The great South African golfer Gary Player once mused, “The harder I practice, the luckier I get.” While no amount of practice seems to improve my golf game much, I’ve found that his observation also applies to business and entrepreneurship.
In descriptions of startups that have survived and thrived, luck is one of the most misunderstood factors. Many people seem to think that whether or not a startup succeeds is something over which an entrepreneur has little control—like being struck by lightning. But anyone who wants to make the effort can and will improve their luck.
This may sound impossible, but it is about the same principle as improving the odds of lightning striking. During a thunderstorm, you can stand in a field holding a metal rod in the air —a golf club would work well. If someone tells you that he was lucky because he was in the right place at the right time, it’s likely that he decided where the right place was and made sure to be there.
Those businesses that are generally considered luckier than others are usually led by teams that are willing to take the greatest risks: They accept the consequences of failure, and carry on with their plans anyway. In contrast, entrepreneurs and business leaders who play it safe rarely seem to bring a new product to market at the exact moment that customers want it, nor do they ever seem to make that lucky connection with the right investor.
To an outsider, it may appear that Virgin has had more than its share of lucky breaks over the years, but in every case we worked hard and took risks to make sure we were in the right spot when luck struck. One of our first serendipitous moments involved Mike Oldfield’s album Tubular Bells, which was Virgin Records’ first release. We took a huge risk by putting out an all-instrumental album, but much to everyone’s surprise it became a No. 1 hit in Europe.
Despite the album’s popularity, American companies weren’t interested in releasing the album. One person I tried to persuade was Ahmet Ertegun, the head of Atlantic Records, but despite my phone calls and letters, he just didn’t get it. Then one day, Ertegun was playing the album in his office (he must have been trying to figure out what all the fuss was about), when in walked director William Friedkin, who was putting together the soundtrack for a movie he was working on. Friedkin loved what he heard, and that was that; he had his track and we had our deal. The movie was The Exorcist, which became one of the greatest box office hits of its day, bringing Tubular Bells to a global audience.
Some people would just call it luck, but I had spent a lot of time thinking up ways to bring the album to Ertegun’s attention, hoping that he would change his mind. If he hadn’t been intrigued enough to listen to it just one more time, it would never have been playing at that critical moment. Tubular Bells went on to sell 20 million albums.
In the ’90s, when we started up Virgin Atlantic, our airline was much smaller than British Airways and British Caledonian, and in 2000, when we launched Virgin Blue, the Australian marketplace was dominated by Qantas and Ansett. In both instances, conventional wisdom dictated that we’d be hard-pressed to survive. However, within a few years of our arrival on the scene, the competitive landscape changed dramatically: British Airways acquired British Caledonian and, after a last-ditch attempt to buy us, Ansett went bust. Were we just lucky to be in those markets at the right moments, or did our market presence push two big airlines over the edge? I genuinely believe that we manufactured our own luck.
This is why successful entrepreneurs are often noted for their perseverance in pursuing their vision: If we had been the ones to fail, no one would have said that we were unlucky— instead, we have been accused of showing bad judgment for entering those markets in the first place.
Luck, coincidence, serendipity—call it what you like, it involves a lot of hard work, careful thought and raw courage. The Roman philosopher Seneca said that “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” That’s it exactly! If you’re an entrepreneur, what have you done to make your own luck?
Richard Branson is a philanthropist, adventurer and founder of the Virgin Group and companies. Visit his blog at www.virgin.com/richard-branson/blog, or follow him on Twitter.