It’s easy to dismiss the role of luck in business success. Many business books make business seem like a recipe that is almost guaranteed to succeed if you mix the right ingredients in the right way, but I don’t believe that is the truth. Tainted by the author’s own survivorship bias, these books often overlook the impact of luck and good fortune in the authors own success. Luck is always a factor, even if that doesn’t fit the narrative of an expert selling their particular “recipe” to the world.

Whilst I believe that luck plays an important role, I don’t believe that this makes us hostages to fortune either. No new-age “let the universe provide” beliefs here. I am a firm believer in solid plans and hard graft.  Luck, to me, is just another variable that we have to work with. It might not be a variable we have complete control over, but we do have influence. Luck is something we can encourage, shape and learn to utilise. My, slightly tongue in cheek, term for this proactive shaping of fortune is Luckscaping.

What do I mean by Luckscaping?

Luckscaping is the term I use to encompass both exposing yourself to more lucky circumstance and, crucially, turning happy-circumstance into positive impact. It isn’t enough for lucky circumstances to just happen, you need to notice them, be ready to act then act. In essence, then, luckscaping is based on three pillars:

  1. Increase your surface area for good fortune
  2. Be ready to act on luck
  3. Take action

Increasing your surface area to good fortune

In business, luck often comes in being in the “right place at the right time”: A lucky conversation with someone who’s friend needs just what you sell, someone calling you out of the blue after years of silence because they thought you might be right for a project, an overheard word than an incumbent agency is on shaky ground with a dream client, the market shifting to land exactly where you have placed yourself and a million other “lucky moments”. These things feel out of our control, but they’re not. It’s simply a maths problem.

If luck means being in the right place at the right time, then it stands to reason that you will be luckier if you are in more places more often. That’s true in a literal sense, i.e. attending more events, but also in the less obvious sense of your “thoughts being there” – having the right information and knowledge that a chance event becomes an opportunity.

  • Have more conversations: Networking, peer groups, events, public speaking, etc
  • Be curious: When you ask questions your surface area for good luck increases more as deeper conversation lead to more opportunity.
  • Have a clear proposition that rolls off your tongue:  If every person you speak with has a clear understanding of what you do and what an opportunity looks like for you, you are far more likely to be the person who comes to mind when they become aware of an opportunity. There is a world of difference between “I am a copywriter” (“Oh, nice”) and “I write high-converting sales copy for e-commerce businesses” (“That’s interesting… my brother in law has a big e-comm site and their copy is awful”)
  • Be kind. Be helpful: These are great things to do anyway, but even if you are a cold-hearted mercenary there are practical reasons to be better.  People like to help people they like and who have helped them.
  • Diversify your interests: Don’t confine yourself to too narrow a niche or specialisation. Explore different fields and areas of study to broaden your exposure.
  • Keep learning: Staying informed of industry trends and views, learning about new developments and going deeper on your knowledge all increase the touch points where opportunity can arise
  • Experiment often: Whether it’s launching a new project, testing a new tool, or just trying a new restaurant, every new experience increases your chance of encountering a fortunate break.

The list could go on, but the takeaway is that there are always ways to increase your surface area for good fortune.

Readiness to act on luck

Having great opportunities means nothing if you are not in a position to capitalise on them. Seeing a great opportunity pass you by because you aren’t ready to act doesn’t feel lucky at all to me. When I talk about readiness, I don’t mean being ready to act on a specific opportunity, but more generally having the flexibility, capability, and capacity to seize opportunities when they arise. What does that mean in practical terms though? Areas you can optimise in this regard include:

  • Financial preparedness: This point will be a frustration to those reading this article hoping for a lucky break, but having a war chest (or at least having some wiggle room in your finances) gives you greater ability to act when opportunity arises.
  • Maintain capacity: It’s difficult to act when you are already stretched. If you and your time constantly run at 100% capacity (or more!) it is difficult to seize an opportunity that arises. The biggest limiter I see if often the mental capacity of business leaders to take on another project – all the more reason to remove yourself from the day to day and create capacity to spot opportunities and make better decisions.
  • Practice flexibility: Opportunities often come in unexpected forms. Be flexible in your plans and be willing to deviate from your planned path if a good opportunity arises. That may come as a surprise to regular readers who know how much I value sticking to a plan, but it isn’t a contradiction.  I am not opposed to creating new plans.
  • Actively look for opportunities: Cultivate the mindset of finding opportunities both in yourself and within your organisation. Have discussions around change and how changes that are happening relate to your business.
  • Maintain a growth mindset: Many opportunities come out of change, but change is disruptive. A growth mindset means looking at change as an opportunity to grow rather than a chance to fail.

