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.

  • Anonymous

    I’m trying to think of what a good example is of a real overnight success, other than winning the lotto or something. A true “I fell into it”. Most overnight successes have long tails behind them of hard work,  they get labeled as an overnight success just because they explode at some point in time into the public conscious. 

    A better way to explain it might be that they are overnight thrust into the awareness of the consumer :)

  • http://www.aboutdui.org Driving Under Influence

    Yeah that’s right Hard Working is the key to success.

  • Michael Dila

    I think there’s probably a corollary between the “harder I work, the luckier I get” phenomenon and the principle of successful innovation that Steve Johnson describes as the “slow hunch”. He uses the latter concept to dispel the myth of the Eureka discovery, arguing that most important discoveries, advances, breakthroughs are either the work of the lone genius, nor the quick epiphanies of legend. In both cases, I think, lies the important reality that these sorts of success are also almost always a social product, that is, they come from people working together with passion and purpose. That balance of intrinsic and instrumental motivation are not a “secret sauce”, but the patient work that is the Tao of the entrepreneur and the innovator.

  • Mainsd98794
  • Ник Шестаков

    Great story – great advice. I was trying to get enough motivation to write 2-3 times per week, now i see the real target. Thank you Mark for being a motivation for me! :)