Sam Holstein

There Is No Shortcut To Success

Airbnb was the kind of startup nobody expected to succeed. In the days before Uber and the sharing economy, the idea of renting out your personal property was unheard of. The notion of sharing your own home with strangers online through a website was ludicrous. Prominent Silicon Valley investors told the AirBnB team their idea would never scale.

The Airbnb team was having none of it. If they couldn’t raise money with investors, they thought, they would do it themselves. Unable to raise money the traditional way, they did so by selling campaign-themed cereal boxes for $40 a pop during the 2012 presidential race. And it worked. Their collector’s edition cereals got them out of debt.

It also got them accepted into Y Combinator.

For some, getting accepted into Y Combinator is the happy ending, but Airbnb’s challenges didn’t stop there. Once they got a website up and running, they found they were able to attract home listings, but most homeowner’s photos were blurry, scaring away potential renters. The naysayers were right. Their model wasn’t scaling.

They could have taken the easy way out and just emailed homeowners over and over again until they took better photos, but they didn’t. The Airbnb team flew to New York City (where the majority of their listings were at the time) and, armed with professional photography equipment, took studio photos of listings for homeowners on their behalf. While they did this, they used the opportunity to connect with their community and develop a better product.

As to whether that worked for them… Judging by their $31 billion valuation, I’d say it did.

Airbnb’s story is such an excellent one because it reminds us of something we’d rather forget: that there’s no shortcut to success.

“To any entrepreneur out there, you can’t take no for an answer” Gebbia warns, “We had really smart credible people out there telling us no. And had we listened to them there might not be Airbnb today.”

Greylock Partners

The internet makes it easy to forget. Between hucksters selling us $199 internet courses guaranteed to 10x our income and news articles about entrepreneurs selling their overnight sensation companies for millions of dollars, it’s easy to believe there is a shortcut to success. If only we could find it….

There is no silver bullet

What Airbnb understood was that there is no silver bullet. There is no shortcut, no 10 Tips To Make Your Startup Succeed that would make Airbnb profitable. They understood the only way to have a profitable startup was to provide something of value to people, and they did what it took to provide that value.

When I was a young entrepreneur, I didn’t understand this. My third venture was an attempt at creating a passive income via a blog about app development. The blogosphere, with their ecourses and ebooks and gurus promising lives of writing on the beach, had me convinced there was some kind of silver bullet. All I had to do was write a couple dozen evergreen articles, put all the right calls to action in all the right places, write an email funnel using the right trigger phases, and wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am, I would be generating hundreds of dollars a month in passive income. 

When my couple dozen evergreen articles and email drip campaign did not produce a river of passive income, I figured I was implementing the system incorrectly. I searched for the piece of information I didn’t have, the one modification that would make it all work. And searched. And searched. In fact, I probably spent hundreds of hours searching for the silver bullet. If I spent that time writing instead of searching, there is no telling how successful that blog would be today. But I didn’t. I never found my silver bullet — and today, that blog is dead*.

There is no shortcut to success. Success comes as a result of creating value for people, and there is no One Key Trick To Creating Value Overnight. Creating value just takes a lot of time and a lot of work. Categorically, it must. Creating value is a process of discovery; when you’re creating a product, you must try many different combinations of features and designs until you land on one customers find of value. Many, many combinations. You must travel down a lot of paths and reach a lot of dead ends before you find the path that gets you where you’re going. This process takes a lot of time and work no matter how much money you have to throw at it. 

This time-intensive, work-intensive, unavoidable reality of creating value is what inspires entrepreneurs to do crazy things like fundraise for their company by selling cereal boxes or flamethrowers and fly to New York City to personally take photos of homeowner listings. People who expect to succeed without committing this way are deluding themselves. Success is available for anyone who wants it, but we must be willing to put in the work. 

This is not to say you shouldn’t try to learn from the masters. Study the way experts do what they do and learn from how they do things. Working hard is no replacement for working smart. But don’t spend so much of your time learning that you never actually do the work. 

How to make sure you do the work

Everyone’s system for making sure they do the work is different. Some people wake up at 6 AM every day and do the work until it’s time to go to their day jobs. Some people sit down to do the work immediately after their day job. My belief is that the best system is the system that works for you.

But you do need a system. People who tell themselves they’ll do things when they get around to it are people who don’t get things done. This is true in my own life; when I tell myself I’ll write an article “sometime today,” I almost never get the article written. When I wake up at 6 AM specifically to write an article, however, it gets done every time. 

This is true for you, too. If just telling yourself you will get the work done was enough for you to actually get the work done, you wouldn’t be reading this article, you’d be rolling in Benjamins. 

What makes systems so important is that they make the work a priority for you. Things that are a priority for you get attention, and systems, and work. Consider your day job. You have a system for that: you wake up at a certain time, put on a certain outfit, and go to a certain place to do your work. Employers don’t insist on offices and business casual dress because they are mean and stodgy, they do it because they understand systems increase everyone’s level of performance.

If you don’t have a system for your own work already in place, here are some suggestions for systems that might work for you:

As was mentioned earlier, it doesn’t matter what system you pick. What matters is that you have one at all.



1: In reality, if I had given the blog the level of work it required, I would have concluded I didn’t want to be running a topical blog about app development and shut it down in favor of the blog I’m running today — but I would have done it three years earlier, meaning I would have been three years farther along today. Ah, well, hindsight is 20/20