Achieving overnight success: Tom Preston-Werner

Written on 21st July, 2012
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This is the second article in my achieving overnight success series where I aim to dispel the myth of overnight success. To do this, I look into how founders who have achieved incredible milestones started their entrepreneurship journey. This article follows the first in the series where I looked into the path of Kevin Systrom of Instagram.

Tom Preston-Werner is one of the co-founders of GitHub, a social coding platform which has grown into the largest code host in the world. GitHub has taken an unsual path amongst startups in that it was bootstrapped completely for many years, all the way to over a hundred employees. It made headlines recently by announcing it’s first ever funding, a whopping $100M round valuing GitHub at $750M. I’m sure most of you don’t see GitHub or Tom Preston-Werner’s achievements as an overnight success, however the media can sometimes easily give that picture. Let’s have a look at the actual journey Tom took to build a business worth almost $1B.

The “new shoes” startup: side projects

"When you sell a company, there’s four levels of money that you can make from it. When you sell a company, you can get new shoes, a new car, a new house or a new life." - Tom Preston-Werner

I’m not sure that at this stage of his journey Tom would call his activities “startups”, but to use his own analogy I think the countless side projects he hacked away at were “new shoes” startups.

In an interview with Andrew Warner, Tom talks about one of his earliest projects as coming up with a technique called “flash replacement” to allow using any font on a website. Some years ago, there was a certain set of fonts you could use on a website, and you were limited to these. We now have the luxury of things like Google Web Fonts and Typekit, but back then fonts were a real limitation. Tom’s solution was built on and improved by Sean Inman and became a popular technique known as sIFR.

My conclusion from reading about Tom’s projects is that this one was amongst Tom’s first stepping stones to having a reputation and reach in the open source community which would let him have a springboard to launch other projects.

The “new car” startup: Gravatar

"When you sell a company, you can get new shoes, a new car, a new house or a new life. I guess Gravatar was a new car." - Tom Preston-Werner

Tom’s motivation for coming up with the flash replacement technique was to be involved with and part of the community. He talked of industry leaders as “gods” and clearly wanted to be in that game.

After his taste of the community and open source with flash replacement, Tom went on to hack away at countless other side projects. In one interview alone, he is quizzed about three different popular open source projects which he ran.

His most popular project of this type was Gravatar. It was initially his way to work on something fun alongside client projects. The idea was to help people avoid maintaining a separate avatar across dozens of services, by having a single place you update it, and tying it to an email address.

Tom reached out cold to some of the biggest bloggers he knew, and after some time managed to grow traction for Gravatar. It grew at a rapid pace after this, but with no business model around the idea, it was a fine line between horrible mistake and runaway success. After many struggles, Gravatar was eventually acquired by Automattic, the company behind WordPress.

The “new life” startup: GitHub

Tom’s fairly humble beginnings of hacking away at many open source projects is something I think we can all take great inspiration from. I think many of us could also have success if we have the persistence to keep going and drive to do something other than working for others as Tom did.

The most interesting thing I see with Tom’s story so far, compared to what happened next, is that the link between the two is very strong indeed. Tom’s life for the many years before GitHub was immersed in web design, web standards and open source. This is the area which GitHub catered to. The other illuminating thing is his explicit learning from Gravatar that having a business model is crucial. I think this alone is what triggered Tom and his co-founders to build something with revenue from the start and bootstrap GitHub all the way to a company able to employ 100 people with no outside funding.

It’s clear to me that GitHub is the “new life” startup for Tom Preston-Werner, and I am truly inspired by the path he has taken to reach this stage.

Our turn

Are you working away at projects that may eventually be dots along a line that leads to something truly great? Are you getting involved with a community and getting to know people whilst producing things of value?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on how you’re working towards achieving overnight success.

Sources & recommended reading/viewing

Photo credit: Andy Delcambre