One of my close friends used to be a trader, and one thing he always told me was “luck is a skill, not a random phenomena”. After years of working on the markets, he noticed that he could influence the rate at which lucky breaks were happening, simply by trying harder, more often, and by being well prepared.
My two decades in entrepreneurship have taught me that after common sense, luck is likely the most underrated skill. The Bill Gates and Steve Jobs all have these moments where things could have gone completely wrong and didn’t, or when a small unexpected epiphany changed the course of things for the better. Luck is the forgotten factor, the one that very often explains why it is so hard for an entrepreneur to replicate past success.
Here is the story of Marlin Steel Wire Products, a small US based factory. They used to manufacture baskets for bagel shops. When the new owner bought the company in 1998, the market was small but comfortable. Then problems started to arise. The market slowed down. Chinese competitors began to offer “similar” products for 6$, half the price Marlin was charging. Things were looking really awful, then the lucky break happened:
[CEO] Greenblatt was handling sales in 2003, so he took the call himself. “It was an engineer from Boeing,” he says. “He didn’t think I was in the bagel-basket business. He just needed custom wire baskets.” The Boeing engineer, who had seen a Marlin ad in the Thomas Register, a pre-Internet manufacturing directory, wanted baskets to hold airplane parts and move them around the factory. He wanted them fast. And he wanted them made in a way Marlin wasn’t used to–with astonishing precision. For bagel stores, says Greenblatt, “if the bagel didn’t fall out between the wires, the quality was perfect.” The Boeing engineer needed the basket’s size to be within a sixty-fourth of an inch of his specifications. “I told him, ‘I’ll have to charge you $24 a basket,’” says Greenblatt. “He said, ‘Yeah, yeah, whatever. No problem. When are you going to ship them?’”
Think about the combination of factors that had to fall into place: the Boeing guy trying to get the baskets quickly via his usual suppliers – who most likely turned him down; him reading an industry directory – stumbling on the ad; the engineer calling, talking directly to the owner who immediately understands that there is a huge and profitable pivot waiting for him.
Luck is a skill one needs to succeed. That’s why venture capital will never be an exact science. And why entrepreneurship will always be a great adventure.