r/wallstreetbets and the Lesson of Viral Exposure for Startups
Be careful what you wish for, because you might not recover
Before the second week of January, the subReddit r/wallstreetbets was a loosely-knit group of stock traders who mostly posted screenshots of their painful losses on bad stock bets. By the last week of January, it was a market-moving phenomenon. Millions and millions of dollars were made, and even more millions were lost, maybe billions by the time the dust settles.
All it took for that explosion was a story, a hook, a catalyst, and the right viral spark, one that produced thousands of press hits over the span of two weeks. In turn, up to 8 million subscribers latched on to r/wallstreetbets (WSB), many of then with wallets (and life savings accounts and 401Ks) wide open.
By the end of the last week of January, the story had fallen apart, the hook disintegrated, and the catalyst appeared to have already happened on a much smaller scale or wouldn’t be happening at all, depending on who you believe.
This mirrors the rise and fall of nearly every viral-fueled startup I’ve ever been involved with or even tracked leisurely. But I still get the question at least once a week, obviously more so over the last month:
“How do I get my company on that kind of viral gravy train?”
Cautionary tales and horror stories
That kind of rocket ride, pun intended, certainly makes you think: If a press-fueled viral push can move that much money with kind of velocity — through an organization with no structure, no reach, and no product to speak of — surely your company can create and ride a smaller and more targeted tsunami to a windfall of honest revenue.
But the truth is, the viral math doesn’t add up. For example, despite the infinitesimally small odds of getting hit by a bolt of lightning, approximately 240,000 incidents happen each year. Technically, it could happen to me or you. But a strategy to increase your chances of being hit while simultaneously hedging on a positive outcome is akin to trying to get hit by a very small bolt of lightning.