Startup Strategies - 5 Takeaways from Wordle's Success That Can Help Your Business Go Viral

April 13, 2022

How can you launch the next Wordle? From a hobby to a seven-figure business, the word game started with a single user in mind and grew to become the obsession of millions of daily fans. Its success offers a lesson for any entrepreneur or freelancer.

Can you repeat Wordle's success, with its user base that surged 900,000% in less than 4 months? Maybe not. But a close look at what the product did right can improve your ability to connect with an audience.

In this article, we'll dive into the design, product, and marketing lessons entrepreneurs and freelancers can learn from Wordle.

What is Wordle?

At its core, Wordle is a word game. You get six chances to guess a five-letter word (the game releases one word per day). For each guess, the game will let you know if a letter is in the correct place. It will also show you if a particular letter is in the answer but in the wrong place.

That's it. But for a student of business, the game represents so much more. For entrepreneurs, freelancers, and professionals interested in how to build a successful product in the digital world, Wordle represents a crucial real-life example of an astounding success story.

How did Wordle become so successful?

In many ways, Wordle exists as a COVID success story. It was perfected during lockdowns and took off in an atmosphere where people needed activities to take their minds off of the ongoing struggle with the pandemic.

Wordle began as the brainchild of software developer Josh Wardle. He created the first version of the game in 2013 as a gift to his partner, Palak Shah.

Originally, the game allowed endless play and had a deep reservoir of potential answers -- the complete list of around 13,000 five-letter words in the English vocabulary. However, with Shah as his beta tester, Wardle made changes along the way, trimming the answer list down to about 2,000 of the most common five-letter words.

He eventually set the early version of the game aside and moved on to other projects. However, during the pandemic, he returned to the idea. The software engineer was passing his time with crossword puzzles and other word games. This eventually led him back to his Wordle prototype.

Wardle updated the game with a website and limited the release to a single puzzle per day. In January 2021, the puzzle was live on the web, initially with Wardle and Shah as the only users.

For most of the year, Wordle had a limited following. By November, it had about 90 players. Then, it went viral. Within two months, over 300,000 people had used it. From there, the number of users jumped into the millions.

By late 2022, big-name companies had taken notice. On the last day of the year, the New York Times, home of the world's most iconic crossword puzzle, announced that it had acquired Wordle for an undisclosed amount described as "in the low seven figures."

What can business owners learn from Wordle?

Wordle’s success offers a variety of lessons. Almost every aspect of the product’s success speaks to some portion of the professional community. As such, let’s look at a few potential takeaways from a spectrum of perspectives, from startup founders to freelancers to professionals looking to give their work an extra boost.

For Entrepreneurs: Start with a Passion

Wordle started because a couple enjoyed playing word games. Often, we think of business-building as identifying a market and attacking it efficiently. But it's hard to come from the outside. It's better to begin with an area you know well and can extract joy out of.

Often, we think of business-building as identifying a market and attacking it efficiently. But it's hard to come from the outside. It's better to begin with an area you know well and can extract joy out of.

In addition, launching a startup as a passion project keeps you interested. It becomes easier to devote your time to the activity because you have blurred the line between work and hobby. This gives you the energy to keep going because your goals go beyond simple monetization. After all, Wordle began without any obvious financial incentive at all.

For Freelancers: Leave Time for Your Interests

Josh Wardle wasn't commissioned to create Wordle. It began as a hobby, something he thought his partner would like. The effort existed outside his main career as a software engineer.

As a freelancer, it's easy to fill all your time with paying projects. That's how you maximize your earning potential. But you can also end up giving the best of yourself to other people's passions.

Rather, reserve some effort to pursue your own personal goals. Apply your talents to things you care about. These might stay hobbies forever. But they can also turn into worldwide phenomena that have the New York Times writing million-dollar checks.

For Product Owners: Don't Overthink Success

It would have been easy to kill Wordle before it went viral. Small decisions -- like releasing just a single word per day -- helped propel its popularity. Meanwhile, an attempt to monetize too quickly might have held back its progress.

What would have happened if Wardle had made his game a pay-to-play app? What if he had included intrusive ads? Steps like that would have made it difficult to build an audience.

It's important to protect the integrity of an asset. As such, you shouldn't push too hard to achieve overnight success.

It's important to protect the integrity of an asset. As such, you shouldn't push too hard to achieve overnight success.

Remember: Wardle had first designed the product around eight years before it took off. He had laid it aside and came back to it later. As a product owner, you sometimes need to embrace the possibilities of timing and luck, preserving your assets for the right moment to strike.

For Designers: Embrace Simplicity

Wordle is elegantly designed and easy to use. Those represent crucial factors in its popularity. People can pick up the game quickly and operate it without a deep well of previous information or skill.

The color coding is also key to Wordle's shareability. Correct letters placed in the right location show up as green. Letters that are part of the word but not in the correct location appear in yellow. Anything else gets a grey background.

Given this setup, users can share a color pattern to show how they solved the puzzle, without spoiling the answer. It becomes an instantly recognizable aspect of the game -- a key branding element.

For Marketers: Create a Community

Part of Wordle's outsized appeal comes from a single decision: the game only offers one puzzle per day. As a result, everyone is working on solving the same word at once. This dynamic creates a community.

On the surface, this might seem like a limitation. But it creates a connection among fans, a point of conversation.

At the same time, the one-puzzle-a-day format nurtures a sense of excitement. Each day, fans wake up ready for their next attempt. It's difficult to overplay the game and get bored -- it becomes a pleasant habit for each of the users.

Can you repeat Wordle's success?

Entrepreneurs dream of achieving overnight success like Wordle. A large chunk of that comes down to timing and luck. In other words, that kind of accelerated growth involves many factors outside your control.

However, that doesn't mean you can't put yourself in a position to capture opportunity when it comes. In that regard, it's instructive to review the Wordle example. Learning from what this company did right can help startup founders and business owners recreate at least part of that magic for themselves.