The Harder I Work, The Luckier I Get

Posted on May 31, 2011 | 105 comments


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.

  • http://www.geekatsea.com Kirill Zubovsky

    Mark, thank you for yet another inspirational post. Indeed, sitting at home, it was really easy to buy into these overnight success stories, and only when I started trying to make my own luck happen I realized what it takes, and how many private stories we actually don’t get to hear about the struggles and failures. Still, wouldn’t trade it for the cushiest 925 in the world!

  • SteveD-

    Hi Mark- congrats on the growth of your blog over the last two years. Any way you measure it it is a fantastic accomplishment. Looking forward to the next two years. BTW, totally agree with the hard work assessment. That’s how we make our own luck.

  • http://www.twosides.com Jono Lee

    Ah, great post Mark. Reminds me another Mark’s post about success: http://blogmaverick.com/2007/12/24/success-and-motivation/

    Looking forward to many more years of your blogging.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    925?

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    thanks, Jono. and thanks for the link. He’s a good writer, for sure. And I thought I was long winded!

  • http://twitter.com/kpooya Pooya Kazerouni

    Great post Mark. Inspiring but simple, with no BS; as always. I truly believe that there’s no such thing as  “over night success”, even for the luckiest companies/people. As Biz Stone says: ” Timing, perseverance, and ten years of trying will eventually make you look like an overnight success”.

    When building companies, it’d be great to get lucky but don’t count on it. Plan for the worst and hope for the best.

  • http://www.questvp.com Marcus Ogawa

    Two of my favorite quotes sum up much of this ethos.
     -Seneca’s “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.”
    - Edison “Genius is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration.”

  • http://www.geekatsea.com Kirill Zubovsky

    925, as in “nine to five” regular job, with a stable pay check and benefits.

    http://GeekAtSea.com

  • http://lmframework.com David Semeria

    As Mark Knopfler might say:


    See The Little Faggot With The Earring And The Make-Up
    Yeah Buddy That’s His Own Hair
    That Little Faggot Got His Own Jet Airplane
    That Little Faggot He’s Millionaire

    We Gotta Install Microwawve Ovens
    Custom Kitchen Deliveries
    We Gotta Move These Refrigerators
    We Gotta Move These Color TV’s

    I Shoulda Learned To Play The Guitar
    I Shoulda Learned To Play Them Drums
    Look At That Mama, She Got It Stickin’ In The Camera
    Man We Could Have Some Fun
    And He’s Up There, What’s That ? Hawaiian Noises ?
    Bangin’ On The Bongoes Like A Chimpanzee
    That Ain’t Workin’ That’s The Way You Do It
    Get Your Money For Nothin’ Get Your Chicks For Free

  • Kossmoboleat

    I guess he means a 9 to 5 job.

  • Lee Fallon

    Mark, enjoyed your post. As I have seen our industry people do talk about overnight successes but they forget the years spent working away and suddenly achieving their goal. Yes overnight successes do happen but they are normally few and far between and that overnight success can bring its own problems, something easily forgotten.
    Congratulations on reaching the 2 year milestone with your blog and I look forward to reading your posts for many years to come.

  • Anonymous

    I always attributed the quote “the more I practice the luckier I get” to the great Jack Nicklaus – it is something I have held onto for most of my working life and a tenet of true success. The overnight success, as Steve Blank so aptly suggests, is the greatest myth of Silicon Valley.

    I can’t agree more with what you say – great post as always! 

  • http://www.facebook.com/terrence.a.davis1 Terrence Andrew Davis

    God is just.  Work is rewarded with blessing if not money.  Luck is the most important thing, but really it’s God.  You can bank on “pride before a fall” and “humility before honors.”

  • Anonymous

    realistic. though, i ll  still suggest that large fraction of work should comprise reducing the learning curve and noise/signal  for more efficient work…

  • http://twitter.com/soumitra1 Soumitra Paul

    Of all your blogs I have read, this one is the best. It must be the most clichéd advice of the world. Probably the first advice parents give to their children and teachers to students. But I have  experienced that nothing pays off more than working hard. I am not a religious man but I would like to quote from a religious book of the Hindus, The Bhagavad Gita, ” Any action driven by the desire to enjoy its benefits is inferior to intelligence that adheres to a discipline. Devote yourself to the essence of work. Acting this way one gets rid of the good or bad Karma that affects him if he attaches himself to the fruits of his actions.”

    I have chosen to do what I do because I want to contribute something to the world, change some lives and because nothing else seems more fun. I am passionate about my work and so I should work as hard as possible. I have no expectations other than to see myself make something brilliant. If I succeed, yes, I have been lucky. If I do not, I would still be satisfied because I did what I love and I would continue to do what I love. My happiness lies there.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    gotcha. I’m slow.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    thank you

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    well said, soumitra. good luck to you. or at least good “hard work”

  • http://twitter.com/philipadinfa Philip Petersen

    Wasn’t it Gary Player?

