Entrepreneurs

This Is How Long It Really Takes For a Startup to Become an ‘Overnight Success’

If you follow stories about startups, it’s not hard to come away with the impression that a fair number of these new companies go from an idea to a multi-million-dollar valuation in a matter of months. This is rarely true. But it does beg a question that no one ever really answers: 

How long does it really take to go from an idea to a successful startup?

I’ve founded, worked at, and advised dozens of startups over the years. And two of my own stand out as pretty decent examples. ExitEvent was a three-year journey from launch to acquisition in 2013 — seemingly record time. But the full story was at least seven years in the making, built on technology I had first started developing in 1999. Yes, that is a one and a nine at the beginning of that inception year. Another example, TeachingStartup.com just celebrated its first full year live with paying customers and much success. I registered the URL back in 2014. 

All good things take time. So here’s a rough, unscientific look at how much time the path from idea to success usually takes, based on an aggregation of my experiences with startups that thrived, startups that failed, and startups that stagnated. 

Spoiler alert: The ones that achieved the most success were the ones that took the longest to get there.

It can take a couple of years to develop the right idea.

An idea can rattle around in an entrepreneur’s head for a long time. It can die there too. 

The reason why most startup ideas never leave the brain of the person with the idea is that the person with the idea never takes action. Action doesn’t mean writing the idea down (although that’s as good a first step as any) and it doesn’t mean sharing the idea with others (unless those others have skills and resources to help). 

Despite what you see in Hollywood plot twists, the vast majority of great business ideas are not lightning strikes of instant inspiration. Inspiration can indeed strike quickly, but the bolt it produces doesn’t accelerate an idea from 0 mph to 100 mph. Bolts of inspiration usually only become great ideas when that idea has been stuck at 60 mph for a while. 

Experience has taught me that the first time I have a game-changing business idea, that idea is going to be terrible. It takes execution, exposure, and refinement — over a long period of time — to work all of the terrible out of the idea and make it worth doing. Once the idea is viable, the changing of games can begin. 

It takes at least a few months to turn a solution into a viable product.

Ideas are useless on their own, and new businesses don’t start life as ideas, but as solutions to existing problems.

I’d be willing to bet that virtually every person reading this post has, at some point in their life, been introduced to a successful new product and thought to themselves: “I had the idea for that years ago.” I’ve thought that same thing about 100 times. And I definitely had the idea. I just didn’t solve the problem. 

But even once you solve the problem, the most game-changing solution doesn’t change the game on its own. The solution still needs to be packaged, built, priced, and delivered to a market waiting to purchase it. 

And just getting to a minimum viable product takes at least a few months. That product will then be refined perpetually over even more time, resulting in the game-changer we’re all hoping for. 

It takes a few years for a company to perform at peak productivity.

TeachingStartup.com is my project to make more and better entrepreneurs — and it is a company of one (with some help). My real job is Chief Product Officer at Spiffy, a mobile, on-demand vehicle care and maintenance startup with over 300 employees. Both companies have products, customers, and revenue, but they are not the same thing.

After about six years from launch, Spiffy has reached peak productivity. After just over a year from launch, TeachingStartup.com still uses a lot of spreadsheets and manual processes.

My point is that having a product, customers, and revenue doesn’t mean you have peak productivity. Most companies will lose money and nearly fail a couple of times before they hit their stride. The vast majority of startups will flirt with the end of their runway at least once, if not several times. 

Until you know the exact strengths and limitations of your company, and you can lean on those strengths to push those limits, there will always be the chance that defeat will be snatched from the jaws of victory.

It takes at least a year to turn random growth into profitable, scalable growth.

I’m saying “at least a year” here and I mean it. Just to get enough data to prove both scalability and profitability without false positives and head fakes, you’re looking at about a 12-month process. You can hit scalability before profitability, and vice-versa, but both profitability and scalability must be reached before a startup can be considered a success. 

Those startups that seem like they got funded overnight? They’re likely missing either profitability or scalability because if they had both, they wouldn’t need the funding. 

Those startups that seem like they got acquired overnight? There’s probably a long backstory that you’re not getting, about the struggle to scale and remain profitable at the same time. 

All of these stages don’t have to happen in this order or even happen one after the other. Sometimes the idea is still being worked out after the product gets launched. Most of the time a company is profitable or scalable way before it hit peak productivity. 

Don’t stress about the time it takes. Get your startup launched and your product to market quickly. And don’t give up after a year when you can’t figure out why you’re not seeing the massive traction you thought you would find. All good things take time.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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