What’s Luck Got to do With It?

In a recent post by my buddy @jamesoliverjr, founder of WeMontage, he asked if successful entrepreneurs are just lucky. He concluded success boils down to luck, and he is not alone.

From a distance, some success stories defy logic, but a consistent pattern emerges upon closer examination. This is true for a number of successful entrepreneurs and peak performers of all types.

luck

photo credit: wilhei55 via photopin cc

Let’s see if we can uncover this mystery by dissecting one of these “lucky” individuals. For this experiment, Bill Gates is the perfect specimen.

So, what is the pattern?

Obsession

Many talk about following your passion but the ultra successful have something closer to obsession. To understand the difference, study the lyrics of the 1980s hit “Every Breath You Take” by The Police:

Every breath you take

And every move you make

Every bond you break, every step you take

I’ll be watching you

 

Every single day

And every word you say

Every game you play, every night you stay

I’ll be watching you

 

Oh can’t you see

You belong to me

How my poor heart aches

With every step you take…

 

Clearly, this guy needs a restraining order.

A passion is something you love but can do without, while an obsession is something you have to have now and will do almost anything to get. The word obsession carries a negative connotation, but how else would you describe someone like Gates? Judge for yourself.

In interviews, Gates describes his early exposure to programming and how he coded for up to twenty to thirty hours a week in his early teens. While his parents slept, he would sneak out in the middle of the night to code at a nearby university. The fact he did not have permission to use the university computers was not enough to stop him. He needed to code. By the time he was seventeen, Gates logged thousands of hours of programming experience. This during a time when few others had access to computers at all.

Passion? This behavior sounds like something much stronger and puts the next trait on autopilot.

Insane Effort

This is not ordinary effort but painstaking, tedious work that would make most people want to yank their eyeballs out. You would think this obsessed group has a special contract with the universe granting them 30 hours in a day. The difference is they steal time where others kill it. Instead of playing Farmville while standing in line at the DMV, they read, research, plan and write. They start the day hours before everyone else and stay up long after their friends enter dreamland.

Quick Action

An obsession is difficult to hide, because the obsessed become so consumed in the activity. If the need arises for someone with his or her skills, everyone knows whom to call.

This happened with Gates during his senior year of high school when he was asked to work on a project with TRW. He jumped at the opportunity to further pursue his obsession. He spent the spring coding under the tutelage of a much older and seasoned programmer, like the young padawan Sky Walker learning at the feet of Yoda.

Surely, those around him marveled over his stroke of “luck,” but he was not lucky. He was ready!

When opportunities come along, there is no need for the obsessed to get ready or prepare. Preparation happens years in advance.

Balance

Though this group is anything but balanced, they recognize the need to have others around them who are. Gates started Microsoft with Paul Allen, who was three years older and more mature. He later hired his friend Steve Ballmer to manage the business side of Microsoft. Would Gates have been as successful without his team of balancers? We can never know for sure, but I doubt it.

What’s Luck Got to do With It?

Even Gates describes himself as lucky because of the access he had to computers, but his small group of piers had the same access. What they lacked was the obsession.

We can all learn a lot by studying the lives of the so-called “lucky” instead of attributing their success to the alignment of the planets. Then, we need to analyze ourselves to see how we measure up.

If your obsession involves standing outside of Macy’s for hours watching the girl at the counter, seek professional help. If it is a skill or talent with the potential to provide value or solve problems, go for it. But find some strong personalities who can pull your head out of the weeds and provide you with a balanced focus.

Godspeed and I look forward to seeing you in The Players Lounge.

What do you think, is success dependent on luck, or the right sequence of actions? Please leave your comments below!

A New Entrepreneur Needs Your Advice

How many hesitate starting a business for fear of losing everything? Statistics indicate the odds are not in favor of new startups, with the failure rate as high as 70%. So, why bother at all? To answer this question, let us look at a real life example – a close friend of mine who recently decided to launch his own venture.

Meet Kevin the Engineer

Kevin is a gifted engineer who makes $140,000 a year. Over the last 3 years, he has been itching to start a consulting business and has taken every opportunity to pick my brain in preparation. Yet, he always found a convenient excuse to put on the breaks the moment he was ready to launch.

This time, however, he has incorporated, formed alliances with large contractors, is actively lining up customers and filling his pipeline. He is scheduled to start his first independent contract in early 2013. His plans are well thought out and methodical – far more than my own when I started out several years ago. Why are things so different this time?

The Final Straw

Kevin receives calls from recruiters several times a month, which he usually ignores. But a few months ago, a call from a competing company caught his attention. They proposed a position with a more significant leadership role, more pay and a shorter commute. After more than 20 years in his industry, Kevin knows his worth and set his price at 180k per year. Though he was told his number was within range, the written offer came in much lower at 150k. He realized he had hit a ceiling in his career. Even worse, his employer recently announced plans to downsize his department.

Most would think, thank God he had another lined up, but Kevin decided on a different course. He needed to see how far above the ceiling he could go. This provided the final push he needed to step into the world of small business.

The Risks

Kevin has a wife who is a stay at home mom, young children and a new mortgage. Before buying the new house, he had a significant amount of savings but the purchase ate up a big chunk of the funds. For most, this would not be the best time to venture out on their own, and even I questioned his timing.

