$1,000,000 Engine From 3 Overnight Success Stories
A couple of days ago, a friend told me about The Million Dollar Homepage, which is a website that consisted of a million pixels, each was sold for $1. After 4 months, S̶O̶L̶D̶ ̶O̶U̶T̶! The project generated more than $1,000,000, specifically $1,037,000.
Being an engineer and having always believed that luck is programmable, I decided to take a deep dive into the story and two similar tales to see what made these ideas work, extract the pattern, and assemble an engine for whoever wants [to make] a million, well, I guess it’s me, you, and everyone.
Alright, without further ado, let’s jump into it!
Firstly, let's take a glance at the three stories so we know what happened. (References to the stories are at the bottom of this article)
The Million Dollar Homepage
In August 2005, Alex Tew, a student from Wiltshire, UK, to pay his student loans, created a website, www.milliondollarhomepage.com. The page consisted of a million pixels arranged in a 1000×1000 grid. He would sell 10×10 blocks for $100 to companies so they could use the blocks as ad space.
After spending $50 for the domain and 2 days on building the site, he lobbied his friends and families to buy. In 2 weeks, he sold 4,700 pixels — generated $4,700.
Then, he used the money to hire a PR agency to write a press release. The site was picked up by big names, including The BBC and The Guardian. From there, he went viral.
After 4 months, he sold all of a million pixels and earned more than $1 million (by auctioning off the last 1000 pixels).
The $4 Million Pet Rock
In the summer of 1975, Gary Dahl, an advertising copywriter, after hearing his friends complain about their pets, created a “perfect” pet — a rock. “A rock would not need to be fed, walked, bathed, or groomed, and it would not die, become sick, or be disobedient” — Gary made this a 32-page training manual. He packaged them in cardboard boxes, which were exactly what you got at pet stores at the time, and sold for $4 each.
To launch, he wrote a press release himself in order to catch media attention. The pet rock was featured in Newsweek magazine and soon went viral. As Christmas approached, he was selling 10,000 rocks a day (~$30,000 in profit a day).
After 6 months, he sold over a million Pet Rocks — generated more than $4 million.
The World Record Egg
In January 2019, Chris Godfrey, an advertising creative, created an Instagram account @world_record_egg and posted a stock image of an egg with the caption: “Let’s set a world record together and get the most liked post on Instagram. Beating the current world record held by Kylie Jenner (18 million)! We got this.”
Being engaged by influencers and press outlets, the post quickly got 18.4 million likes in 10 days, becoming the most-liked Instagram post of all time.
After 2 months, by March 2019, it had 53.3 million likes, surpassing Despacito music video and taking the world record for the most-liked online post on any media platform in history.
What was the engine behind $$$?
[Did] what’s outside of the box
A lot of people say that these “hackers” were lucky that they had a genius idea. Nonetheless, when I shared The Million Dollar Homepage to my friends as an idea instead of a success story, they all said “Oh, it’s cool” and ignored it. Literally, no one talked to me about the idea again.
I’m quite sure that Alex, Gary, and Chris weren’t the first people who came across their ideas. The difference is they took [serious] action. The pet rock was a joke when Gary’s friends complained about their pets, for most people it would be the end of the conversation, Gary followed with a 32-page manual, a pet-like cardboard box, and a press release.
When looking at overnight success, people often perceive it as pure luck. Nevertheless, imagine you have to convince one stranger to give you money without giving them any value, how likely it’d be, let alone a million people.
Like every business, at the core of each above story, the creator gave their consumers value, one type or another. The Million Dollar Homepage gave companies exposure to millions of people at a fraction of a typical advertising cost. Pet Rock gave buyers a 32-page fun read, helped people forget the frustration of caring for their “real” pet. The World Record Egg gave consumers free power to have a hand in a world record and to troll Kylie Jenner and celebrities in general.
