The 12 Year Overnight Success

When I told my close friends I was starting a fulfillment company, you could see them flinch and try to mask their disappointment. You could almost see the single word forming inside their heads, “WHY??” They looked at me with something like pity while they struggled to put a good face on it.

The thing about Whiplash is that it’s not my first attempt at fulfillment. It’s not even my second. When we started Whiplash, my friends had already escorted me through two painful failures at order fulfillment. From the giddy launch to the somber nails in the coffin, they’d had front row seats to the whole thing. When I beamed and laid down the words, “I’m starting a fulfillment company”, it was reasonable that my grand unveiling (or delusions-of-granduer unveiling, maybe) was given a luke-warm reception at best.

To them, it was like I was getting back together with an on-again, off-again girlfriend that I was better off without. They could see I was excited and wanted to be happy for me, but it was so obvious that in two months, it would be their job to put me back together again when I showed up crying on their doorstep.

Of course, now if you look at Whiplash and read the story, it sounds like an overnight success: We bootstrapped to profitability, and were listed in the top 500 of the Inc 5,000. We had the highest revenue out of anyone in our cohort at 500 Startups, and accepted funding from premier Silicon Valley investors Draper Associates. It’s so neat and clean. And such a distorted version of the truth.

It’s tempting to go into how difficult Whiplash was to keep going when we didn’t have any money, or what heroic feats led to success. There are some stories there I’m proud of, and I hope to tell them sometime. But right now, my point isn’t that it was heroic, or that it was hard. Today, my point is that it took forever. A million little things went right over a long period of time before we got the modicum of success we’re experiencing now. But, if you edit it right, you can tell the story like we came out of nowhere. The media loves to tell founding stories this way, because it’s the story people want to hear.

But it’s just not true, and I worry the habit does a disservice to founders and their families. Success and failure look a lot alike in the beginning; industry vets can’t even tell them apart. It’s unlikely that you, or your family, your friends, or your advisors can tell if you’ll ultimately succeed or not. It’s easy to fall into a trap of comparing ourselves with the success stories we all hear about, and finding ourselves coming up short.

I don’t know your business, so I don’t feel comfortable giving some cliché, potentially harmful advice like, “Don’t Give Up”. But, what I can say is this:

  • No one knows what you’re capable of. Not even you.
  • Many people, some of whom love you, will under-estimate you.
  • If you believe in what you’re doing but aren’t living up to some success story, it doesn’t matter. At all.
  • All successful people have exactly one thing in common: they didn’t quit. Sometimes they had to stop and regroup, but they came back and tried again. And again. And again.
  • Success stories leave out huge gaps of time where nothing noteworthy happened.

That Whiplash success story? Everything in the list happened in the last eight months. We started working on this company almost six years ago, and that doesn’t even take into account the six years before that where I’d been failing at fulfillment on-and-off. Most of it sounds pretty boring in a story, and gets skipped right over. The Twelve Year Overnight Success just isn’t that sexy. But, it’s the truth. Maybe it’s just me and I’m particularly slow at building businesses, but I tell myself that good things just take time.

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