Incredibly hard work is a given. A 24/7 obsession with your problem area and your business is table stakes. Yet for some reason the outsized role of luck and timing is not discussed as a major element of “success.” I think it’s because the acknowledgement of chance runs opposite to the narrative of entrepreneurs who bring their product or service into the world through sheer force of will and personal agency and charisma.
Whenever this topic comes up in entrepreneurial circles someone will quickly say “you make your own luck” and the group will move onto another topic. I think this does a disservice to all entrepreneurs in recognizing how they can set themselves up for lady luck to join them as they build their company. No company has ever succeeded without her visiting at least once or twice.
To pick out a few of the lucky breaks we got along the way:
A. Samir was not originally planning to join the entrepreneurship class where we shaped the original idea for Next Big Sound. He ran into a friend at the library who convinced him to come checkout the first pre-class orientation session.
B. We were going to shut the company down if we did not get into Techstars in 2009. I got connected to Jason Mendelson through a long daisy chain of random connections and he stuck his neck out for us to join the program with him as our lead mentor.
C. There was at least 45 days in between our lease in Boulder running out and the close of our Seed financing. My aunt had happened to move to Boulder a year or two earlier and David, Samir and I moved in with her and her boyfriend (now husband) for 2-3 months. If we’d had to sign a lease or pay rent in that time we would definitely have spent the remainder of our cash.
D. We got connected to a senior major label executive who had just left the company. Due to his tax and financial situation he did not want to be paid cash but in equity during that first year as our head of sales (which we could afford). His former employer had just shelved an internal initiative to build a centralized analytics dashboard and established a committee to review existing products in the market. The chairman of that committee had been hired by our head of sales and we thus had access to feedback on what they were looking for just as we were building our premium product.
E. One of our early customers moved to a major book publisher, we kept in touch, and ultimately signed a large 3 year agreement with them. This allowed us to continue to capitalize the company through revenue and avoid a dilutive financing.
F. In January of 2015 our last direct competitor was acquired by Apple and we were named Most Innovative Company in the music industry by Fast Company. Interest in acquisition heated up and by March we had multiple parties interested in acquiring the business. Pandora had just opened up their data to artists for the first time in October 2014, and just hired their first VP of Corporate Development, we were Pandora’s first ever acquisition.
Luck and timing. Timing and luck. A little more background on each of these lucky breaks and how we set ourselves up to recognize and be exposed to them. Of course this is easy to do in hindsight but impossible to recognize in real time.
I knew Samir through A&O Productions, the largest student group on campus, and we could have connected outside of the course.
We had applied to Techstars the year before, gotten rejected, but managed to survive another year and reapply etc.
We each could have moved home and in with our parents. Or worked with our investors to advance enough money to pay rent. In either case we would have lost a lot of momentum.
We were connected to hundreds of people leaving the music industry but this person was flagged by David, connected to me, and we hit it off immediately. After our first phone call I was sent the longest email ever with tons of thoughtful feedback on our product and business and that started the positive working relationship.
We eventually signed our first major book deal and launched nextbigbook.com but this was after two years of me pinging my contact every six months and checking in if they were looking for a solution like we could provide.
Exactly five years prior to the Pandora acquisition announcement I sat down with Tim Westergren and two other top executives to discuss Next Big Sound powering a Pandora artist dashboard. The Apple acquisition and Fast Company recognition were outside of our control but we certainly had initiated data licensing conversations with Pandora as soon as they first released their data via AMP in 2014.
You can go through each one of these events and explain how we set ourselves up in a position to receive these lucky breaks yet there is no denying the importance of luck throughout this process.
For those interested in thinking about this more I just finished an interesting book on this very topic called Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy.