Startup Journey: When to turn back

Stephanie Mertz
3 min readMay 19, 2023

A visual exploration of how we decided to change course

The pre-product-market-fit startup journey has felt like going on a hike. As a team, we knew which hill we wanted to climb— complex operational problems in banking and fintech. We packed our bags (gathered target customers and users willing to give feedback), and set off to hike up the mountain hoping to reach the peak — Product Market Fit. However, we didn’t have a map.

Not all trails lead to the peak, and even those that do, may not be very efficient routes. Some routes are direct and steep, others are roundabout and winding, and yet others are dead ends. From the bottom, the trees blocked the view so we couldn’t tell the route each path takes. Our hike would be guided by a combination of instinct, experience, research, and at times, luck.

As we journeyed upwards, we learned. We gathered feedback, iterated, tested, and adapted. This feedback — our compass — sometimes leads us to wonder if there might be a better path. Perhaps the market doesn’t need what you initially thought, or another product is serving it better, or the problem you identified isn’t as painful as you believed.

Here comes a tricky decision: do you stick to your path, hoping it will eventually reach the peak, or do you traverse, taking a leap of faith onto another trail, with the hope that it might offer a better route? This is where the concept of ‘sunk cost’ enters the equation. It’s natural to feel tied to your original path — you’ve invested time, energy, and resources into it. But, like a hiker deep into a trail that has started to fade, continuing forward could cost you more than retracing your steps and finding a better route.

Making a pivot in business, much like changing trails on a mountain, isn’t an admission of defeat — it’s a strategic decision. The sunk cost is already spent; it can’t cloud your judgment about the future. The goal is to reach the summit, not to stay true to the original path at all costs.

The flip side is a continuous “grass is greener” mindset that guarantees you will retrace your steps so quickly that you’ve never left sight of the parking lot. Finding product-market fit is not a linear journey. It’s an iterative process of exploring, learning, and adapting. It’s about understanding that the journey to the top of the mountain is less about the trail you first set upon, and more about flexibility, resilience, and the willingness to take on new paths when necessary.

So, as you lace up your entrepreneurial hiking boots and look up at the formidable mountain of market demand, remember: the mountain might be steep and the map might be missing, but with every step, stumble, and pivot, you’re learning, and you’re building a map of the mountain.