January 8, 2009
Paul Buchheit, the original lead developer of GMail, notes that the success of GMail was a long time in coming:
Once we launched, the response was surprisingly positive, except from the people who hated it for a variety of reasons. Nevertheless, it was frequently described as "niche", and "not used by real people outside of silicon valley".
Now, almost 7 1/2 years after we started working on Gmail, I see [an article describing how Gmail grew 40% last year, compared to 2% for Yahoo and -7% for Hotmail].
Paul has since left Google and now works at his own startup, FriendFeed. Many industry insiders have not been kind to FriendFeed. Stowe Boyd even went so far as to call FriendFeed a failure. Paul takes this criticism in stride:
Creating an important new product generally takes time. FriendFeed needs to continue changing and improving, just as Gmail did six years ago. FriendFeed shows a lot of promise, but it's still a "work in progress".
My expectation is that big success takes years, and there aren't many counter-examples (other than YouTube, and they didn't actually get to the point of making piles of money just yet). Facebook grew very fast, but it's almost 5 years old at this point. Larry and Sergey started working on Google in 1996 -- when I started there in 1999, few people had heard of it yet.
This notion of overnight success is very misleading, and rather harmful. If you're starting something new, expect a long journey. That's no excuse to move slow though. To the contrary, you must move very fast, otherwise you will never arrive, because it's a long journey! This is also why it's important to be frugal -- you don't want to starve to death halfway up the mountain.
Stowe Boyd illustrated his point about FriendFeed with a graph comparing Twitter and FriendFeed traffic. Allow me to update Mr. Boyd's graph with another data point of my own.
I find Paul's attitude refreshing, because I take the same attitude toward our startup, Stack Overflow. I have zero expectation or even desire for overnight success. What I am planning is several years of grinding through constant, steady improvement.
This business plan isn't much different from my career development plan: success takes years. And when I say years, I really mean it! Not as some cliched regurgitation of "work smarter, not harder." I'm talking actual calendar years. You know, of the 12 months, 365 days variety. You will literally have to spend multiple years of your life grinding away at this stuff, waking up every day and doing it over and over, practicing and gathering feedback each day to continually get better. It might be unpleasant at times and even downright un-fun occasionally, but it's necessary.
This is hardly unique or interesting advice. Peter Norvig's classic Teach Yourself Programming in Ten Years already covered this topic far better than I.
Researchers have shown it takes about ten years to develop expertise in any of a wide variety of areas, including chess playing, music composition, telegraph operation, painting, piano playing, swimming, tennis, and research in neuropsychology and topology. The key is deliberative practice: not just doing it again and again, but challenging yourself with a task that is just beyond your current ability, trying it, analyzing your performance while and after doing it, and correcting any mistakes. Then repeat. And repeat again.
There appear to be no real shortcuts: even Mozart, who was a musical prodigy at age 4, took 13 more years before he began to produce world-class music. The Beatles seemed to burst onto the scene with a string of #1 hits and an appearance on the Ed Sullivan show in 1964. But they had been playing small clubs in Liverpool and Hamburg since 1957, and while they had mass appeal early on, their first great critical success, Sgt. Peppers, was released in 1967.
Honestly, I look forward to waking up someday two or three years from now and doing the exact same thing I did today: working on the Stack Overflow code, eking out yet another tiny improvement or useful feature. Obviously we want to succeed. But on some level, success is irrelevant, because the process is inherently satisfying. Waking up every day and doing something you love -- even better, surrounded by a community who loves it too -- is its own reward. Despite being a metric ton of work.
The blog is no different. I often give aspiring bloggers this key piece of advice: if you're starting a blog, don't expect anyone to read it for six months. If you do, I can guarantee you will be sorely disappointed. However, if you can stick to a posting schedule and produce one or two quality posts every week for an entire calendar year... then, and only then, can you expect to see a trickle of readership. I started this blog in 2004, and it took a solid three years of writing 3 to 5 times per week before it achieved anything resembling popularity within the software development community.
I fully expect to be writing on this blog, in one form or another, for the rest of my life. It is a part of who I am. And with that bit of drama out of the way, I have no illusions: ultimately, I'm just the guy on the internet who writes that blog.
That's perfectly fine by me. I never said I was clever.
Whether you ultimately achieve readers, or pageviews, or whatever high score table it is we're measuring this week, try to remember it's worth doing because, well -- it's worth doing.
And if you keep doing it long enough, who knows? You might very well wake up one day and find out you're an overnight success.
Posted by Jeff Atwood
Amen. The 10-year-overnight-success speech is the first one you hear in any *responsible* acting class. No matter. Every day, a fresh crop of rubes pile out of the bus, stars in their eyes, looking for the Schwab's counter.
