The myth of the overnight success

Angry Birds was Rovio’s 52nd game. They spent eight years and almost went bankrupt before finally creating their massive hit. Pinterest is one of the fastest growing websites in history, but struggled for a long time. Pinterest’s CEO recently said that they had “catastrophically small numbers” in their first year after launch, and that if he had listened to popular startup advice he probably would have quit.

You tend to hear about startups when they are successful but not when they are struggling. This creates a systematically distorted perception that companies succeed overnight. Almost always, when you learn the backstory, you find that behind every “overnight success” is a story of entrepreneurs toiling away for years, with very few people except themselves and perhaps a few friends, users, and investors supporting them.

Startups are hard, but they can also go from difficult to great incredibly quickly. You just need to survive long enough and keep going so you can create your 52nd game.


125 thoughts on “The myth of the overnight success

  1. yaya agree, this was actually based on one of your portfolio companies:

    YouAre.TV founder Josh Weinstein, who spoke with Betabeat about his own experiences with the issue, noted the effect a largely complimentary press might have on young founders:“There are very few overnight successes. The problem is survivor bias. Those [successful startups] are the ones you see on TechCrunch.”

  2. Yes, Conversely, I’ve observed that the few startups that do experience mass traction out of the gate have an even harder time powering through setbacks down the line.

  3. Very true. I am 3 years in and just starting to see that the light at the end of the tunnel is not a freight train, lol.
    Keep pushing and remember make every new customer feel as important as your very first and sucess will find you/your company

  4. klempit says:

    Startups we did PR for had an average of five years of hard work before we brought them to market as “the new new thing. Perception is reality.

  5. Pascal Levy Garboua says:

    So true….Not to mention OMGPOP and Draw Something…which were 4 years in the making!!!

  6. Pascal Levy Garboua says:

    The problem of overnight success is that you don’t know why you were successful. That does not favor innovation (e.g. Twitter)

  7. nimrodpriell says:

    I am reminded of a quote of Martin Hellman, “God rewards fools”, because only fools will get excited after the 51st failed attempt and try the 52nd. Inspiring!

  8. haseebqureshi says:

    It’s about figuring out how to succeed given the right climate that supports you and your efforts – it just takes time for your efforts and the market to converge.

  9. Scott Berkun says:

    I spent months studying the mythology around this for my 2010 bestseller, The Myths of Innovation. Reporting about invention and entrepreneurship is easier to popularize if it highlights heroes and dramatic events, as they make for better narratives than “team worked hard for years and it finally paid off”. A similar mythology surrounds epiphanies and breakthrough ideas (which in the words of most people who are written about in this way, is far from the truth).

    Chris: I’d be happy to send you a copy – I think you’d dig the book – ping / DM me at @berkun

  10. It is better to believe this myth then be fazed by startup mortality rates after 5 years – even though “overnight success” might be in the reality distortion field – it’s just one more item in the belief side of the survival asset sheet.  The long-term asset is having the fortitude and that one will to be in it for the long haul; and like Steve Job’s said so well, “Count The Dots Backwards” – and the story of how it was really achieved is revealed.


  11. I’m not surprised – I had to cancel my subscription to Fast Company because every article made the subject company sound like an overnight success.  I knew a bunch of the real stories, and it got too annoying to read.  However, someone who hasn’t done it before reads the magazine and thinks all they have to do is put up a website and they’ll be an overnight success, just like they read about in Fast Company.

  12. Nitesh Goyal says:

    The same applies for established companies like Amazon. They started working on AWS (S3) and Kindle many years ago. Success requires vision, patience and lots of perspiration.

  13. edial says:

    A good friend of mine who runs (a very successful) startup always says: it took us 4 years to become an overnight success. I guess that’s the truth.

  14. I really like your posts. Short, simple and so true.
    I think people focus on success because that’s what they wanna hear. They *want* to forget that you don’t come to success so easily and that it’s a long road strewn with failures to lead to it.

  15. My favorite example is iRobot — started in 1990 (!), didn’t have their first product hit until 2002.  They survived on gov’t grants and one-off projects.  I believe Colin Angle once said something like “for years, never started a month with enough money to finish it.”  Those guys get the gold medal, IMHO.

  16. Totally agree. Every startup I did as a founder, every startup I was involved in, every step I took taught me a lesson…. until I finally got it right. And yes, we’re talking years of persistence…

  17. I agree, the media likes to portray overnight success because it’s more intriguing – and I think the general public eats it up.

    It really plays on the idea that an average person can have an “Aha!” moment and be rich and/or famous very soon after. That fits pretty well with the “American Dream” of becoming rich without working hard :/

  18. You covered some of your tougher moments here before Chris. But I think giving structure to some of these real stories from multiple successful entrepreneurs would be valuable.

    A site describing the gory back stories of founders who once floundered?

  19. I remember a story about an astronomer who found / or discovered / or directly observed – I don’t remember –  the first extrasolar planet, some time 15-20 years ago, when extrasolar planets were still only a hypothesis to be proven. I can’t find that article any more, but I remember the article saying that he worked on that one single project for 13 years or so, and was ridiculed by his peers in the process.

    Not only is the idea of overnight success ridiculous, but it seems as if  there were “right” and “wrong” timeframes in which success “should” have occured. People trying to succeed for years, even decades – are scoffed at. For a person working on his or her dream, failing over and over again (or, in another words – discovering ways things don’t work, over and over again), it is a tough position to be in. That’s why people quit too early.

  20. There are always outliers, but even though YouTube’s success came quickly, it didn’t come right out of the gate. They struggled for months after launch to find something that *anyone* wanted to use.

  21. i used youtube pre-google and it was hard for most “normal,” non-internet folks to understand it. it definitely took them a while to catch on. 

  22. Yeah as I recall they struggled for a while and only broke through when the Lazy Sunday video went viral. But certainly YouTube is as close you can get to an overnight success.

  23. was just talking about this with a fellow founder

    it is a long and arduous process to get to the point where things start to click and even then it’s still a long way from success… 

    endurance really matters

  24. thanks for this post. i just had a couple days of feeling frustrated due to a couple years of business stagnation/sluggishness. glad i’m not the only fool dumb enough to keep at it after years of struggles, and glad to hear that sometimes the struggling fools actually catch a break. 

  25. Scale sometimes just blinds people of the process of getting there – unless you have been there to see how it’s done! And trust me, all the claim of always being a recipe for success will happen post-facto…

  26. Difficult to make sense between the Fail fast movement and the real life.
    Popular quotes from the real life side:
    “overnight success comes overnight…after 10 years of hard work” and “to win, you have to stay in the game”.
    And in France the lottery ad says “100% of the winners have been players”
    and I will throw this last one “if you don’t take risks, you will end up working for people who do.”

  27. The world is full of optimistic (misguided?) people who think putting up a website or releasing an app will lead to untold riches overnight. The realisation can be so very painful.

  28. “You tend to hear about startups when they are successful but not when they are struggling. This creates a systematically distorted perception that companies succeed overnight. ”

    Well said.

  29. The best quotation on this subject still is “Overnight success usually comes after fifteen years of hard work”. Gladwell also talked about the 10,000 hrs of hard work that proceeds success. 

  30. Guest says:

    Solid point Chris.  I think Microsoft took a decade before it really became the dominant titan as well.

  31. Irving Fain says:

    Awesome post Chris! One of my favorite quotes of all time: “The long road to overnight success.”

  32. Guest says:

    Clear, concise and by all accounts true. I think understanding this fundamental truth makes places like the U.S. a great place to start any company. If people understand that building a business comes through overcoming failure, they help founders overcome that failure, in other places failure is failure and thats it; so much fewer people get to iteration number 52.

  33. Clear, concise and by all accounts true. I think understanding this fundamental truth makes places like the U.S. a great place to start any company. If people understand that building a business comes through overcoming failure, they help founders overcome that failure, in other places failure is failure and thats it; so much fewer people get to iteration number 52.

  34. storyboardlife says:

    not really a myth I think. You work extremely hard, sacrifice a bunch AND THEN IF people like you enough….THEN POOF…over night the world sees you as a success. 

  35. brianraney says:

    Pandora was rejected over 300 times by VCs before getting a yes.

    We have a saying at Awesome Inc – “the only thing that’s easy is taking a nap”

  36. So true ! We’re finally releasing our “next big thing” but it took us 5 years and 2 not-so-successful products to get there! And well, we *should* break in the “overnight success” phase but we kind of keep our fingers crossed, just in case… 🙂

  37. Thank you!!!  It takes time and learning through failure to reach success.  Every day is about learning to be better tomorrow.  My start-up is growing steadily and successfully and although we’d love to see faster growth… I am most interested in sustainable growth.  

  38. Its good to hear this. I was surprised Airbnb to hear that airbnb had been around since 2008 it seems like it took off overnight instead of taking several years.

  39. I think you have made an excellent point and valuable contribution to many people’s persistance and perserverance – this is an optimism booster!

  40. Thank you Chris. I’m hanging on for dear life with my startup, but you made my week and I’m now going to plow ahead with work through the weekend. The rain coming in NYC helps, too.

  41. Rahul Singh says:

    Absolutely agree with this. What’s important is to keep on releasing one quality app after another and learn from the mistakes as quickly as possible.

  42. IAmFabulous says:

    One of these mornings I’m going to be heralded as an over 2,112 nights successA quote that has kept me going thus far is – “Failure is only the opportunity to begin again more intelligently” (paraphrased I think – Henry Ford)

    And most recently a great book I read, Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Outliers” highlights not the successful morning when the masses discover the “new thing”, but the difficult periods of work, sweat, and perseverence that preceded the successful night.

  43. And to the average person who is in the latter part of the adoption curve, the perception is that the company/product/service exploded overnight.

    And it’s not unique to tech as the founder of Spanx can attest.

  44. Rovio is a bad example. It’s not like they worked on AB for 8 years. Check out who is company’s main stakeholder and you’ll see how it was possible to spent 8 years and to produce 51 relatively unsuccesful games without going bankrupt.

  45. Adriana Herrera says:

    Jason Nazar just gave a great talk about the realities of founding a startup.  Most of the DocStoc details boil down to hard work, vision, execution, perseverance, and more hard work….details of every successful startup story.  Founding a startup is not easy but those of us who are lucky enough to do it are better for it everyday. 

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