You may have heard people talk about a company, app, or entrepreneur or founder striking it big seemingly overnight. One day they are not on anyone’s radar, then the next thing you know they’re a household name with millions of users or customers, tons of new money in the coffers from investors and consumers alike, and on everyone’s “hot” list. That’s the dream, isn’t it? Strike it big overnight and then sit back and ride that beautiful wave of fame, fortune, and success. It’s possible, too, if you just…
STOP! Overnight success is not real. It’s a myth. There are, in the world of entrepreneurship and business, no true overnight successes (even if the definition of “overnight” you’re using is more like “a few months” or “a year”).
Success takes time, effort, and patience. A lot of patience.
Whenever you hear someone being spoken of as an overnight success, pause to examine the story you’re hearing. Is a big part of the founder’s or business’s story being glossed over or left out? Does it take into account the backstory of the founder, who may have had several failed or lackluster ventures in the past?
The Company’s Backstory
Sure, something can go from barely visible to wildly popular in a short span of time. But take a look at everything that led up to that breakout moment. Chances are the company is at least several years old (sometimes even 5-10 years old) and the concept behind the product had been marinating for even longer in the founder’s mind. Making it big is usually preceded by years of hard work, overcoming challenges, iterating and reiterating to work out kinks and problems.
The Entrepreneur’s History
Even in situations where a company gains traction fairly quickly, the entrepreneur may have a lengthy history of other businesses. Perhaps some of them were failures, or simply never made it big. The venture or initiative that finally makes the entrepreneur a household name is the culmination of all the mistakes and learnings they’ve gained from everything they’ve tried before. They didn’t simply step into the world of entrepreneurship 5 minutes before their endeavor blew up.
Other Companies’ Failures
The overnight success myth is also dangerous in that it ignores all the companies who fail or have only middling success, despite having some of the same qualities as the “overnight success” rockstars. The reality is that for every company that boldly pinpoints and tracks its massive success to some “x” factor, there are dozens of other companies with that same “x” factor, who do not do as well. There are always multiple circumstances that need to be in place in order for a company to really take off.
The Tipping Point
In reality, overnight success is really just the tipping point at which the market is fully ready and optimized to embrace the particular product or app or idea. It’s the point at which adoption or market penetration reaches a certain level and after which, yes, things move quickly.
But that tipping point doesn’t just happen by taking your chances at any moment with any product. It’s a combination of understanding your “why”, having a solid product, knowing the market, positioning your innovation in the market at the right time, and a little bit of old fashioned good fortune.
I’ve scoured the Web for companies that we might call “overnight successes” and would like to share a few examples and their actual backstory to bust the myth that they went from zero to 100 in the figurative blink of an eye.
Aren’t these overnight successes?
Pinterest really broke out in 2011, a year in which its traffic grew 40 times in the span of 6 months. Between 2011 and 2012, it also went from 700,000 users to over 20 million, according to HubSpot. That kind of fast growth can certainly be referred to as overnight success, but just looking at those numbers doesn’t tell the whole store.
Although the first prototype of Pinterest launched in 2010, the idea had brewed for years in the mind of founder and CEO Ben Silbermann, who got his start in Silicon Valley by working in Google’s customer support department. Inspired by big ideas at Google, but not allowed to build products, he quit and set out to make his own destiny right before the economic crash of 2008. He and old friend Paul Sciarra joined forces to build Tote, a store catalog app for iPhones. That app didn’t go anywhere and couldn’t get investors, so Silbermann went back and decided on a product that would allow users to collect things digitally. Finally, Sciarra and Silbermann brought on Evan Sharp, who understood the concept and designed Pinterest’s grid layout in 2009. The site officially launched a few months later, in early 2010.
The so-called “overnight success” that Pinterest enjoyed in 2011 and 2012 was really 3 to 4 years — plus many setbacks and failures — in the making.
Snapchat / Snap Inc.
The ephemeral photo and video sharing social app is huge with teens and 20-somethings in particular. It seems everyone is using it and the company had a respectable and exciting IPO earlier this year.
Snapchat was founded by two college friends — Evan Spiegel and Bobby Murphy — in 2011. Originally called Picaboo, the app’s draw was that it allowed users to send disappearing photos. But it had some kinks. Although photos disappeared from the app itself, users could still take screenshots before the images vanished, which effectively rendered the “disappearing” part ineffective. Later that same year, Spiegel and Murphy implemented a feature that alerted users when someone took a screenshot of their snap, and rebranded the app “Snapchat”.
Snapchat did well early on among friends of the founders, and was also adopted by many middle and high school students as a new way of messaging with their peers. Video arrived in 2012, and the company got a boost from Facebook’s attempt at competition (Poke). Over the course of that year, the number of total daily snaps grew from 20 million to 50 million.
Spiegel and Murphy kept growing and improving the app. They added stories, chat, geofilters, and opened the platform up to advertisers. They also launched Spectacles, glasses that could be used to take and share snaps. By late 2015, they’d reached close to 100 million active daily users, a number that grew to 160 million by early 2017. In March of 2017, Snap Inc. (which the company rebranded as in 2016) went public.