Set the right [pricing]
In business, there is a simple rule: “If you create value for people, they will be willing to give you a fraction of it”. The question is how to create value and how much of a fraction you should ask for.
The value that The Million Dollar Homepage created for each company was arguably quite more than $1/pixel (which is proven by the fact that Alex successfully auctioned off the last 1000 pixels for a higher price), but because there was a high risk for pretty much the first 1000 customers, Alex couldn’t charge for $5/pixel at the beginning. $1/pixel was just right.
It was similar in The Pet Rock story. $4 for an entertaining piece that people were looking for to forget their pet was just right.
For The World Record Egg, well, it’s free. Although it created a value (depending on what type of people you are), it is too little for a fraction to be worth a cent. So, what is cheaper than a cent? An Instagram like.
Grew out of [network effects]
When a network effect is present, the value of a product increases according to the number of others using it.
The more viral The Million Dollar Homepage became, the more exposure buyers had, and the more traffic newspapers having talked about it received.
When a product has a network effect, consumers will talk about it by themselves, it’s simply because they receive more value doing so and who doesn’t want more value, especially if they’ve already paid for it.
Created [fear of missing out] and [desire for inclusion]
You probably think that the network effect in The Pet Rock and The World Record Egg wasn’t clear. Here it is.
Fear of missing out (FOMO) and desire for inclusion are special types of network effects.
Neuroscientists said that because our ancestors had always lived in tribes, we all have a desire for inclusion, we instinctively want to associate ourselves with something that involves a lot of others.
When we saw everyone was sharing and talking about The World Record Egg, we would instinctively like and share it (again, depending on what type of people you are), a big part is to feel connected, to feel that we belong to something that’s big. A modern way to describe this is that it makes us a “trendy” person.
Similarly but from a different angle, when we see an opportunity for a novel experience or a “potentially profitable” investment, although we don’t need it in the first place, we have a fear that deciding not to participate in is the wrong choice, especially if it has a kind of urgency. The Million Dollar Homepage had a cap at a million pixels. People were buying pet rocks for Christmas.
It’s seen that FOMO often works for launches of paid products while a desire for inclusion makes free social campaigns more tempting.
Had a [simple] yet [unique] tagline
To become viral, you want people to:
- Pick up on the idea in under 10 seconds → simple
- Remember it → unique and simple
- Talk about it to others accurately → unique and simple
“A pet rock”
“Let’s set a world record together and get the most liked post on Instagram. Beating the current world record held by Kylie Jenner (18 million)! We got this.”
People have a very short attention span. When targeting millions we want [everyone] who sees the product to pay attention to it.
Uniqueness embeds surprise, which is critical to creating FOMO. When people already know something, they don’t care about skipping it, which is the reason why most copycats didn’t work.
Put efforts from the [get-go]
When looking at “overnight” success, it’s easy to misjudge that they got an amazing idea, spent 1–2 days building it, threw it out, sit down, and watched it become viral.
The fact is the above stories wouldn’t have happened if the creators stopped working after day two. Alex kept begging his friends and families in 2 weeks to sell the first 4,700 pixels. Gary wrote a 32-page manual, designed, packaged cardboard boxes, wrote a press release, and did early marketing work himself. Chris paid and worked with advertising agencies and influencers to be able to reach a large audience right from the beginning.
A how-to bonus and summary
Making $1,000,000 is definitely not easy and not one-night work, but there was a pattern of “extremely accelerated” success.
The pattern seems to be to build an engine that grows itself from inside the box to outside the box:
- What can’t millions of people do? By answering this, you know what value can attract millions of people. For example: to be in a million-liked Instagram photo.
- What value can have a network effect? By answering this, you force yourself to create something that may grow by itself.
- How much is the value? How much is a fraction? By answering this, you know if it’s worth doing. (Keep in mind that capturing value doesn’t always mean charging for money)
- What to do from the get-go? By answering this, you know what “fuels” you need to put in until the engine starts running by itself. (No engine can start running by itself)