Then I asked Kevin a question that crystallized everything for both of us. “Assuming the worst and you fail miserably, how difficult would it be for you to find another job earning as much as you earn now?”

Without hesitation Kevin replied, “Not hard at all.” He went on for several minutes explaining why it would be easy, and his arguments were convincing. His numerous connections and stellar reputation as a leader in his field makes him a target for companies hungry for talent. This helped him realize starting his business was a no brainer, and inaction was riskier than the possibility of failing. Then, my favorite Mark Twain quote came to mind:

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do.”

So, What Are Kevin’s Chances?

I am optimistic about Kevin’s chances of succeeding. His preparation and planning go far beyond the typical new entrepreneur. He has advisors with expertise in law, accounting and business management, allowing him to focus on what he does best. Every conceivable piece of paperwork you can think of has been scrutinized. His emergency nest egg, though not as large as before, is more than what most new business owners start with. He also studies my book as if preparing for a final exam. More important is his willingness to embrace the role of entrepreneur, spending the majority of his time promoting his services as he transitions out of his current job. The same companies that tried recruiting him in the past are eager to hire him as a contractor. One of them already has a large project waiting for him.

Never have I had more respect or admiration for Kevin than I do now. How many people would turn down a $150,000 a year job to start a business in today’s economy? How many would take this type of a chance on themselves and go after what they really want? This is not theory or motivational hype. He is a true to life example of those who actually do it.

Still, Kevin is my friend who’s kids play with mine. Our wives know each other and we hang out at each other’s homes. This is not like advising just any entrepreneur. If things go wrong, I will have a front row seat to the drama, which is why I decided to reach out to the SteamFeed community.

So, what is your advice for Kevin? I have directed him to this post so he can benefit from the vast amount of wisdom and experience of this growing community. Go to the comments section, chime in, and let’s help create one more successful entrepreneur.

Godspeed and I look forward to seeing you in The Players Lounge.

Learning the Wrong Lessons from Famous Innovators

Henry Ford went bankrupt in his first attempt to create the automobile. Thomas Edison failed 10,000 times in his quest to create a light bulb. Steve Jobs suffered an embarrassing and very public ouster from the company he founded. These men risked their reputations and their wealth in pursuit of big visions. If you think I am gearing you up for a pep talk, think again.

People love to quote the likes of Ford, Jobs, Edison and others, but how many are willing to make similar sacrifices? Some entrepreneurs rely on the magic bag of quotes to justify pursuing untested, bad ideas. But ask yourself this question: Would you risk going bankrupt or losing your home? The usual response is silence and a blank stare. If you are not prepared to take such risks, then stop blindly quoting those who did.

Edison, Ford and Jobs

Here is a favorite Ford quote of those who consider customer feedback as some sort of entrepreneurial sin:

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

Yet, Ford’s first bankruptcy was due to his unwillingness to engage the market. He spent all of his time on the engineering and mechanics of his invention, a costly oversight. So, Ford tried again and failed. It was the third attempt, The Ford Motor Company, which finally broke through with the help of investors who swooped in at the last moment to save the company.

What people really wanted was to go faster, not to have faster horses. A seasoned salesperson or marketer faced with the same question would reply, “Well, a horse can only go so fast, correct? What if there was a way you could go faster than any horse that ever lived? Would that be useful?” Who would have said no to this? So, what is the real lesson here?

Steve Jobs famously said, “…We weren’t going to go out and do market research. We just wanted to build the best thing we could build.” Remember the Newton? How about MobileMe? Jobs described it as “Exchange for the rest us.” He would later call the MobileMe development team into his office for a stinging rebuke, suggesting in part they should “…hate each other for letting each other down.” Ouch. Apple can afford to take risky bets. Can you?

Thomas Edison is arguably the most successful of the three if we consider the number and widespread impact of his innovations. His most famous quote is the result of his failures with the light bulb:

“I have not failed. I have just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Another favorite from the magic bag of quotes. The lesson? Never give up! Not quite.

However, Edison was more than an inventor. He was a shrewd businessman. Consider the following quote:

“Being busy does not always mean real work. The object of all work is production or accomplishment and to either of these ends there must be forethought, system, planning, intelligence, and honest purpose, as well as perspiration. Seeming to do is not doing.”

To those who balk at understanding the market, consider this Edison quote:

“I never perfected an invention that I did not think about in terms of the service it might give others. I find out what the world needs, then I proceed to invent.”

Given the choice to be under the tutelage of these three men, which would you choose? I pick Edison but even in the case of Ford and Jobs, there is far more to them than random quotes suggest.

Bodies of Work, Not Isolated Quotes

Entrepreneurs as well as the public would do well to understand the complete body of work of innovators in order to extract the correct lessons. Yes, Thomas Edison was persistent and focused, but he was also a man of strategy who understood the importance of feedback and data. Ford gave us the automobile, but his real innovation was the perfection of the assembly line, which took planning, foresight and a team of brilliant people. As for those who still believe Apple does not conduct market research, you should read this article from the Wall Street Journal.

New entrepreneurs risk mistaking insanity for persistence by taking quotes out of context. Instead, spend time studying the biographies of innovators to understand what worked for them and what did not. The real lesson of Edison and others is to work smarter, not harder.

Godspeed and I look forward to seeing you in The Players Lounge.