Stick or twist? How to know when to give up on your business idea

Double down or walk away? It can be gruelling to give up on a business, but there are times when stepping away is the right move

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Knowing when it’s time to quit and when to double down, even if the market signals aren’t rewarding your efforts just yet, is a crucial lesson I’ve learned through my entrepreneurial journey.

I founded my first business straight out of university, with a History degree and a £2,000 enterprise grant. I had no idea how to even send an invoice, but I dived headfirst into setting up an online coffee business in York. The grant covered some branding, initial stock and a website I built using an early version of Shopify.

Despite my efforts, the business ultimately failed due to tight margins and, if I’m being honest, my own lack of knowledge. I had some work experience, mostly in the public sector, but I was ill-prepared for the challenges of starting and sustaining a business.

Fast forward a few years, and I tried my hand at another venture – an ethical certification. I had a deep interest in the subject and did my best to upskill myself. However, a lack of domain experience meant that while our IP was licensed, there was no meaningful return for me personally.

This taught me that, ideally, you should stick to what you know, and double down on your strengths.

Making the jump into the unknown

In between these ventures, I started building a career in marketing, taking a few in-house positions and climbing the ranks. I eventually became Marketing Director of a software consultancy. I’d realised early on in the coffee venture that I had a knack for – and enjoyed – the marketing aspect of business.

The next big decision came in 2021. The pandemic was in full swing and I had a choice to make: quit my safe job with the fancy title, or make the jump into the unknown and start a new venture.

The pandemic had impacted me in two ways. Firstly, it had given me the opportunity to take a step back and really think about what I wanted to do with my life. I still had the entrepreneurial hunger in me and decided that I needed to scratch the itch definitively.

Secondly, it taught me that being employed isn’t as secure as everyone makes it out to be. No matter what you do, uncertainty is always around the corner. The only thing you can do is decide your approach and response to change.

So I jumped and set-up Open Velocity, a marketing strategy consultancy. We work with founders, CEOs, executive teams and investment firms, from early-stage startups to high-growth businesses, providing our clients with deep insight and tailored marketing strategies that drive results.

I learned when to give up on a business – and when to double down

Unlike my previous ventures, Open Velocity is actually making a profit and growing (third time’s the charm, right?).

It’s not been without its challenges, though. If I’m honest with myself there have been a few times when I’ve thought, “wouldn’t it be much easier just to get a normal job?”

Last year, in particular, was tough. Inflation and the cooling of the investment market dragged on our growth. Many clients felt the pain too, with marketing costs rising and conversion rates going down as fewer in-market customers were being chased by the same number of competitors.

What kept me going was a determination that the idea was viable, even if market conditions weren’t ideal. We kept the business lean and focused, and have come through to a much better start to 2024.

Learn when to stick or twist with your business

We’re often asked by clients to unpick the viability of their new products or business expansions, helping them determine whether they should stick with their current strategy or pivot to something new. Doing this means we’re good at spotting positive and negative trends in businesses that indicate whether an idea is worth pursuing, even if the market signals and revenue aren’t quite there yet.

Reflecting on my journey so far, here are some of the things I would consider when assessing if it’s time to quit or double down on a business idea:

When to stick:

  • If you’re consistently gaining repeat business from satisfied customers, it’s a strong sign that you’re providing value. This indicates that your product or service is meeting a real need in the market and that you’ve established a level of trust with your customers.
  • You have a clear competitive advantage, even if your market awareness isn’t high (yet). A competitive advantage is a unique aspect of your business that sets you apart from your rivals and provides value to your customers. This could be a proprietary technology, a highly skilled team, a superior product or service, or a strong brand reputation. (Conversely if you don’t have a clearly identifiable competitive advantage, it could be a sign to rethink things!).
  • You’re able to get things done and keep the wheel moving forward. Execution is everything. A mediocre strategy that’s well-executed will always outperform a brilliant strategy that never sees the light of day. If you’re unable to improve your execution and operational effectiveness, you’ll need to accept that your business will likely stagnate or fail to reach its full potential. I used to have two notes above my desk in the early days of OV. One said “get sh*t done”, the other “overhead = death”.

When to twist:

  • If the business is affecting your mental or physical health to a dangerous degree. No business is worth sacrificing your well-being. Status won’t keep you alive.
  • You’re betting on a silver bullet (“this one new tactic will change everything”). In my experience, success comes from a combination of factors, not one right tactical move. If you find yourself placing all your hopes on a single marketing tactic or growth strategy, it may be a sign that you need to step back and re-evaluate your approach.
  • Being too early to market: timing is key, and sometimes even great concepts struggle if they’re introduced before the market is ready. For example, with my ethical certification venture, sustainability was being discussed in the 2010s, but the consumer pressure we see now on brands to act sustainably wasn’t there yet. The success of B Corp and other certifications shows the idea was valid, but we didn’t quite get the timing right.
Bethan Vincent

Bethan has been developing and implementing highly effective marketing strategies for 14+ years, helping businesses operating in competitive verticals accelerate their journey to profitable growth. Formerly the Marketing Director of a leading software consultancy, Bethan founded Open Velocity in 2021 to ensure technology start-ups and scale-ups can access leading marketing strategy consultancy and senior marketing support. Building on her work at C-Suite level, Bethan is a regular speaker on the subjects of marketing and technology at international conferences, including GitLab Commit San Francisco 2020, TuringFest 2021 and MozCon Seattle 2024. Outside of working with clients and growing Open Velocity, Bethan hosts The Brave, a podcast about the people that are contributing to creating a better future.

The Brave (podcast)
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