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Myth #32: Success happens overnight

The Apple iPod instantly turned the MP3 player market upside down, right? Amazon changed the book selling business like a shot, didn’t it? Well, in fact they didn’t. No matter how it may seem from the outside. 

The fact is that it takes many years to be an overnight success even for internet entrepreneurs. Years of hard work, endurance, learning, experimenting, and many failures along the way. And sometimes pursuing a project almost everybody dislikes, like developing Gmail with its “crazy Javascript stuff”.

Seemingly swift successes that took a long time to achieve:

  • Twitter: Twitter founder Biz Stone had been creating blogging, mobile and social products for 8 years before founding Twitter. He says: “Timing, perseverance, and ten years of trying will eventually make you look like an overnight success.” - Timing Lessons
    Another account on Twitter: The Non-Overnight Success: How Twitter Became Twitter
  • Apple iPod: It took 3 years for the iPod to become an overnight success. “The first iPod was released in 2001. Within a year, Apple had revised it to improve ergonomics in a second version. But it wasn’t until the fourth version in 2004 that sales started to take off.” - Apple’s “Overnight” Success!, originally discussed in Bill Buxtons’s brilliant book Sketching User Experiences.
  • 37signals: “When we launched Basecamp five years ago, I think we had less than 2,000 people subscribed to our RSS feed. Add a few thousand more who were just checking the site manually and it’s probably reasonable to guess that our initial audience was below 5,000 people.
    By today’s standards, that’s tiny! And that audience had even taken a few years to build.” - Overnight success takes years
  • Gmail: “We starting working on Gmail in August 2001. For a long time, almost everyone disliked it. […] Quite a few people thought that we should kill the project, or perhaps “reboot” it as an enterprise product with native client software, not this crazy Javascript stuff. Even when we got to the point of launching it on April 1, 2004 — two and a half years after starting work on it — many people inside of Google were predicting doom.” - Overnight success takes a long time
  • Amazon: It launched in 1994, but only added book reviews in 1996 and CDs in 1998. And let’s not forget that they weren’t profitable in the first seven years.
  • Many startups: despite all the “you can also do it” blogposts, many-startups tell you how long it took them to get the first 100 customers and how much endurance you need to become profitable. There’s No Myth, Only Years Of Hard Work, Bootsrapping a CompanyLessons Learned from 5 Years of SaaS
  • Angry Birds: The mobile game Angry Birds was a huge success. But Rovio had been through 50 mobile games up to that point and almost went bankrupt (tl;dr version)
  • FedEx: Frederick W. Smith’s idea for an express delivery service was born in 1965, FedEx launched in 1973 (with only 7 packages on the first day), in the first 26 months in business, it made a loss of $29 million, and only by the late 1970s did it become a success. - Frederick W. Smith: No Overnight Success and FedEx Corporation: The Creation of Overnight Air-express Industry
  • The Beatles: “The Beatles seemed to burst onto the scene with a string of #1 hits and an appearance on the Ed Sullivan show in 1964. But they had been playing small clubs in Liverpool and Hamburg since 1957, and while they had mass appeal early on, their first great critical success, Sgt. Peppers, was released in 1967.” - Overnight Success: It Takes Years, see also Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers with a detailed account.
  • … or take Tiger Woods: Although he was the youngest golfer who won the Masters, he’d been practicing golf practically his whole life, “he was a child prodigy, introduced to golf before the age of two.” - Tiger Woods (Wikipedia)

More on the idea of instant success:

  • "The notion of overnight success is very misleading and actually rather harmful to any hope for long term and sustainable growth in this industry. […] whatever the business, big success takes years to build and there are very few counter examples." says Spotify co-founder Daniel Ek. “Overnight success takes a long time. To quote Daft Punk - work it harder, make it better, do it faster, makes us stronger, more than ever, hour after hour, our work is never over.”
  • Seth Godin argues that “Along the way, some people have trained themselves to believe that the only kind of success worth having is overnight success. That if you don’t hit #1 the first week, you’ve failed. That if your interface isn’t perfect out of the box, or if you don’t get 5,000 people standing in line at the opening of your new store, you’ve failed.”
  • Barrie Bergman writes in his ChangeThis manifesto that “Personally, I’ve never met an overnight success. I’ve met people who’ve done something well for a long time and were suddenly discovered. Then everyone assumed they came out of nowhere, that their fame happened overnight.”
  • "Overnight success is really overnight exposure." says Jonathan Fields.

Oh, and yes, YouTube is quite an exception. Though it did take 5 years even for them to turn profitable.

Zoltán Gócza - Let’s connect