company faced a sudden disruption, in the form of a well-known entrepreneur: Steve Jobs. “He basically decided, ‘This is not going to be a platform that I allow on my devices,’ because it competes with his app model,” explains Priest, a member of the Toronto chapter of the Entrepreneurs’ Organization. “It was going to completely deteriorate his concept of having apps on devices, when what we were doing would let you do that in a browser for free.”
The popularity of Apple’s devices turned apps into the dominant model for mobile content consumption, and Pixelcarve’s major investment in a competing digital platform was rendered worthless. Here’s how Priest got his business back on track, and how he says other companies can avoid or survive the kind of disruption his faced.
Keep your ear to the ground
Disruption may seem to come out of nowhere, but there are often warning signs that the business landscape is about to change. Priest says Pixelcarve should have paid more attention when people started asking questions like ‘Well why can’t you do things this way?’ or ‘Do you guys offer this service?’ or ‘I heard from your competition that this is a better way to do things and you guys are telling me different.’ “When those things would come up we’d gloss over them or we’d have some great excuses as to why we were right,” he recalls.
Beware your present success. “Our warning sign was that we got complacent,” Priest says. “We stopped taking advantage of certain opportunities because we felt that … we didn’t need to take the risks that were necessary to take for those new opportunities because we were doing well.”
The stages of grief
Before reinventing their company, Priest and his team had to take the time to grieve their losses. We’d invested so much time and money and resources in our lives,” he says. “If we’d just tried to pivot without accepting the loss of that, then I think we’d be stuck in the same conversation for a very long time.”
At the time, the Pixelcarve team couldn’t have meeting or a client discussion without bringing up what had happened, and what they might have been able to do differently. “Eventually you get down to that bottom point [and] you really have two options: either you’re out, or you get back up,” Priest says.
Step by step
Process matters when you’re undertaking something as significant as completely reimagining your company. “For us, it started with a new vision,” Priest says. And Pixelcarve wasn’t focusing not just on its own services and clients, but on the industry as a whole.
As trying as the process was for Priest, it was also exciting. “In many ways it was like a startup version of Pixelcarve more than a decade into the company, which starts becoming a thrill again,” he recalls. The opportunity to evolve or start something new reinvigorated Priest. “And it’s even more fun when you have the resources and the experience that you have from building a company the first time.”
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