Tiny acorns/Mighty oaks, etc.
Once we launched, the response was surprisingly positive, except from the people who hated it for a variety of reasons.
This is surprisingly Yogi Berra-esque, except when it isn't.
Anytime I start to doubt where I'm going, all I do is look back on how far I've gotten, even if it did take (GASP!) yers to do so.
I do hope you keep writing for a long time, Jeff.
Time is an illusion. Nighttime - doubly so.
That's no excuse to move slow though.
[...] you must move very fast [...]
because it's a long journey!
it's important to be frugal -- you don't want to starve to death...
Strangely, this post almost exactly describes my adventures in Oregon Trail.
Haven't you heard though? Blogging is dead. Long live Twitter. :)
Thanks for this article, Jeff. We're in public beta with our app, colaab, at the minute so it's good to be reminded that patience and letting traffic slowly build up can be a successful strategy.
Great words of advice. Thanks Jeff.
Don't worry about what all those other b**tards say about you Jeff, I still love you :-). Keep up the good work. Stackoverflow is the best site ever!
I discovered codinghorror one night. read the insightful posts over the course of the night. By morning I was on the path to becoming a better developer. As far as I am concerned, you *ARE* an overnight success. Thanks for everything.
Plus one for it takes time and years of effort. Our startup Tonsho.com - an email service for sending large files was released in beta in April 2008. We've now got 600 free users and 5 pro users. It took 6 months after beta launch before we got good enough to get our first pro user. We've still got more things planned than we can have time for!
Good luck with Stack Overflow - the first problem I searched for was already in there shortly after launch - so its looking good!
Hey Now Jeff,
Years? Nice Chart with time!
Coding Horror Fan,
Great article, I completely agree having experienced the same need to grind away at a project for years on end with our sports management site (thats free by the way) at www.teamzonesports.com.
Overnight success is a myth, like the jackalope (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jackalope) some people think its out there but no one has ever really seen it
Malcolm Gladwell spoke of the 10,000 hour rule to hone people's skills which is pretty much what you state in the second half of the post.
Regarding startup's, at what point should you consider continuing or stopping your chosen startup? I think this is an important question...
I am working on a startup company and still planning most of the features and layout.
In a mad rush I wanted to get it up within a month as well as thinking it won't be too dificult based on past experience.
Then I decided to use a lot of unfimiliar technologies on it to add some excitement and learn more, MVC, JQUERY, JSON, TDD.
I now realise that it's going to take a lot of work continuously even after launching to make it a success.
Plus there's all the business side of things besides programming that take up time.
Thanks for StackOverflow, it's solved quite a few problems of mine.
stackoverflow is absolutely roaring along! i've started having programmer's mention it, or use it, who've never heard of yourself or joel.
(and i notice you didn't mention Paul's nice write up of the ambiguity in your 2/3rds boy child post -- http://paulbuchheit.blogspot.com/2009/01/question-is-wrong.html )
best of luck
Thanks for the great article.
There is finally hope for all of us if we put in a little hard work.
According to complete.com the second most popular keywords for stackoverflow are stack overflow at line 873. lol
I just miss one thing... the money.
If your working for many years on such a site/startup/whatever... how do you mange not getting any money for it? Do you work only in the evenings/weekends or did you manage somehow to get a little bit of money before everything starts... or what?
Thanks for your feedback, keep the good work going here...
Greetings from Austria,
@ damien, you should start pondering the success of your startup when you're selling household items on ebay to pay for bandwidth bills, not everyone makes it out alive
Jeff, thank you for this! I forget it too often in too many aspects of my life.... but someday my trumpet playing won't blow (and I won't scream so much when coding -- i should say testing, coding's the fun part).
Jeff, thank you for strengthening my faith in my upcoming startup with my dudes, since at the worst we are going to love what we are going to do, and hopefully I am seeing it is going to be a big success over a big chunk of time (2~3 years).
Referring back to your article 'Finishing The Game', what is the probability that I worked with you in NC and studied mathematics under Keith Devlin? (Happy New Year to you!).
Indeed, it's an illusion to think succes really comes overnight.
A friend of mine spoke of a presentation he had a while ago at work which was about the same symptom.
First slide: an empty white slide.
Second slide: empty, except for one black pixel. The audience was asked to see if they could spot the pixel. No one spotted it.
Third slide: empty, except for two black pixels...again the same question. Still no one spotted it.
Fourth slide: empty, except for four black pixels...same question, same answer.
By slide 10 everyone spotted a small 20x20 spot, but around slide 18 the spot seemed to 'explode', and by slide 20 the slide was black.
In an everyday scenario the general audience simply does not see the slide 0-15 stages of a product/service/website, and as soon as they see it, it's 'exploding' and it looks like it happened overnight.
