The Harder I Work, The Luckier I Get
Overnight success. It’s one of the biggest myths in the tech industry.
It’s an ongoing struggle to overcome this bias. I say “struggle to overcome” because I care about young people entering our industry with a set of realistic expectations about what “normal” is.
If you take a snapshot during an extraordinary surge in valuations, M&A activity, IPOs and thus wealth creation you’d echo John Doerr’s famous quote from 1999 that, “The Internet is the greatest legal creation of wealth in history.” That’s how it felt then and a bit how it feels in May 2011. If you were reading the headlines from only 2.5 years ago you’d remember RIP Good Times from Sequoia, which still strikes me as having been prudent advice in late 2008.
So which is it? Feast or famine? Bull or bear? As a market we seem to be incapable of temperance. I think that’s the beauty of both capitalism and innovation. There is a constant thrust to create the next new, big break-through and the resultant stumbles from those who swung hard and whiffed.
Rapid success stories happen, true. But the reality is that most “overnight successes” come at the end of years of hard work and those witnessing the “success” part too readily assume the “overnight part.”
And even the best teams combined to create big innovations sometimes don’t time markets well, are surprised by unexpected technology breakthroughs by competitors or just don’t find the magic the leads to mass customer adoption. This is a theme that comes up in one the most influential business books for me of the past decade, The Black Swan by Nassim Taleb where he talks about the role that luck plays in business success.
Would Zynga have been the smashing success it has become if it weren’t perfectly timed to ride on the back of Facebook’s growth? Would Microsoft have been such a powerful global business if IBM had recognized the importance of software as an independent phenomenon from hardware? Would Google have become today’s juggernaut without Yahoo! not realizing it played king-maker or without Bill Gross inventing sponsored search? What if Odeo had been more successful and therefore Twitter had not been encouraged to flourish? What if Google had paid attention to Dodgeball — would there be no FourSquare today?
So I have always been a big believer in luck as a component of success. Hard work is, as my economics professors used to say, “necessary but not sufficient.” I have held the hard work mantra since high school where my yearbook quote is, “the problem with success is that it’s often disguised as hard work.” Hard work. Success. Luck. They’re clearly intertwined.
Later in life I learned of the famous Samuel Goldwyn saying, “The harder I work, the luckier I get.” It’s always what I think now when somebody who doesn’t go the extra mile thinks that everything comes easy to you. If you’re a tech startup person I know you know what I mean. You just closed your last $5 million round and everybody around you is thinking they could have done what you did. But they weren’t there in 2009 when you were up late nights shitting yourself whether you really were smart for pursuing this idea. That was back when VCs weren’t so quick to respond to emails.
I was thinking about all of this as I looked at the logs from my Wordpress blog this evening.
People who comment to me privately about how surprised they are by how rapidly I’ve “built a name for myself in VC” remind me of this fallacy. I started blogging 2 years ago. It is total coincidence but when I looked back to see the date of my first post it was EXACTLY 2 years ago today. Here’s what I said then,
“When I blogged previously I think I was known for being direct and irreverent… I hope to bring the same straightforward commentary to my posts from the other side of the table. I hope to offer experiences from being an entrepreneur and being a VC.”
Less than 100 people read that original post 2 years ago. I started by writing 3–4 times / week. I’ve kept it up for 2 years. Like right now I usually started around 10 or 10.30pm and ended around midnight. I didn’t have any grand ambitions other than to write, share ideas and try to build awareness of who I am through my thoughts.
Within 6 months (as you can see from the left most data point on the chart) I was getting 32,000 views / month. The entire 18 month progression to today has been devoid of any major spikes. It is good, steady, old-fashioned hard work. As with tonight I got my kids to bed, did some email, caught 30 minutes of the news then sat down to type. And 18 months later, in May 2011, I have crossed 422,000 views. Every month it resets to zero and I start over. Just like a sales person at the end of a quarter. Pause. Breathe. Whew. I did that? Awesome. Oh, Crap. New day. Back to zero. OK. Here we go. Another month. Grind.
And let’s be honest. Building a blog & name recognition is only one small, small part of my job. It’s marketing. I still have to get sales, operations, finance, HR & corp dev right to win. Nothing comes quickly. Nothing comes easily.
And so it goes with startups.
