The role of luck in business

I recently listened to Seth Goldman, the founder of the huge American beverage company, Honest Tea, when he was asked how much luck was involved in his success. Goldman shot back with his answer, “I really don’t believe in luck”. He continued, “I believe the reason we [Honest Tea] are still here is because of perseverance”. The interviewer then asked Goldman about what characteristic he has that all entrepreneurs need, to which Goldman responded, “well, you have to be resilient…this is something that is so important, and to put this in the bigger picture with our economy, people need to be resilient”.

I take issue with this premise; while I agree that to be successful, people need to work very hard, the underlying assumption with Goldman’s opinion is that all our successes are earnt. As I’ve mentioned previously, I have a degenerative eye condition that will lead to my sight loss over the next 10 years. Subsequently, I often struggle in my job when required to work at pace and can sometimes make mistakes with written documentation. And I’m not the only one facing difficulties in work: only 27% of people with sight loss are in employment, a fall from 33% in 2006. So, what does this mean? That the fall in blind people’s employment reflects their lack of perseverance! As you can tell, I find such a suggestion difficult to accept.

However, not all successful entrepreneurs fail to acknowledge their own good fortune. Michael Dell, founder of Dell computers, was asked a similar question about his opinion on luck, and he had a very different response: “I’ve probably been lucky a lot…I feel I was really lucky to be born in the United States, that’s probably the biggest stroke of luck right there because I feel that in the United States you have an opportunity to start a business…I think that was my biggest stroke of luck, just being born here [in America] and having the opportunities and the freedoms that that’s afforded me”. This resonates far more strongly – particularly, the good fortune of being born in any given place. For instance, it is not ideal I have a degenerative eye condition, but I am hugely grateful that I was born in the UK. This country has a world class healthcare system and supports the Equality Act 2010, which protects people like myself from discrimination and ensures there is appropriate support within the workplace.

So there is luck everywhere, good and bad – and failing to recognise its importance is often a sign of hubris. A more compelling tale of luck was that of Jeff Buckley’s song ‘Hallelujah’. It was written by Leonard Cohen, who spent over 5 years working on it yet with little success. One night, when Cohen was giving a live performance, a musician called John Cale happened to be in the audience and asked Cohen to fax him the lyrics of the song. Cale chopped and changed the song around and released it on an obscure tribute album called “I’m your fan”. Few people bought the album apart from someone that Jeff Buckley used to cat-sit for. One evening, Buckley found the album in his friend’s apartment and heard Cale’s version of Hallelujah. Buckley fell in love with the song and decided to release a version himself.

Few would argue against the talent of Buckley, though the timing and luck involved in the creation of one of the most iconic songs of our generation is undeniable.

The same timing and luck is also involved in any successful business. And when entrepreneurs fail, as most of them do, it would be wrong to assume their failure was primarily through a lack of perseverance.

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