Overnight Success

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in 1 Idea Stage, 3 Early Customer Stage, skmurphy

Some thoughts on aspiring to “overnight success.”

  1. If you define success as making a lot of money quickly you should go into sales and cut out the middleman.
  2. You can buy one lottery ticket and make a lot of money. You can buy many lottery tickets every day of your life and never recover the cost of your lottery tickets.
  3. Most of the time the opportunity for “overnight success” is sold by folks who are interested in making a profit on your dreams without actually fulfilling them.
  4. Of all the sources of funds for an early stage venture, revenue is the most compelling demonstration of traction. Too many entrepreneurs view fund raising as an accomplishment in and of itself.

I think a lot of the desire for overnight success (beyond the lure of easy money, which has a very strong appeal) is driven by trade press accounts of young millionaires who clean up the real story to make it seem simple and inevitable. I have met a number of entrepreneurs who think that one deal or one relationship will be the point of departure for a rocket trip to the stars. That’s always the way the success narrative is cleaned up and presented, but the reality almost always–barring a few lottery ticket winners–involved a lot more hard work and the slow accumulation of many small insights, decisions, and advantages.

I think it’s unfortunate but a lot of what’s written about Silicon Valley entrepreneurship is actually part of a sales pitch or positioning for the venture ecosystem. There is a lot of advice that’s designed to encourage the entrepreneur to start negotiations with an attorney or a VC in a very poor position. The Venture Hacks blog is a notable counter example: their posts on term sheet negotiations are delightfully practical and lately they have provided some excellent advice on bootstrapping and customer development. But many articles and blog posts are designed to convince an entrepreneur to seek early validation from a VC firm instead of a customer, or lately to take a worse deal because “Good Times RIP” (or maybe not.)

Not everything is sanitized hagiography of the founders (or current management) and there are some good entrepreneurial methodologies documented in books like “You Need to Be a Little Crazy” and “Four Steps to the Epiphany” (see the list of books in “Crucial Marketing Concepts” for example). But any of these books are ultimately as useful as reading a math textbook or a book of chess proverbs, or memorizing a set of Go joseki. It’s always valuable to understand the principles, and certainly for challenges in an idealized problem domain like Math or Go you can learn a lot from a formula or a proverb.

But many insights in life cannot be reduced to writing, especially those involving either self-mastery or other people (and startups, alas, involve both). Reading the history of an event does not compare with living through it. You cannot learn to ride a bike from a book (or a workshop). Patient experimentation, deliberate practice, and not only rehearsal and pre-mortem but also after action and decision record reviews are all needed.

The challenge with a startup–like many other things in life–is that you need to integrate many different inputs, your own hopes and fears among them, and negotiate a working consensus with your co-founders to be successful.

And that doesn’t happen overnight.

Update: Eric Ries posted a good description of the Customer Development Model yesterday that I didn’t read until after I had posted this. It’s a good overview of some of the key points from Steve Blank’s Four Steps to the Epiphany.

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Comments (8)

  • Apolinaras \"Apollo\" Sinkevicius


    Fantastic point #4! From what I have seen lately, investors are done with gambling. Terms are becoming tougher and tougher. VCs want bargains, not someones pipe dreams. Most fund raising events I have seen are actually the opposite of \”accomplishment in and of itself\”. Most of them are failures by the entrepreneurs. Why? Because founders give away too much equity for too little money. If they only toughed it out, skipped paying themselves from seed round… I could go on forever. If you need to have 2nd/3rd job, eat ramen noodles, brown-bag lunch, than that is how you have to do it. Figure out how to pay that developer, designer, and etc, Keep the equity, get paying customers. Than if you still need money – go get it.

    Apolinaras \”Apollo\” Sinkevicius


  • BootstrappersBreakfast » Malcolm Gladwell on Overnight Success


    [...] From a recent interview with Malcolm Gladwell by David Hochman in Reader’s Digest on Gladwell’s new book “Outliers: the story of success” (links added). Hochman: Is there such a thing as an overnight success? Gladwell: No. And that’s my concern with a show like American Idol. It encourages the false belief that there’s a kind of magic, that you can be “discovered.” That may be the way television works, but it’s not the way the world works. Rising to the top of any field requires an enormous amount of dedication, focus, drive, talent, and 99 factors that they don’t show on television. It’s not simply about being picked. Which, by the way, is why very few of the anointed winners on American Idol have gone on to true success. Most have flamed out and gone away. That should tell us something. [...]


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