Getting impatient

When I started Recursive Function, I put together a set of very modest goals. The goals were rooted in the practicality that my company is a very young one without a large client base, deep advertising budget, or superstar employees. The goals fit me well since I’m a practical, frugal person. I want to grow organically, building a business that will be around for a long time and not be dependent on burning through a lot of cash in order to survive.

For example, my goal when launching Formstack was to humbly acquire one paying customer shortly after launching without knowing the person or communicating with him/her before the purchase. My goal wasn’t to have a launch party with musicians, celebrities, fireworks and Dom Perignon, intent on signing thousands of customers on the first day. My expectation was to start with one customer, then two, then three, and so on.

I’m pleased to say that I’ve met most of my goals so far, but I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t say that less than 6 months into this, I have to fight hard to battle impatience.

I spend a lot of time reading business-related sites, blogs, forums and magazines. It’s rare that a day goes by when I don’t read about small businesses that are experiencing tremendous success, whether they’re getting $1M AdSense checks from Google, or signing up thousands of customers with their new product launch.

Lest I drive myself crazy, I have to step back and really look hard at the reality behind those stories. Sure, those business owners might be luckier than I am, or more talented, or make better decisions, or be privy to business secrets that I’ll never discover. But the one thing that’s easy to overlook is how much time it took for them to get where they are.

For example, I wrote last week about the owner of PlentyOfFish who’s making $15,000 per day from AdSense. My first impression when I read the story wasn’t that it must have took him 5 years and a lot of trial and error to get to that point. As I dug more, I discovered this blog post by the owner that detailed his struggle to create a successful site. He talks about how he made $5.63 his first month and how ugly the site was. It wasn’t until several years later that he started to see significant traffic growth.

I also often think about 37 Signals, the darling of the Web 2.0 world that can do no wrong. I don’t know much about their back-story, but according to this Wikipedia entry, the company was founded in 1999. Reading their history raises speculation that it took them a long time to break into the successful role that they have today.

This whole thought process leads me to one of my favorite lines from Joel Spolsky. He writes in the forward of Micro-ISV: From Vision to Reality:

In the first month, you are going to make, about, $364, if you do everything right. If you charge too little, you’re going to make $40. If you charge too much, you’re going to make $0. If you expect to make any more than that, you’re going to be really disappointed and you’re going to give up and get a job working for The Man and referring to us people in startup-land as “Legacy MicroISVs.”

Joel is a lot more right than a lot of people believe. The flip side of me reading a lot of business stories is that I see a lot of posts from people dismayed at the fact that they haven’t landed a single sale of their shiny new product. Some of them give up after a couple months, but it seems that those who stick with it eventually find some success.

Some of the best advice I’ve seen about this comes from marketing whiz Seth Godin, who wrote about the myth of the overnight success:

The challenge … is to avoid the temptation of buying the media infatuation with the overnight success story (which rarely happens overnight). The goal, I think, is to be an overnight failure, but one that persists. Keeping costs low, building a foundation that leads to the right kind of story, the right kind of organic growth.

I hope he’s right.

[Updated references to Formstack to prevent confusion about the name change]

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