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.

“Watching my career explode on the launchpad caused some soul searching. I tell you all this because it’s worth recognizing that there is no such thing as an overnight success. You will do well to cultivate the resources in yourself that bring you happiness outside of success or failure. The truth is, most of us discover where we are headed when we arrive. At that time, we turn around and say, yes, this is obviously where I was going all along. It’s a good idea to try to enjoy the scenery on the detours, because you’ll probably take a few.”
An excerpt from Bill Watterson‘s May 20, 1990 graduation address at Kenyon College