Online “Success” And “Failure” Don’t Look The Way You Think

For the last few years, I’ve been smugly convinced that I knew what “success” looked like online.

It looked like tens of thousands of social media followers. It looked like book deals and big brand partnerships and press mentions. It was numbers-based (of course) and bigger numbers = more success.

I was also pretty sure that I knew what “failure” looked like. It looked like fewer comments than usual on that post or a Twitter following that stalled out. It was snarky comments and unsubscribes.

And isn’t it awkward when you do more work and meet more people and realize how wrong you’ve been?

In the last year, I’ve seen “success” that looks like a friend who wrote a New York Times bestseller and kept a part time gig to make ends meet* or my buddy whose products were featured in Martha Stewart Living …. and saw little increase in sales. I’ve seen multiple friends get book deals so stressful their relationships and health hit the rocks.

I’ve seen also seen a lot of things that could be mistaken for “failure.”
I watched a client with 72 Twitter followers earn a seven-figure income. (She’s had a booming business offline for a ages.)
I’ve had people unsubscribe from my newsletter (and then email me to say they’re unsubscribing because they’re following on Feedly now.)
I’ve published posts that got three comments (but 10 long, heartfelt email responses.)
I’ve watched a client’s Facebook page stall out (while her Instagram following quadrupled.)
I’ve published posts that offended some readers (but opened up important dialog.)
I posted an Instagram photo that garnered all of 44 likes (and netted me a copywriting gig with a major athletic clothing manufacturer.)

If you ever find yourself feeling less-than while flicking through a famous Instagram feed or reading a highly-trafficked blog, know that numbers don’t tell the whole story.

Popularly doesn’t necessarily equate to profitability. The minds you change and the hearts you open can’t always be measured in Twitter followers

What looks like failure might be success dressed in overalls.

What does business success look like for you? Have you had any “successes” that didn’t quite have the end result you imagined? Or things that looked like “failure” … but weren’t?

* Totally no shame in keeping a part time job! It’s smart to have stable income! But I really thought someone who’d written a wildly successful book would be rolling in the dough, you know?

photo by decor8 holly // cc



I think this is my favourite post I’ve ever read of yours (and I’ve read a LOT). Its the most important message to remember in life. Success comes in all shapes and forms most of which are learned from parents, friends or celebrities none of which teach us to form our own definition. Whenever someone tries to make comments about how I never finished uni or something similar I just smile inwardly and think about all the amazing things I have achieved. One ‘failure’ does not mean you are a failure and I consider myself to be an incredible success in most of the things that matter to me.


Bang on Sarah. Love this. The more we can move away from the generic messages (on generic business blogs) about success and failure, the richer, more diverse, more experimental, more exciting and more sustainable the online business community will become.


Love this! It’s so easy to look at others and say things like, “How come I don’t have as many followers? How come I didn’t get that many likes?”. But I need to remind myself that followers/likes/comments don’t tell the whole picture.


I just stumbled upon your blog and with this being the first post I’ve ever read…I definitely have to catch up! This post drew me in and was exactly what I needed to read today! 🙂 Thanks for being so real and honest, I love that!

The Things That Freaked My Week | Jessica Murnane

[…] This really got me thinking about what  success actually […]

Link Love, Vol. 86 | musicalpoem

[…] Online Sarah reminds us that online success and failure don’t always look the way we think. […]

Comments are closed.