The Five Year Overnight Success Story

Over the past 18 months I’ve heard variations of this title at events I’ve attended, articles I’ve read and in lively discussions with startup advisors and leaders. Everyone wants to know who the next overnight success story will be - and how they’ll do it.

We live in an age of shortening attention spans where instant gratification trumps everything else and business is no different. As we scramble to find the next unicorn the need to discover the quick route to success is only growing stronger. The hack. The special sauce. The secret formula.

But in truth, success is rarely quick or easy. It’s a slow, hard, time-consuming slog, and often comes from marginal gains, rather than dramatic, sweeping victories. While there are some activities which scale and can have a disproportionate impact, especially at the beginning, often it’s the street fighting and those small wins which set the scene and create the platform for growth and success.

The idea of an overnight success story is just that. A nice story. The media love it. The subject matter love it, and us, as consumer are just as guilty of wanting to believe this self-perpetuating myth.

What these overnight success stories fail to mention is the hours of toil that go into creating a business. It took Mark Zuckerberg two years to transform Facebook from a Harvard University only website to anything like the site we know today. Again, Larry Page and Sergey Brin spent several years developing Google from a research project at Stanford University to a fully fledged company. And to use a more recent example it’s five years since Uber launched as an experiment in San Francisco.

What’s clear is that the rate of innovation is happening much quicker than 100 years ago. A study by Yale University found the average lifespan of a company listed in the S&P 500 index of leading US companies decreased by more than 50 years in the last century, from 67 years in the 1920s to just 15 years today. While the pace of innovation is increasing, the fact of the matter remains. The overnight success story is a myth. A fable. A fantasy.

There’s no silver bullet. Success comes from a great idea, hard work and dedication. At Growth Hack Talks, an event I organised in September 2015 this was a reoccurring theme from the 12 speakers.

Innovating, product iteration, developing processes to market, sell and delight customers. These all take time. Speed, being agile and acting nimbly are a competitive advantage, but it’s time we put the overnight success story to bed.

The moral of the story is that success is rarely easy to accomplish and never happens overnight.