How much of success is luck?

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!

29 responses to “How much of success is luck?”

  1. Jason,

    Good post. I truly subscribe to the belief that success = execution + opportunity (luck). However, I believe one can create opportunity. But opportunity (luck) can come from decisions, and I agree that it’s important to try anything, measure everything, and follow what works. Thus, your statement "it means you used luck, taking advantage of the good, identifying and cancelling the bad." Great advice!

    Your posts are inspirational. Keep up the good work.


  2. I agree with you guys too. I’ve always said that one has to be prepared to take advantage of luck. Everyone is faced with multiple opportunities (luck), but it is only those who are prepared that actually end up "lucky". Your adage about advertising is also interesting. My experience with advertising has always been, test, test, test. It’s crazy what ends up working and what does not!

    Brian Spross

  3. @JP — I know what you mean about creating opportunity. I think that’s true to some extent — that you "generate" good luck and bad luck. For example, actively networking means you generate the "good luck" of finding a new customer.

    Perhaps it’s just two ways of saying the same thing. That is, saying "create luck" means "take actions that will make it possible for luck to work out." But it is worth saying things different ways! Thanks.

    @Brian — Boy you’re right about advertising. If there’s one "rule" of ads, you’ve nailed it. I can’t remember the number of times I’ve been surprised — both good and bad!

  4. It’s like a poker game… there’s so much luck involved but good players always end up at the top because they know how to maximize good luck and ignore bad luck.

  5. The post and the comments exemplify exactly what Malcolm Gladwell writes in his book, Outliers: The Story of Success. Success happens when you have prepared yourself to take advantage of opportunities or lucky breaks.

  6. @Dale — Nice analogy. Also like poker, you could go for the jackpot (accepting complete loss if you don’t make it) or you can do for steady, regular winnings. Neither is wrong; just make sure you know which one you’re working towards.

    @Leslie — True! And also this applies in the "simple success" case that isn’t a crazy outlier — just run-of-the-mill success. For a super-outlier-success like Google, surely there’s more to it than this, otherwise Smart Bear should be worth billions of dollars too. :-)

  7. Jason,

    I love this post!!! Somehow people – in general – have gotten the idea that success is all about "luck". They read about someone who sold their business and made millions and somehow think building a business is like buying a lottery ticket.

    As anyone who’s "been there – done that" will attest – it’s not.

    Success is all about falling down 9 times and getting up to try again 10 times. (As evidenced by your own marketing trials and errors.)

    Success is the old saying "that which does not kill me makes me stronger".

    With that said – sometimes it’s hard as you’re "doing all the right things" to recognize that every "success story" seems to have the "it was darkest before the dawn" chapter.

    Is it possible that luck is merely tenacity in disguise?

    While outsiders see "luck", insiders see something different. The insiders may be saying, "Well I’ll be darned – he stuck with it LONG after I would have quit and it turns out he was right!"

    That is where the "passion" factor comes into play in creating success. It’s passion that blinds one to the "realities" of a situation which may be screaming "QUIT NOW!" It’s that blinding passion that enables the entrepreneur to fail forward and eventually find success.

    I’ll never win the lottery because I don’t have the perseverance to keep buying losing tickets week after week.

    While others see "luck", I see perseverance – even when it comes to winning the lottery.

    What an amazing post!!! I can’t wait to see you on the cover of INC or Fortune magazine telling your story of perseverance!!!

  8. @Kathy — Thanks so much! I think you’re right about recasting this argument in terms of perseverance, especially the "falling down 9 times but try again for the 10th." That’s probably a better way of putting it.

    It’s easy in retrospect to see how the positive stuff was a mixture of choice and luck, but you’re right to emphasize that for every great decision there’s 9 or 50 decisions that are either neutral or even negative.

    Perseverance + Introspection — without the latter you won’t notice enough to make a different choice.

    Thanks for adding a new dimension to the discussion!

  9. There is very little luck involved in business. It’s all about how you have set yourself up for things to fall your way.

    Successful people aren’t lucky they have worked to line themselves up to generally get a good break with things.

  10. 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.

  11. @Jared — That’s a good, brief way of spinning it around. I like it. I do also think that "identifying and stopping the bad luck" is also important, although I think it could be casted in the same terms you used.

  12. Hello,

    I recently wrote a post about this: Luck is hard work

    And while I agree with you that you need luck to succeed… Just hoping for it isn’t sufficient. Just work, and maybe you’ll get lucky. Do nothing and you won’t.

  13. I have heard this same thing since I started my first business in 1980. It was "luck" we rode out the various recessions, "luck" there was money to solve difficult problems, and "luck" we were able to afford a modest but, to us at least, wonderful lifestyle.

    But be wary: I’m an old fart now, 55, and see one problem with "luck." Those 70 hour weeks do create "luck," but can seriously impact one’s family. The kids will be gone off to their own lives in the blink of an eye. Mine are very close to me, but that is truly luck. I should have cut back on the work and spent more time with them.

    – Jack

  14. @Jack — Thanks for the perspective. "Family" is another factor we tend to overlook with all this "small business" stuff. And yet, family is more important than any of it…

  15. It gets worse when combined with "it was god’s wish!"


    Well, that’s the difference between people who make stuff and the people who always wait for the next ship…

  16. I love this post!!! Somehow people – in general – have gotten the Lottery Numbers idea that success is all about "luck". They read about someone who sold their business and made millions and somehow think building a business is like buying a lottery ticket.

  17. Every success story invariably has a “big break” that is downplayed heavily. At the start successful people do struggle. Think of actors. But very few become massive successes. The successful actors get a massive luckout aka “big break”. The case of the successful actor is the most obvious case of a success story requiring all the struggle and the massive luckout.

    A restaurant owner is actually similar. 9 out of 10 restaurants fail in a year. Can you get TEN business loans? I doubt it. It’ll be a struggle at the start but you can’t predict the good spot.

    And of course, it always helps to choose the right parents. If THAT isn’t luck, I don’t know what is!

  18. I totally agree with you on this. Yes, every success has one or two times when a “lucky” event happened, like meeting someone whom you did not expect, or getting that order “accidentally” or some other unexplained phenomena. But in most cases, it is putting yourself out there that make these “lucky” breaks happen, and MOST people CANNOT do that. There is a great book call “The Luck Factor” that actually demonstrates that “luck” can be generated.

    Also, here are some good quotes:

    “Diligence is the mother of good luck.”
    –Benjamin Franklin

    “Luck is where preparation meets opportunity.”
    — General Bedel Smith

    “There is no thing known as bad luck. There is luck, or no luck at all.”
    — Jeffrey Fry

    “Those who have succeeded at anything and don’t mention luck are kidding themselves.”
    –Larry King

    “Diligence is the mother of good luck.”
    –Benjamin Franklin

  19. i don’t agree i h\just say one statement that
    “Luck has particularar habit of favoring those who don’t depend on it ”

    So don’t depend on luck & get ready for sucess

  20. Any success you experience is 99% luck. Imagine if you were born an orphan in Haiti. Would you get the same opportunities to start a successful business if you grew up poor in an underdeveloped country?

    Honestly, you had nothing to do with your own success. You are the product of your parents success and values. You were taught by the perfect set of adults growing up. All Luck again. Despite what you think, all of the opportunities you were given are complete luck. Accept it and be greatful.

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