There are exceptions though ; YouTube didn't happen overnight, but it went much faster than the others.
I'm anxiously awaiting the explosion at my own site (http://oxle.com), but I'm afraid it'll be stuck at slide 10. :-)
Nothing happens overnight,
I do have one quibble with what you're saying. It is quite possible to turn people off so much that there is no way to recover. I'm thinking of cuil, for example. I would find it hard to believe that the site can ultimately prosper after so much hype and disappointment.
So even if you plan on starting small and growing incrementally over time you still need to make sure what you're doing is quality work. If StackOverflow had been so buggy that no one could stand to use it, no amount of proclaiming how you had fixed things would have convinced people to come back. And beta no longer means anything to anybody thanks to google.
Great piece, lots of association for me. Not in the general cloud computing sense, more in the belief that something someday will spark the fuse and the dynamite will be set alight. Regular follower of the blog, keep it up. J
Did you have to take a loan, or did the ads on your blog create enough of a profit to take it on full time? Are you really able to live comfortably off the revenue of this blog? Are you paying your helpers, or is it more of a dot-com bubble stock option?
I am really intrigued by how successful SO has already become. Congrats man!
How true, definitely programming is something you learn over years and well never really stop learning. I look back at some of my programs and am slightly embarrassed by them now but thought they were great at the time.
This is also shown in how long it takes to move up the ladder of programming jobs. Not that they are usually called anything else just in terms of pay.
Bit unrelated but do you have trouble keeping motivated with stack overflow bearing in mind you are working for yourself, isn't it tempting to have days off, or work on something else.
Yea but TWITter and all those other social places are a complete waste of time for adults who are serious. Sure, some are playing around with it. But, in time they will come to realize how absurd it is to be in-touch with nearly everyone nearly all the time. SO is wonderful because I dont waste my time there. I ask or retrieve the information I need and I dont have to tell someone that I am cutting my toe nails or heading down to a horrible meeting or had a fight with my boss or I am listening to Yes while compiling my routines... who cares about that.
Nice, very nice article, I have to use this in class with my programmers. Can I?
Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly - G.K. Chesterton
You're the best blog on the internet in my opinion.
Jeff, your advice of stick to a posting schedule is the most useful tip I've ever received. It's helped me a lot with my blog. All other blogging advices are useless, until you can stick with it.
Definatly my fav software/programming/tech blog.
Been doing my blog now for six months... I guess I should start getting ready to be popular too... I'd be happy with just a fraction of your success.
Stack Overflow has an audience naturally limited by the number of people who do the work. I suppose you could and probably should branch into other areas, which would greatly expand the audience. I just think it's a little unfair to yourself, and maybe bit unrealistic, to compare your service to two other products whose audience is all Internet users. The question isn't where Stack Overflow ranks against Twitter and FriendFeed. It's where Stack Overflow ranks with Programmers.
Strangely, this post almost exactly describes my adventures in Oregon Trail.
You win the blog!
Sadly, 'benjamin' died of dysentery before he could win his blog prize.
Strangely, this post almost exactly describes my adventures in Oregon Trail.
You win the blog!
[CynicalTyler on January 9, 2009 09:49 PM ]
What you're forgetting is that it takes an enormous amount of effort to believe that you can successfully market a $^%#ING ROCK! Not only that, but you have to introduce yourself to women in bars by saying oh, well, you see, I sell individual painted rocks. The utter carnage this effort wreaks upon your very soul far outweighs even the most meteoric rise to success. So even if, on your and my time scale, the pet rock's success appeared to occur over night, for the poor mortals whose life's work it was to hawk their infernal creation, each second dragged on as a lifetime.
oh, well, you see, I sell individual painted rocks.
Thank you for this new pickup line, I will try it tonight!
When I do contract work for people and they're writing a commercial app, I always tell them if they're still around in 10 years, they have a chance. This business is all about longevity and continual improvements, as you noted.
I started PictureShare.net, which is just a wallpaper changer, in 1996, and I'm still working on it. And it's just a wallpaper changer! Admittedly, it's a kick-ass wallpaper changer, but still, that's all it does and I still work on it a lot.
Very true. If you get a huge wheel rolling, it will roll and nothing stops it like a snap. But the wheel gains speed really slowly...
Each day you put another stone on the pile. Then one day you've got Everest in your backyard.
Some very deep philosophy here.
Well that was pretty inspiring...
Now, now, Jeff, you're telling half the story.
You aren't mentioning the other rockstar involved in this show.
Or the others who did a lot of the work as dedicatedly as you do. Yeah you run the show, but what about the rest:
You know, when two's company.
