Talent, hard work and luck

The Black Swan (Taleb book)

The Black Swan

“Hard work plus luck is what gets you a jet instead of just a BMW.” (Nassim Taleb, The Black Swan)

Start-up success typically boils down to three elements: hard work, talent, and luck.  Yet when we dissect the successes and failures of other start-ups, we tend to focus on the hard work and talent of the team, completely disregarding the important role that luck (or the lack thereof) may have played.

Luck definitely played a huge role in my career, both on a company-level as well as a personal level. In the early days of AbeBooks, our company got lucky twice. Luck struck first when Barnes & Noble approached us to become a reseller of the books of our sellers.  This immediately doubled revenues of our sellers and attracted more inventory to our site. And then luck came again, when Amazon bought our competitor Bibliofind and folded it into the main site. This led most sellers to leave Bibliofind and join AbeBooks.

I’m certain that without both of those events, AbeBooks would most likely never have become the uncontested market leader in the used books space. And while one could argue that our hard work and talent created the right environment for Barnes & Noble to approach us, I have no doubt that both scenarios could just as easily played out another way…completely altering the course of events.

And I also got lucky a few times on a personal level. Back in 2003, I felt like leaving AbeBooks and starting something new, but my parents convinced me to stay at the company. That proved to be the right decision, as most of the success of AbeBooks (including the ultimate exit to Amazon) came in the subsequent years and defined my career.

What’s the moral of these stories? Don’t underestimate the power of luck in shaping the future of your start-up. For some this may be unnerving…after all, luck may play such an important role, yet we cannot do anything about it. However, instead of worrying about luck or fate, focus on what you can control. Aim to create the right environment for luck and its opportunities to take hold.

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  • http://www.nosnivelling.com/ daveschappell

    Another good example of this, Boris — on the day that the Google Panda update took away 2/3 of TeachStreet’s traffic, it could just as easily have given us a 10x boost in the other direction, and we’d have been generating large free cash flow, likely lead to more listings/teachers/sellers and thus more buyers (aka network effect). We know that it was all free traffic, and that there were other issues with our business. But if that binary change had gone in the other direction, we’d have looked like geniuses. With startups, you often only have one investment, so a little bit of variance can have exponential impact — that’s one of many ideas why the portfolio theory of investors is a much safer approach.

  • http://twitter.com/bwertz Boris Wertz

    Or you could have been on the lucky side by having sold your company before Panda hit (like Associated Content did to Yahoo about 6 months before their traffic got drastically reduced))

  • http://www.nosnivelling.com/ daveschappell

    Yep — that’s why when startups ask for advice, largely I try to tell them to just do a great/better job of listening to customers and building a great (profitable) product. That’ll lead to a lot more luck :-)

  • http://twitter.com/dwainbrowne Dwain Browne

    The problem with luck is that is is “a hit and miss”, at least with hard work and talent you have something more solid to work with. IMHO.

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  • Wade Penner

    Great book on this by Malcolm Gladwell “Outliers: The Story of Success”. This has many great examples of success stemming from luck.

  • Wade Penner

    I would agree hard work and talent can get you to a certain level. Getting beyond that level requires some luck and certain pieces of the puzzle falling into place. i.e. Bill Gates- Check out the book I commented about for stories about him and others by Malcolm Gladwell.

  • bwertz

    Agreed – very good book

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  • Team myBestHelper

    Absolutely agree on the importance of serendipity and being prepared for it … The other lesson learned from your post is to always consider what your parent say (sorry, could not resist as parent to throw this one in!).