I agreed to finance a company today. There was lots of discussion amongst fellow investors about waiting to see how the company performed in their all-important, upcoming holiday season. I talked to the founder about this and he said,
“I’m not looking for a ‘holiday bump’ — it may come, it may not. I believe passionately that our application will change our industry. It will likely take time. If I get a holiday bump I’ll raise a round at whatever price I like. I’m looking for an investor who’s confident in me now and passionate about my idea. I’m looking for somebody who is patient and willing to watch us execute. We’re working hard to build something big here.”
That was what I needed to hear. I have watched him through his bumps and his many successes. I see the hard work, the focus on the long-term, the inherent value in what he’s building. I went back and rallied everybody involved.
It’s a constant reminder to me, and I hope to you for whatever endeavors you’re working on. Nothing comes easy. There are few overnight successes in life. The best companies struggle — just not publicly. And the harder we work, the luckier we get.
Good hard work to you all.
The Harder I Work, The Luckier I Get
"Diligence is the mother of good luck." - Benjamin Franklin
I've always been big on quotes, whether they're mine or someone else's, because very often they distill ideas down to their essence. What Ben Franklin said many years ago could have been said today, because it's relevant and right on. We've all heard about doing our "due diligence," which is another way of being thorough. It's also the first step to bringing yourself some good luck. What Gary Player, the great golfer, said "The harder I work, the luckier I get" (the title of this essay), remains solid nutshell advice that can apply to everyone.
I am currently building a Trump International Hotel & Tower in Las Vegas. This mixed-use concept of hotel and condominiums has been a huge success, starting with the first one I did in New York City in the late 1990's. I knew Las Vegas was a hot market, but the tower was sold out before it was even built. I could have said, "wow, that's great," and left it at that. But in looking at the situation, I decided that the indications were there to move further ahead in a good market by building another 1200-unit tower. This took some time and effort, but it was approved and we are building it. That part really isn't luck. That's due diligence. So when people ask me "How can you do so much?" I have an example to give them of how.
You can apply that to your own life, career and business as well. Look into the future a bit. Take the time to move yourself forward. If the indications are there, put in the extra effort to make something good even better, or bigger, or both. That's thinking big, and I'm no stranger to that concept and you shouldn't be either. I've had enough success to know that it works.
The past few years of my life have been busier than they've ever been. Everything has escalated, and it's been demanding, but exciting. But I've also been preparing for it for a long time. I'm used to working hard, and therefore I'm used to expecting results. Some people call it luck, but like Ben Franklin said, diligence has something to do with it.
For example, if you've been working towards something for five years, I'd say you have a goal in mind. You've probably focused on that goal. Hopefully you've been diligent in pursuing it. If your work pays off, which it most likely will, people might say you're just lucky. Maybe so, because you're lucky enough to have the brains to work hard!
When I'm writing a book, which seems to be most of the time these days, I will spend up to seven or eight months putting together notes, collecting articles, dictating stories and ideas before I even begin to actually put it all together. It's a long process, and it requires patience and perseverance to see it through to the finished product. I will admit that sometimes I wonder if it's worth it, because it's not an easy endeavor. But when the book is done, it's a great feeling. It's an accomplishment that has taken painstaking time. People won't see the work that goes into a book, but anyone who has written one will tell you that diligence is a must. They don't just materialize out of nowhere.
Recently, while working on one of my books, I spent some time thinking about the "entitlement mentality" that seems to have afflicted this country. I think we can take it back a few decades to the emergence of what was called "instant gratification," as personified by the superstars and rock stars who emerged and made tremendous amounts of money, which very much impressed young people. Suddenly, everyone thought they should have what those very few people had, or that they were overnight' stars, and that it should happen that way to them, too. In reality, it happens to very few people and rarely does it happen "overnight" to anybody. Those are the exceptions to the rule, not the norm. But they received so much media attention that people who had to struggle a bit or work for long years at something had the feeling they were being left out or that they were being treated unequally. They began to feel that the world owed them something.
Not everything works out as we might hope it will, and certain fields require a bigger dose of luck to succeed in than others, but a very good way to pave your own way to success is simply to work hard, be diligent, and to look at what you have going for you, versus what you don't have going for you - the old cup half full vs. half empty test. Here's where I bring back my tried-and-true theory that you have to think big - because if you're diminishing your own prospects, then it's not likely you will run into a lot of luck. And part of doing your due diligence is to know what you want for yourself, not what other people want for you-which in many cases turns out to be not much! Take the time to move yourself forward. In other words, think, work-and be lucky. Good luck!
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