Walk in the steps of successful makers, and fail

Posted on March 5, 2022·

Ada is a developer. They have an excellent job in a tech company. They live a comfortable life and save for the future thanks to a good salary. Their job doesn’t take their whole life, so they also have excellent leisure time outside 9-to-5.

At work, Ada can work with the language they love and on a tech stack they like. It is not the latest technology, but it is good enough to enjoy working. Plus, their colleagues are fantastic.

Ada loves programming, but most of all, they love making. They always have side projects. Some to learn something new; others to create a product that other people may use in the future.

Ada has a dream: that one of their side projects becomes more than a side project. That one day, they can leave their job to focus on their project full-time. They know that writing code is not enough to start a viable project. They have to think about design, marketing, sales. These are skills you cannot learn by yourself. Even if you can, there must be an easier way.

A lot of people have the same dream as Ada. And even better: a lot of them saw their dream come true in the past. Some of these successful founders even documented how they succeeded. They wrote books, offered online courses, or published tweets with valuable lessons.

Ada starts following these people. They buy some books (some are bestsellers) and follow new people on Twitter. Ada learns a lot about what actions led people to success. They note ideas about what to do in their notebook.

A year later, Ada has started several projects with the ambition of making them viable. They spent a lot of time on design and marketing, more than programming. They learned that what is inside an application doesn’t matter much until users are here. It is much more important to know what problem the potential users have. Only then is it worth spending time finding how to fix it.

Some of Ada’s projects got a few users. They posted about them on websites such as HackerNews and Reddit. Sometimes (not always, though), it brought more users during a couple of days than Ada could have hoped. But after a few days, the line felt flat in their analytics.

After a couple of years, Ada starts losing hope. Why doesn’t any of their project have the expected success? Ada understands that it is hard to find a viable idea to solve a problem for many users. But they have shipped more than ten projects. They have followed every piece of advice about building a SaaS business. One of their projects at least should have succeeded.

Ada did everything successful founders related in their book, course, or tweets. But it hasn’t worked yet. Why is that?

During World War II, the American army sent a lot of planes to shoot at the enemy. Of course, the enemy fired at the planes, too, making around half of them crash and never return. Mechanics looked at the bullet holes in the planes that had come back. They noticed that the planes were always hit in the same parts, while other parts never had holes.

Try to imagine you are one of the mechanics. You notice that fact and have to decide where you reinforce the planes. Will you strengthen places where they have holes or the rest of the plane?

Intuitive reasoning would be to choose to reinforce the parts that got shot. And yet, the mathematician Abraham Wald suggested doing the exact opposite. The enemy fired at the planes, and yet they came back. But the ones that never returned were shot in places that made them crash. Thus, the mechanics followed Wald’s suggestion and reinforced the parts that weren’t shot.

How is this story related to Ada and their lack of success? When looking at planes, the most intuitive reflex is to look at the ones that came back and forget the others. It is easy to look at prosperous people and do what they suggest, hoping for success. We can assume that successful people are sincere. But they are missing a crucial point. Their success is less due to what they did than what the other (unsuccessful) people did or didn’t do.

Guessing what differs between returning and crashing planes might not seem tough. But knowing why unsuccessful makers are unsuccessful is.

Take Bill Gates, for instance. Without a doubt, he is one of the most successful makers of our time. He became a genius programmer when he was a teenager. Then he founded Microsoft before the law allowed him to drink alcohol. I admit without any reserve that Bill Gates deserves his success. He was a brilliant person and used his talent to make something that people and companies wanted to use.

Yet, for each talented person such as Bill Gates, there are thousands as skilled as him, who did not succeed as well. Why is that? Is it because they couldn’t seize opportunities? To understand it, looking at what Bill Gates did is not enough. We should look at what the others did or didn’t do. And for Bill Gates’ specific case, we. should look at the luck he had that others did not.

He was lucky to grow up near a university among the first to offer computers access. Should his family have lived somewhere else, he would not have become the programmer he was. Should he have been born a couple of years earlier, he would have left the town for college. He wouldn’t have spent nights programming during his teenage years.

Does Bill Gates deserve his success? Definitely. Are his actions enough to explain his success? It doesn’t seem so. We can guess he was so talented that he could have shined in another discipline anyway. But so could many other people that we have never heard of.

Imagine this other example, fictitious and extreme. In a far country, people play Russian roulette as we would play any other sport. Each time you play, you have one of six chances to die of a bullet in your head. Thousands of people play. After a few years, only a few people have survived, and one of them writes a book. He documents how he has trained since he was a child. He describes how his family supported him; he couldn’t have succeeded without them. He explains how he handles the gun in a particular position and why it is a definite advantage on other players.

Does that situation seem ridiculous to you? It is about a successful person who is sincere telling what they did to succeed. And note that it wouldn’t be different if we imagine that a journalist wrote this person’s biography.

Let’s come back to Ada’s situation. They read books written by people who succeeded in creating a viable business. They tried to apply the same recipes, yet the success didn’t come. Does it mean that Ada did not apply them well enough?

It does not. It means that Ada read the books written by successful founders. They did not read the ones written by people who applied similar strategies yet didn’t succeed. And for a good reason: these books don’t exist (or if they do, they must not be bestsellers).

Following the advice of successful people is an excellent first step. They made many mistakes, and listening to them can prevent you from doing the same ones. But don’t expect to create a successful product only by walking in the same steps as successful entrepreneurs. Even they are often unaware that they didn’t succeed only thanks to their skills. They also succeeded because of many factors, including luck.

In conclusion, don’t let any entrepreneur tell you that you don’t succeed because you haven’t followed their advice. Don’t believe anyone promising you that you will succeed if you read their book or buy their course.

You may find some valuable advice. It might help you a lot. But it will never be enough compared to what you can’t see: the reasons why on a hundred people doing pretty much the same, only a couple will reach success.


Cover photo by Robert Stump.

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