I was speaking to a friend a few days ago about how frustrating it is to work really hard for months and months to make gradual progress, only to see some article about “How We Got 300,000 Users In 2 Days” or “How We Got To $1 Million Monthly Recurring Revenue Selling Toothpicks”, and other articles of this sort. You know the articles I’m talking about. They invalidate all the work you're doing and make you feel like you’re doing something wrong, or not doing enough.
I’ve been in this industry for many, many years and know, by fact, that startups struggle principally to attract users and to make money. They’re better at buying users and taking money a la venture capital. So, these sort of articles would confound me. On the one hand, I could simply discredit them by saying they’re not real, or fabricated, but that might be a “loserish” attitude towards something that I seemingly want for myself.
On the other hand, there is definitely something off about articles of this sort.
They all have the same format, don’t they? Nice, easy to read paragraphs no more than two sentences long. Fluctuating header styles, random boldness and italics sprinkled in, and a few fifth grade level line charts. This is the de-facto style of all SEO bloggers, which I’ve long been wary of. SEO bloggers tend to be what I consider scummy in their practices. It’s a sort of pyramid scheme. Their work essentially boils down to “How I Got 500,000 People To Read This Article”, which attracts you to reading it, and then counts your visit towards the headline. It’s all sort of a meta-recursive, self-ejaculatory pyramid scheme.
These easy-to-read high-result blog posts aren’t exclusive to SEO or marketing bloggers. I discredit any article or help post which counts my visit as a stroke to its grand ejaculation. But let’s instead consider articles with an honest nature written by seemingly honest people, that don’t have this format.
You have a nice guy or gal who doesn’t have a history of shady marketing practices, who has humbly put out a product to wild, wild success. The article is written honestly, has proper paragraph lengths, and doesn’t water down the reading to a fifth grade level. And in this article, this person claims to some hyperbolic result that is both inspiring and deflating—perhaps “How I Increased My Sales By 50,000% Overnight”.
Let me first say that articles like these are very hard to come by. I mean articles that are well-meaning, written honestly, and do not have some ulterior motive, like selling you the meta-product of growth for yourself. (As a rule, I discredit any articles about growth that aim to ultimately sell me growth.) These sort of honest articles are, by my browsing habits, the exception and not the rule. They do not trigger my bullshit alarm, but the results are so shocking, that I might have to work for the next five years to see similar results. And that’s sort of the goal, isn’t it? To make you feel like you’re doing something wrong,—very, very wrong. But let’s not be completely closed-minded: sometimes, we are very easily doing something wrong. Most times actually. But it’s important to be careful in how we approach articles that claim wild, exceptionary success.
So, I was telling this friend of mine that progress has been going pretty well since we last spoke. But, I mentioned, it doesn’t help the situation when every day I read some new article about how this person has made twenty million dollars in the time it takes me to make my morning coffee. Or how that person got a million users through some arcane marketing strategy with a touch of some Salt Bae level fashion.
My friend makes a funny, devilish look, as if he had figured it all out. He’s an entrepreneur himself, and has certainly come across the same species of articles. He said, “It’s important to recognize when someone is pitching a viable, reproducible marketing strategy (rare), and when someone is ‘backsolving’ their luck to make it seem non-coincidental.”
Intrigued, I asked him to elaborate.
“Well, it’s very easy to connect the dots looking back, isn’t it? Once an event happens, you can easily start connecting dots and telling a story. It’s what humans are good at.”
He mentioned the story of how he himself was able to solicit an external, six-figure contribution from a public company towards his startup without any working product—only an idea. And when I say “contribution”, I mean literally free, non-equity, non-debt based capital. He was a phenomenal salesman, and I myself attributed this legendary story to skill.
“You can easily contribute my results to some wicked skill, and I can easily connect some dots and backsolve to come up with a strategy for how you might do the same for your company. But the truth is, I got lucky. So many of the dots I’m connecting sound reasonable and reproducible, but happened by some chance encounter. I run in to this guy at this event who tells me to meet with this lady who tells me to email this person, and several traversals down this endless chain of events led to some magic. Could I try to inspire you and teach you how to do the same? Sure. But could I replicate my own results again with another company? Probably not. A lot of luck was involved.”
His message seemed to be, don’t discount luck in articles of success you see. Sure, often times there are nuggets of strategy you can observe and keep for yourself, but don’t approach these articles emotionally or enviously. If a person claims they grew an email list to half a million subscribers over night, and claims they can teach you to do the same, this is easily bullshit: this person could make a lot more money selling and performing this reproducible tactic to early startups and companies. Instead, they’re here trying to get you to give up your email for a “free no-bullshit eBook series on how to achieve similar results in half the time.” You can read and digest these articles, and suck out any bits of truth that might be helpful, but to be envious is to be mislead. To feel small is to be mislead. To feel like the work you’re doing is useless and pales in comparison is to be mislead.
The truth is, a lot of articles promising wild marketing success and growth are bullshit, and many more consist of backsolving luck. Very few honest, canonical articles remain that contain pure, reproducible strategy. Your goal is to differentiate between these three classes when reading an article, and to respond appropriately. There is something to be learned from all three classes of articles. But envy is not it. Self-deprecation is not it. What you want instead is to be a sort of neutral extraction algorithm designed to extract nuggets of strategy from articles of this sort. An algorithm is unemotional. It does not feel discouraged when an article is inflated. Instead, it seeks out the truths it has been trained to seek. And it throws away the rest. You can train your mental model to find whatever it is you seek, but as for me, my ruleset is:
- If selling growth as a product, discredit almost completely.
- If wild, exceptional results, then keep the luck factor in mind. Luck is inspiring just as well. The role of serendipity in our lives is something to be appreciated and humbled by. A feel-good story makes you feel good, and feeling good does good for you.
- Of the little honest and reproducible content that remains, study extensively. Advice like this is typically buried in long books, as to not be saturated and already over-deployed in the market.
Ultimately, the only measure of how well you’re doing is, “Well, how do you feel you’re doing? Are you paying your bills? You getting sleep? You feel good about what you’re doing?” There is no objective measure to tell you if the progress you’re making is good. Yes, you can compare your progress to the progress of others, but progress is infinitely-faceted, and two comparisons are almost never valid.
When you want to know how well you’re doing, simply ask yourself.