There’s no denying that Snapchat’s growth in its early years was fast. Its quick adoption in 2011 could be called an overnight success. Yet, it didn’t really hit its stride until close to a year later (when video and an Android version arrived). Then it took almost 3 years for it to reach the 100 million user mark that made its founders start planning an IPO. So, between 4 and 5 years of hard work, consistent improvement, trial and error, brought us the “overnight success” that is Snapchat.
You might be thinking, OK, finally a bona fide overnight success. The app had a massive download rate as soon as it launched in early July 2016, with over 7 million downloads in the first week alone. Its success made a reported $600 million for Niantic, the company that developed the app.
All of that is true. But so is the following: Pokemon GO was born of a partnership between Nintendo (not a new kid on the block) and Niantic, which had previously launched a similar location-based, augmented reality game called Ingress. Niantic began as one of Google’s internal startups, released Ingress in 2013, then broke out on its own in 2015.
But that doesn’t make Niantic’s CEO John Hanke just someone who got lucky working on the right project at the right time at Google. In fact, Hanke was already a veteran of Silicon Valley, having launched Archetype Interactive in 1994. That company was behind a 3D interactive massively multiplayer online (MMO) game. Then, in 2001, he founded Keyhole, which made a product used in news broadcasts during the 2003 Iraq invasion. Google acquired Keyhole a year later, and applied its technology to create Google Earth. Hanke stuck around at Google for another 8 years, working in the mapping realm and growing his talents and vision. Niantic Labs first launched inside Google and debuted an app called Field Trip that presented cards displaying information about points of interest around a user. A few months later, Ingress launched on an invite-only basis. Ingress was a success, but nowhere near the proportions of Pokemon GO.
When Niantic set out on its own, it still found funding from Google, as well as Nintendo and the Pokemon Company, to develop and launch an augmented reality, location-based massive multiplayer online game based on the popular anime franchise and beloved characters.
The huge and near-instant success of Pokemon GO is the culmination of Niantic’s CEO’s two decades of interest in gaming, location-based apps, and augmented reality. It’s the result of all the lessons he and his team learned from previous apps and earlier failures. It was not slapped together from nothing by a bunch of noobs in a weekend or a month. It was always, as all “overnight successes are, years in the making.
Teen CEO Moziah Bridges and his bow tie business — Mo’s Bows — became media sensations in 2014. That’s the year Bridges, who was only 12 at the time, appeared on Shark Tank. Since receiving mentorship and backing from Shark Tank’s Daymond John, Bridges’ company has really exploded. In May of 2017, Mo’s Bows signed a deal with the NBA, allowing the small startup to create and sell NBA team-branded bow ties.
Mo’s Bows’ media success and subsequent placement in certain luxury retail stores, all before he was even a teenager, certain sound like an overnight success. Many young entrepreneurs, innovators, makers, and other creatives dream of being “discovered” and propelled to fame and fortune like Bridges and his brand.
In reality, Mo had already been hustling for 3 years by the time he stepped into the spotlight! He started Mo’s Bows when he was only 9. The idea grew out of his disappointment with the patterns and fabrics available in bow ties for kids, along with the fact that they were primarily clip-ons (Bridges believes in tying your own ties, not just clipping them on, regardless of your age). With the help of his mother, grandmother, and a trusty sewing machine, he began whipping up bow ties made from fabric scraps.
Mo’s scrappy success came in steps and stages. After learning to sew in June 2011 and picked it up fast. He sold his first bow tie to a friend at summer camp about a month later. The following month, he brought his wares to a local market. A buzz began to form around him locally, with appearances in area publications and on local news, then his first wholesale order by a local men’s clothing store in the following months. The following two years brought the launch of his Etsy shop, more (and more high profile) media appearances, and even a call from Tommy Hilfiger. Only after all of that came Mo’s impressive and life-changing appearance on Shark Tank.
Fast or explosive growth can often be confused with or deemed “overnight success”. It takes looking at the whole picture to wean ourselves off the idea that anything takes off overnight, from the time it’s dreamed up to the time it soars to huge media or financial success. The other thing to keep in mind is that this kind of hyperdrive growth is rare. For every startup whose trajectory from inception to mass adoption takes just a few years, there are hundreds of companies who take closer to a decade to climb that steep hill. And there are many more that simply quit after a few years of not making it big.
This is not to discourage anyone from dreaming big, it’s only to caution that entrepreneurship is not a get-rich-quick scheme. Don’t enter into with the notion that you’ll reap fame and fortune within a few years. Enter into it because there is a problem you want to solve, something in the market you want to upend or innovate, or a you have a genuine contribution that needs to be made. Cultivate a mindset of hard work, perseverance, and adaptability. Understand you might falter or fail one or ten times before your experience, knowledge, and idea finally break through. Know that it won’t be easy, but it will be worth it if it’s what drives you.