It’s amazing how often “luck” comes up when people find out I started Smart Bear.
“You’re lucky to have your own business. I hate my boss.”
“You’re lucky your business is still doing okay in this recession.”
“You’re lucky that you sold your business.”
You’d think they’d be impressed with the hours I put in, with the ideas I had, with the way I handled customers, and with the stress of bootstrapping.
But no, success is “lucky.”
It feels dismissive, perhaps even insulting: It wasn’t you, it was luck. Your decisions weren’t important, your ideas weren’t special; you’re lucky. Anyone could have done the same; time and chance happeneth to them all.
It’s easy to be indignant and dismissive right back:
So when I quit my job and worked 60 hours a week with no pay for years and finally clawed my way out, that was luck?
So when I invented a unique product and built it from scratch and people liked it, that was luck?
So when I cultivated relationships with customers and truly listened to their needs, that was luck?
So when I had the chance to sell my company at a fair price and negotiated a deal that put more money in the pockets of my employees than any other job would have, that was luck?
These retorts are fair, and they demonstrate that it’s not just luck, but if I’m being honest I have to admit that luck still played its part.
Yes I cultivated relationships with customers, but wasn’t it lucky that the customers showed up in the first place? Yes, they found me through my Google Ad, but wasn’t it lucky that I started Smart Bear right when AdWords were new and cheap, when everyone used Google but AdWords weren’t saturated with garbage? Yes, I chose effective, brief marketing messages, but wasn’t it lucky that I had a mentor who had already taught me how to do that?
In fact, I can pick any decision in the history of Smart Bear and the same rhetorical pattern appears. My conclusion: Luck and choice are inextricably linked.
Specifically: Good luck and bad luck are constantly swirling around you. How you use it is not luck.
With successes I always find this decision/luck/decision/luck pattern. But what about failures? At Smart Bear, lots of marketing and advertising attempts flopped. Ads in certain magazines bombed. (I’m withholding names; print media is having a rough enough time as it is.) In some cases I spent many thousands of dollars — which at the time was a significant percentage of revenues — on ads that didn’t net a single sale.
Ads that utterly fail in one magazine when they worked in another — that’s bad luck. The choice to cancel some ads and not others is not luck. In fact, ensuring that we could measure the efficacy of individual print ads was also a choice. Had we not done this, we wouldn’t have been able to distinguish success from failure, and then indeed our destiny would be controlled by luck alone.
Overall success in business doesn’t mean you “got lucky,” it means you used luck, taking advantage of the good, identifying and cancelling the bad.
“Luck” rarely comes up when I’m talking to other entrepreneurs. They’re interested in stories and tips and how things work. They want to know how to think, not how to copy. The wrong question is: “What inspired that idea?” The right question is: “How did you know when an idea was right?” Or even more specific: “How does one know whether a print ad is working?”
Your best bet for success is to treat all your decisions as empirical tests. Confidence and experimentation are not contradictory. Try anything, measure everything, and follow what works, even if that means changing everything.
Then maybe you can be lucky too. :-)
What do you think about the role of “luck?” Am I giving myself too much credit? Join the conversation and leave a comment!