How Entrepreneurs Can Create Their Own Luck
By: James Altucher is an investor, programmer, author, and entrepreneur
I’m in even worse trouble now. A few weeks ago I had to speak at Barry Ritholz’s conference but that turned out to be “only” a panel. It was a great panel but I knew I would only have ten minutes of time so wouldn’t need to prepare much although even then I was worried.
Now I’m speaking for one hour at Defrag in Boulder, Colorado next week on November 9 and I’m terrified. For one thing, all of the other speakers are smarter than me. Right before me is Roger Ehrenberg speaking about “big data”. I’m not even sure what “big data” is so right off he’s smarter than me. Then Paul Kedrosky is speaking later in the afternoon about god knows what. Paul has an excellent blog obsessed with everything from economics to weather data. So despite my expertise in speaking I’m finding I’m a bit nervous.
I could open up with the same line I used on Barry’s panel, “When I was walking over here I had an erection. Not so easy for a 43 year old without any stimulation whatsoever.” But this might not be the exact crowd for it.
Technically, the title of my talk is “Success is a Sexually Contagious Disease” but I only gave them that title because it sounded neat and it was the title of a blog post I then published. But I have no idea if that’s what I’m going to talk about or if that’s something people will be interested in.
The conference itself is about entrepreneurship. But I always am plagued by the fact that I’ve gotten somewhat lucky on this issue. My first company happened during the internet boom and I happened to be one of the few people around (at the time) who knew how to make a website. The second company I had, where Yasser Arafat was an investor, went down in flames in the Bust. The third company I sold was a venture firm. We were only sold because our top investor was so disgusted with us he wanted to buy out our ten year contract. And the third company I sold was Stockpickr.com, which I sold to thestreet.com that I already had a great relationship with. Another company that I made a decent living off was trading for hedge funds and then starting a fund of hedge funds. Everything else I did (about 16 other attempts at businesses) failed.
So I guess right now I can see if it was luck or if I learned some lessons.
1) Luck is similar to “being at the right place at the right time”. So you can easily position yourself there. We know that the right place for right now is somewhere in social media. There are still many niches (plumbers, diamond wholesalers) that aren’t using social media correctly. The big agencies are ignoring them and they are too small and focused to understand how to use direct marketing via social media. If I were starting a business right now I’d either do lead generation via social media for a small but focused niche (diamond wholesalers, small restaurants) or I’d provide financing/lending for companies that are doing this and have established records of turning profits on money spent. I know several companies doing the above but it’s an incredibly wide, open, gaping hole in the industry.
If I were a banker I’d look to buy companies all over the country in this space and then bring the combined entity public in the IPO boom that’s about to start happening.
2) My venture firm being sold I learned one thing: have at least one partner who is a great negotiatior. “Be bad” and someone will be willing to buy you usually doesn’t work. I was lucky there. Although, I will say, I had good, professional partners that knew how to negotiate very well. The one guy’s main technique was to act like we always had alternatives when we never did. And he would ignore the other party for a day or so while they got desperate. It’s a gutsy way to negotiate but it worked. Here’s part of the reason it didn’t work out for me as a big VC.
3) The mental health facility I sold I learned some very important things. Quantity, persistence, and story-telling. You need to hit everyone and then call everyone back twice. We must’ve made 30 calls and then 30 follow-ups to make sure we spoke with the right person. And then with each person we pushed to have a phone call with the company. Then once we had a potential buyer on the phone we had to make sure we told at least three different stories: how the was company doing (and was going to do ), the reasons why growth was a lock, and the reasons why management was incredible. Then we got the deal done. Which was a story unto itself. (Here’s my prior post on TechCrunch on how to best sell a company).
4) Stockpickr, as I mentioned before was a matter of being both proactive, and having friends in the right places. But it also was a matter of vigilance. I had a particular passion about how a financial community could develop with no news. I hate the news. It also was a matter of nourishing relationships built up over a five year period of non-stop work in the financial media space.
So here’s how you “Create your luck”:
A) As Wayne Gretzky says, “skate to where the puck is”. Don’t start a soft drink company competing against Coca-Cola. Start a company in a fast growing industry that has a wide, gaping hole in it. It’s not hard to identify those industries and holes.
B) If you can’t create the company in that space, can you arrange financing for companies in that space through some of the techniques roughly described above. This still allows you to profit from the growth of the sector.
C) Learn how to negotiate.
D) Quantity. You’re never going to win if you depend on one potential buyer or one potential customer. The first time I tried to sell my company, Reset, I tried to sell it to HBO. I had only one potential buyer. No good and it didn’t work out. But the next time I tried I made sure I had ten potential buyers. Ever since then I almost get a reflux reaction in my stomach when I realize I’m back down to the one buyer-one customer model, which is never good. Create a market for what you are selling. The price will go up.
E) Persistence. When we were selling the mental health facility there was one time we got a wrong number when we called a public company. We got switched to the wrong person in the company repeatedly. My business partner, Dan, kept calling until he finally convinced the operator she was connecting him to the wrong person. This was one of only 30 companies he was calling so he could’ve just left a message and given up. Instead he got someone on the phone eventually and she was the one who coughed up $41.5 million in cash, three times the closest other offer.
F) Story-telling. Everyone is a little boy or girl at heart. We all want to sit on the floor and bounce a ball and watch Saturday morning cartoons. A story has a beginning, middle, and end. Make sure your story is down pat when you are talking with anyone about your idea, your company, your self (on a date, for instance). It doesn’t have to be so “planned”. But make sure you are constantly improving your storytelling abilities. For instance, before I gave a talk last week in Arizona I watched 30 minutes of Ellen Degeneres and Jon Stewart. Comedians are excellent story-tellers with perfect timing.
G) Nourish relationships. The size of your network increases your luck exponentially. But relationships take Time to nourish. When I wrote here two weeks ago about “the 9 Skills for Becoming a Super Connector” I mentioned that I forgot why “Time” was on my list. Now I know: over time relationships get nourished. A simple connection becomes a friend, becomes family, becomes someone who actively wants you to succeed. That takes weeks/months/years to happen. Important to note: expressing gratitude across your network is the surest way to strengthen it.
H) Passion. Luck will always follow your passion. Warren Buffett was, of course, extremely lucky that his passion was investing in 1950. But almost every passion can be used to make money if you have all of the above. Even if your passion is just “how do I meet the love of my life” and you apply all of the above you will “get lucky”, so to speak, and find success at your endeavor.
I’ve had a lot of bad things happen to me in the course of being an entrepreneur. And sometimes I get down about it and it’s hard to pull myself away from the nightmare alley where the light at the end just becomes a fire that pushes me back. But when I do get to the end of the nightmare, and I apply these lessons, luck comes shining through and I can see again.
Editor’s note: James Altucher is an investor, programmer, author, and entrepreneur. He is Managing Director of Formula Capital and has written 6 books on investing. His latest book is I Was Blind But Now I See. You can follow him@jaltucher.