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I recently enjoyed speaking with a startup founder. This guy was a successful serial founder of two companies; one exited for $20 million and the other for $100 million. When I congratulated him on his success, he said, “Glen, I’ve been fortunate.”

I was surprised by his response. Founding success is a combination of hard work, talent, and vision. But this founder attributed their success more to luck than anything else. I asked him to explain what he meant by luck. He said he had simply been in the right place at the right time. He started his first company at the beginning of the Internet boom, and his second company benefited from the rise of mobile computing. He also said that he had been lucky to be in the right place at the right time, to have met the right people, and to have the right opportunities.

I’ve known this guy for over 30 years; I knew he was selling himself short. Sure, he was right about being lucky but wrong about attributing his success solely to luck. He downplayed the effort and talent he brought to the table. Yes, there is an element of luck involved in any successful venture. But hard work and talent can increase your chances of success.

Here’s a metaphor for starting a company and success. Founding a company is like trying to pick the ace of spades out of a deck of 52 cards. Anyone who walks up to the deck and picks the ace of spades on their first try is Lucky. Anyone who attributes that first-pick success to their amazingly unique superpower ability will be in for some disappointments as they fail to find the ace of spades the next time, the next time, and the etc. time.

But if you work hard, do the research, and watch the shuffling of the deck, you can improve your odds of success. A founder that works long, tireless hours gets to pick 2, 3, or 4 cards from the deck, greatly improving their odds. A brilliant, observant founder may be able to zero the location of the card to an approximate location, further enhancing their odds. And the brilliant, hard-working CEO who gets to pick four cards, knowing that it exists in the bottom half of the deck, only improved their chance of getting lucky from 1 in 52 to a 4 in 26 chance of winning. Luck is a major factor… it just isn’t the only factor.

So, what does this mean for aspiring entrepreneurs? It means that founding a company is a high-risk, high-reward endeavor. There is no guarantee of success, no matter how hard you work or how brilliant you are. But if you are willing to put in the effort and take some risks, you have a better chance of picking the ace of spades. 

“The harder I work the more luck I have.” — Thomas Jefferson

Here are some additional thoughts on the analogy:

  • The deck of cards represents the universe of possible opportunities. Millions of potential businesses could be founded, but only a tiny fraction of them will ever succeed.
  • The ace of spades represents the one successful business out of all the possibilities. It is the one that will change the world, make a fortune for its founders, and leave a lasting legacy.
  • Picking the ace of spades requires hard work, talent, and luck. There is no formula for success, but there are certain things that you can do to increase your chances of finding it.
  • Failing may be an indication that you aren’t a brilliant founder, or it could mean you weren’t lucky.
  • Very few, if any, people can attribute their success as a founder solely to brilliance! If you’ve been lucky, humbly recognize that luck.

Here are a few things you can do to increase your chances of success when founding a company:

  • Do your research. Understand the market you are entering and the competition you will face, your product market fit.
  • Read, listen, learn, and be curious.
  • Build a strong team. Surround yourself with people who are more intelligent and talented than you. Seek out respected, trusted advisors, mentors, and coaches.
  • Build a team of people whose strengths complement yours. For instance, if you’re a big-picture person, find yourself a detailed oriented partner.
  • Be persistent. Don’t give up when things get tough.
  • Be patient. Success takes time.

If you follow these tips, you will increase your chances of success. But remember, there is no guarantee of success. Even if you do everything right, you may still fail. That’s just the nature of business. But if you are willing to work hard and take risks, you can increase your chances of success and achieve your goals.

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Want to improve your odds of success as a leader? Want to get more than you thought possible out of your team? You can check out my new book, Intentional Leadership, available on Amazon, in Hardcover, Kindle, or Paperback by linking here.