I've been looking far and wide for one good soul who isn't a snake and well, have not succeeded yet. Pair programming and peer review is the awesomest approach in my situation, but nobody seems to want to work with another programmer. At least with me, that's been the experience. I don't deal with terrorists or druglords and that's obvious from whoever I contact. But they're mostly happy to keep the money for themselves, whereas pairing up would actually make it better for both.
Remember always, two is company.
So if you want to run a company successfully:
(a) two is company, not one.
(b) keep good company for the good of your company.
Someone needs to point me to a link on how teams form on the internets and how they succeed on fail. Knowing Jeff's documentation skills (hint: blog archives) it's there somewhere, no only if i could find it...
Well upto the point that I get a guy (good, bad or ugly) to make a team of two, all i can do is post some things here and there ... like just every other solo gig.
Anyone interested in *not* keeping it all for himself ?
(PS: Not a shop on Broadway, please)
It's another reminder of knowing which Dips are worth leaning into and which ones are worth avoiding.
Nothing's worth the paying the price to find your ladder was up against the wrong wall. Well, actually, I guess it's worse to quite a Dip that would have been worth it if you just would have worked through the resistance.
Resistance is your friend. It makes you stronger, and it separates the wheat from the chaff. It helps keep success from being over-crowded at the top.
Reading your post helps put things into perspective. So that now, when I'm stuck writing test documents (because I'm the only one on the team who has official training), I can think back to this post and know that in a few more years, this will all be much easier.
The important point to to take away from the post however, is that you need to keep pushing yourself, learning new things, understanding things you already know better and in more detail, and not to just keep doing over the same things you do everyday. Even if you need to use your own time, such as evenings and weekends, that is what will make it all worthwhile.
I think StackOverFlow will fail, I hated it after a moment and found it boring. May be you need to change its strategy
@justanotherkeyboardguy: The other rockstar (Joel Spolsky) as much as I like him... seems to contribute virtually nothing to Stackoverflow, except maybe the whoring out of FogBuzz which I am eminently, profoundly tired of listening to.
Hi Jeff, yup, great blog posting. I started MrTweet.net (which i was extremely gratified to note that you have used). many people congratulate us for the great growth we had, but far too few people realize that it has been the 4th implementation of the discovery engine we are building. and we are under no illusion that we will need another 1-2 years before being providing sustainable value add at all. Yes, value takes time!
I'll have to agree with words said in Paul Buchheit about GMail being a POS. They did introduce the unlimited space Inbox, which we are all thankful for, but as far as the interface go I wouldn't touch it even if it was the last webmail service around.
This blog is very inspirational. Thanks Jeff.
I started blogging a few months ago, and I'm giving it all I've got. And I will take your advice and be patient. Thank you Jeff.
I read Paul Buchheit. I also read you often. However I missed this one. Got this link from someone else reader list. Very inspirational writeup. Thanks.
I tried doing 2 startups at once. One had already been started 3 or 4 years ago but wasn't stable yet. I was so addicted to the initial stages of the startup process I forgot that the first startup I did which was successful still needed my undivided attention. I almost lost what I had spent so much time building for the glimmer and hopes of yet another startup. So I killed startup #2 in favor of keeping startup #1 alive.
So now I have 2 rules for doing startups:
1. Get a partner. Too hard to do alone.
2. One startup at a time..!!
that's my 2 cents...
I'm not in computers at all, I'm actually a musician/singer... and this was a very inspirational blog... Thanks for taking the time to post it, I appreciate it. Part of it is my new motto for my career!
Very nice and detailed stories.
I never knew the information on GMail. I disliked it at the beginning with the annoying messaging like style that was grouping my mails in a way that you can not understand which one comes first and which one comes next. :)
Thank you a lot for sharing this valuable informations!
I started reading your blog recently.
Thanks for the inspiration.
pigs pork american's tend to call sausage links... mmm, sausages.
Can anybody refresh my memory and illustrate some examples of low-effort, literal-instant successes? No lotteries, though.
Jeff, I really appreciate your blog. You post some really good and insightful content. I've heard about your blog from a friend a few years back, but never came and read until now. Just keep it up. Good stuff for sure.
Interesting. but i read it lasted only 6 mths? I was kinda eyeing a model that was sustainable and grew.
Even the milliondollar homepage has hit its limit.
As we become permanent drunkards by so many separate drinks, so we become saints in the moral, and authorities and experts in the practical and scientific spheres, by so many separate acts and hours of work. Let no youth have any anxiety about the upshot of his education, whatever the line of it may be. If he keep faithfully busy each hour of the working-day, he may safely leave the final result to itself. He can with perfect certainty count on waking up some fine morning, to find himself one of the competent ones of his generation, in whatever pursuit he may have singled out.
- William James, The Principles of Psychology