Taking action

None of this is worth a bean if you do nothing about it. Business owners have more tales of the “one that got away” than the most exaggerating of fishermen. We don’t want to jump at EVERY possible opportunity of course, but we don’t want to miss the ones that could bring positive change.  How do we find that balance?

  • Overcome fear of failure: The first step is to understand that failure is not only ok, but desirable. The only way to avoid failure completely is to never take a risk or push yourself, which is rarely the mindset of anyone who starts a business. Failing often is fine, perhaps even desirable. The goal is to do it without damage and before it costs too much.
  • Take calculated risks: How much damage we can stomach from a possible fail is of course proportional to the potential rewards. Learn to balance the Cost and likelihood of failure with the gains and likelihood of success
  • Think slow, act fast: Once you have weighed up an opportunity well enough to make an informed decision, act fast.

My own lucky break

I had a few lucky breaks in my agency business, but the most significant one led to my agency becoming the first UK company recognised and certified by Google in our discipline. This had a huge impact on our company, changing our direction, our identify and our fortunes and it took me a while to accept that we weren’t just passengers to dumb luck making this happen.

The opportunity came about when our Google Account Manager asked if we would be interested in becoming part of a new certified partner program they were planning to launch (Hi Amir, and thanks again!).  Being part of that program completely changed the business and led to us growing and selling it. On the surface that looks a lot like a happy accident that we had little influence on, and that is exactly how I saw it for a while. Distance and hindsight make me see it differently now. Let’s look at how those three pillars influenced what happened:

Surface area: We had built product expertise and were gaining a reputation for being good in this new field. We were giving in our approach, publicly sharing our knowledge in the field. We’d built that knowledge through curiosity: first via a “side gig” then experimenting with new service offerings for clients. We’d also built relationships in this new area, including working as closely as we were able with our Google contacts, and were vocal supporters of the products.

Readiness: The business was financially stable. Although not doing great numbers we ran lean and had an enthusiastic team and a culture of experimentation and learning. We’d formed out of curiosity in the early days of the web and maintained that curiosity.

Action: It was a leap of faith. We didn’t know what involvement in the programme would entail or even whether it would last six months. We made a plan that would ease us into change without unbearable downside if it failed – then we jumped.

We were lucky, but in hindsight we were also an obvious choice and in a great position to make the most of that luck. That wasn’t by chance.

A bonus pillar: Defensive Luckscaping

Being lucky isn’t just about having good luck, it is about avoiding the bad. Luckily you can luckscape for that too. Unfortunate things will happen, what matters though is their impact. “Defensive Luckscaping” is about reducing the impact of bad luck, and creating a resilience that allows your business to bounce back stronger from setbacks through tactic like:

  • Learning from mistakes: Understanding the causes of problems allows us to put measures in place to reduce the likelihood of them repeating or the severity if they do. Black Box Thinking is a great book looking at how the success of the airline industry in almost eliminating fatal mistakes can teach us how to bring similar improvements to our businesses.
  • Contingency planning:Having a ‘Plan B’. This provides not only an alternative path if things go wrong but can also reduce the stress of uncertainty.
  • Risk Management: Identify potential risks and create strategies to manage them. This could include anything from diversifying your income streams to insuring against potential business disruptions.
  • Constant Reflection and Evaluation: Regularly review your strategies, processes, and decisions. This helps to identify potential sources of bad luck before they fully materialise.
  • Build a Support Network: Having a solid network of advisors, mentors, and peers can help you navigate through tough times. They can provide advice, share their own experiences, or simply offer moral support.

“The harder I work, the luckier I get”

This rather long article could possibly be summed up by that well-known Samuel Goldwyn quote, but it doesn’t quite hit the nail on the head for me. I don’t believe that luck is simply the product of hard work, but I do believe that luck+work is what leads to great things. Where do you stand on it? Do you believe you make your own luck, or that we are essentially passengers to the universe? Do you believe you have the power to increase how much has positive impact on your business (or reduce its negative impact). I’m genuinely curious to hear other people’s thoughts on this.

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