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For as much as we now know about startups and as many stories that have been shared about founders’ experiences, there are still prevailing myths about the startup world that don’t seem to go away no matter how much reality threatens to impinge upon these notions. These ideas can distort what entrepreneurs think about their own businesses and even how they behave and make decisions. In this series, I hope to shine some light on some of the more prominent myths in the hope that they will eventually give way to the truth.
The idea of the overnight success is one of the more aspirational of the startup myths that continues to persist. Holding out the idea of a company that was able to rocket past the struggles and pivots of other startups straight into profitability and growth and a permanent place in the market is understandable in the face of challenges and potential failure. If one company can do it, then certainly another can replicate that success with the right mix of inspiration and execution. But as much as founders might want to skip the hard bits to go straight to the keynote speaker circuit, there’s not much evidence of past cases to support that dream.
Take the now-ubiquitous Amazon. While its current circumstances can lead to some post-hoc rationalization that the company was always destined for greatness, it took years for it to reach the status it’s achieved. The company started as an online bookstore in 1994, years before many of us had logged on to the internet, and it was another four years before they expanded beyond just selling books and moving into DVDs and CDs. Granting that it had had its IPO in 1997 and was already successful by any measure, that still represents years of hard work required to get Amazon to the point where it could grow into what we now know, and that doesn’t even include the thinking and planning and gestating that comes before the formal founding of any company.
The birth of Google is another example of a now-massive entity that didn’t become so overnight. Starting with a basic web crawler built in 1996 during their time at Stanford, Larry Page and Sergey Brin eventually turned that idea into a company that touches seemingly every part of our digital lives. But the journey to the top was a long one – it took over a year before the nascent company even came to the name Google to use for their BackRub project. (Let us be thankful that we’re not required to do BackRub searches for movie times and store hours!) And the advent of the suite of products that have become indispensable to many of us was still years away, meaning that the company and its founders were left to continue to work towards that future.
Despite those roots, it can be easy to still see those companies as somehow outside the normal paths of development because of their status as outlier successes. While it’s true that Google and Amazon and others we recognize as global brands have risen to a level that only a handful of others can attain, they nevertheless started as small operations at some point in their history that had to put in the same long hours that are required of any startup founder. So why does the idea of an overnight success remain, especially given how easy it is to debunk, given the information publicly available about any of these companies?
The idea of the overnight success is hope for some and absolution for others. Depending on the entrepreneur, it is an ambition to be achieved or a reason for their continued struggles. For the hopelessly optimistic, it’s a lottery ticket out there to be had, a magic formula to be found. Conversely, by viewing the success of Amazon or Google as inevitable, the cynical or failed entrepreneur can frame their company’s fortunes — indeed, any company — as a function of fate rather than the end result of a series of decisions, good and bad.
The truth is that the best companies take time to build — any successful company requires a strong base on which to grow and develop. The biggest and most successful businesses took time to reach that level, even if most of that time was spent outside of the public eye, and many made their share of mistakes and missteps along the way. The overnight successes we think we see are years in the making.#onwards.
March 5, 2019 at 09:06AM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs