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Why overnight success takes 10 years

The idea of overnight success is a very attractive one. That you somehow you go from zero to hero and your whole life changes, seemingly without any additional effort.

Clearly, this is untrue. At the writer Tom Clancy says: “An overnight success is ten years in the making.”

This is backed up again and again by stories and testimonies by some of the world’s most famous and successful entrepreneurs. Overnight success doesn’t exist, and even the path to success is not one of steady progression. It goes in bursts, where it sometimes feels like 95% of your business’s existence has been more or less stationary, then the last 5% everything takes off.

Whenever you build something from scratch, it’s going to take time and you’re going to make mistakes. Accepting that is half the battle, but it’s also reassuring to know that whether it’s the successful entrepreneurs of today or those of yesterday, they all have something in common – it took at least 10 years for them to find success.

Let’s look at what we can learn from some great examples.

  • Eric Yuan (Zoom)
  • Kevin Plant (Under Armour)
  • Matt Maloney (Grubhub)
  • Bill Gates (Microsoft)

 

Eric Yuan (Zoom)

It’s hard to think of a brand that has been more closely associated with the year 2020 than this one. It’s become a noun, a verb, a shortcut to mean ‘let’s talk online.’ Zoom is everywhere: businesses are using it, individuals are using it.

Was it an overnight success?

In fact, Zoom was a long time in the making. Working in technology since the 1990s, Eric Yuan left his job back in 2011 to try to start his new company. This new business, which was later re-named Zoom, initially had trouble finding investors. Many people thought the video conferencing market was already saturated.

Yuan did not give up. After raising some seed money, the company launched a beta version of their platform that could host conferences with up to 15 video participants – later that same year it got its first major business customer. Raising more money in 2013, it climbed up to one million users.

Over the past seven years Zoom has continued to grow, continued to attract investment, but it’s been over the last year, during COVID-19, that it has truly become a household name. But it was Yuan’s tenacity over a period of years that got the company to this point.

Kevin Plank (Under Armour)

Under Armour was founded back in 1996 by Kevin Plank who was at the time a college football player in his early twenties. Initially working from home, he started out selling clothing from his car. Getting the contract to supply apparel to an amateur sports team was his first break, but while his company did start to grow, it was a few years until things really started to explode.

What he created was moisture-wicking sports apparel that helped to keep the wearer dry while they were exercising. A second big break came when a film company used his clothing in one of their movies – brand awareness started to climb as a result. As Plank started to advertise his company more widely, sales started to increase and by the early 2000s he was supplying apparel to professional sports teams.

The company went public in 2005 and further extended their line, branching out into other forms of sports apparel. Last year, the company brought in over USD 5bn in revenue, and while Plank is no longer CEO, the company he started more than two decades ago continues to go from strength to strength.

But it was far from an overnight success.

Matt Maloney (Grubhub)

Grubhub is an online food ordering and delivery platform that connects diners with local restaurants. Founded in 2004, it currently has a network to 30 million users ordering from over 300,000 restaurants.

Founded by two web developers (one of them Matt Maloney), it was in existence for ten years before it had its initial public offering. Fast-forward to this year and the company was purchased for USD 7.3bn in stock. That’s an impressive, but long 16-year journey – that started out due to the founders’ frustration with paper menus, and then coming up with a solution.

Entrepreneurs like those behind Grubhub understand that even if you have a clever idea that appears to fill a gap in the market, it can take time for it to really gain traction. You may go through numerous iterations before you settle on the version of your company that really takes off.

What Grubhub has in common with all the others is that Maloney didn’t just one day come up with an idea and it was a success.

Bill Gates (Microsoft)

While he may be the world’s richest person, in some ways Bill Gates took a long road to success. He founded Microsoft in 1975 but it was eleven years until the company went public and things hit the stratosphere.

What’s most notable about Gates’ story is that, in a sense, he was working on Microsoft his entire life. Perhaps even before the company itself was a fully formed idea. His commitment to excellence and relentless work-ethic is what put in the groundwork for his later success. But more than that, it was his fascination with computer science, his obsessive tinkering, that meant when it was time to form his company, all the legwork had been done. He was already in the best possible place to do so.

And this is how we need to measure ‘overnight’ success. It’s not just the point of founding until the point of success, but it’s all the years of working other jobs, for other people, gaining experience, that you will ultimately put into your own venture. None of it is wasted, you learn something from every job. So that when success comes, you’re ready to grasp it.

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