    Anyway, good post Mark and can only agree.  Only annoying thing about luck (and let’s focus on the “good” kind here) is that you can’t predict when it will come – however hard and smart you work!

  • http://www.alearningaday.com Rohan Rajiv

    Nice Mark. Reminds me of the quote – ‘It takes 10 years to become an ‘overnight sensation’.

    Happy 2nd birthday! 

  • http://babblingvc.typepad.com/ Paul Jozefak

    Read the wrong post first ;-) but this one’s great too Mark! Thanks for the blog posts. Always just as interesting to read as a VC.

  • http://www.alearningaday.com Rohan Rajiv

    PS: I started blogging as 3 years ago on http://www.alearningaday.com. I hope to get a graph as impressive as that someday..

  • http://arnoldwaldstein.com awaldstein

    Couldn’t agree more…”we make our own luck’.

  • http://twitter.com/cindygallop Cindy Gallop

    Another great post, Mark. Couldn’t agree more, and very encouraging words for all of us who are also trying to build something big and plugging away steadily and determinedly to do so.  To be born in mind when one hears (as I did a few months back) ‘If you’re 10 months old and you don’t have millions of users already there must be something wrong’.

  • http://twitter.com/cindygallop Cindy Gallop

    Another great post, Mark. Couldn’t agree more, and very encouraging words for all of us who are also trying to build something big and plugging away steadily and determinedly to do so.  To be born in mind when one hears (as I did a few months back) ‘If you’re 10 months old and you don’t have millions of users already there must be something wrong’.

  • http://twitter.com/NACS_post NACS post

    yes Mark, I love to work with people who is passionate and knowledgeable on executing what they believe will change world. That is the greatest experience I ever have.

  • Leslyn Kantner

    SO well said, when it is a passion, it does not feel so much like ‘work’ and we are not as anxious to measure its ‘success’.

  • Leslyn Kantner

    As a relatively new reader, I would say that your success is directly related to the passion that is infused throughout your posts with honesty and sound advice. Once I found your blog, I couldn’t get enough and spent as much time reading back issues as I could.  Now, when I see an email notice, it is the first click on my inbox. Thank you for sharing, I appreciate your late night thoughts and expertise.

  • Gísli Kristjánsson

    Great post and a great reminder!

  • http://www.dlewis.net/nik Dan Lewis

    Congratulations on the milestone and, more importantly, on the graph.   I think you’re sharing something very important — a lesson I wish I learned the first time.

    Almost a year ago, I started my own project and have been grinding it out, every day, five days a week.  My graph is similar although the medium (email newsletter) is different because I don’t reset to zero each month.  But the lesson here is the same — issue one went to 20 people, not 2,000.  Same story, I think, as yours, although in my case to a much smaller degree.

    But the first thing I started… man.  ”If you build it, they will come” was the mentality, and the expectation I placed upon myself (and expressed to others) was “overnight success.”  Our — my — strategy was to build a platform, seed a bit of content, announce it to the world, and watch as the community builds itself.   Didn’t work out so well.  :)

    So, thanks Mark.  I could have used this a few years ago, but hopefully, you’ll help others avoid the mistakes I already made.

  • Anonymous

    Wow – I’ve been reading BSotT for 17 of the 24 months.  I think the “App is Crap” article started it for me (I’ve re-read it a dozen times – “Apple is a Channel, Not a Business Model”) and I’ve been reading ever since.  

    Take the summer off and post your “Top 10 hits” to bring all of the newbies up to speed.  - Jim Patterson, Mobile Symmetry

  • http://twitter.com/Adandos Haitham Al Humsi

    I wish I had as many zeros behind my metrics as you do Mark … 

    I think about quitting every now and then and this post speaks to the thoughts that I struggle with… (my own metrics attached as an image… since these are paying customers and we don’t run a monetization scheme that requires mass scale adoption…just a 3x boost will do the trick and it doesn’t take 10M users to make this worthwhile).

    I have 2 great fears…

    My first great fear is that the longer it takes… the more convinced I am that I was wasting my time and there was nothing there… and that I should have quit a long time ago or stuck to my 9 to 5.

    My second greatest fear is that I do give up one day, rather rashly, and quit just days, weeks or even months before we ‘tip’ -after having invested years of full time dedication, personal savings, lost ‘opportunity cost’, years of experience on my resume …etc- and had therefore thrown away everything just as I was about to cross the finish line. Having gained neither a typical solid career in corporate, nor the benefits of disproportionate reward after building this from the ground up.

    And between those two fears (being too far to ever make it, and being so close that quitting now would be dumb) … lies a chasm of potential insanity.

    I often have to remind myself of how long it takes most companies to get where they are… let’s take Netflix… started in 1999, household name by 2011… I hadn’t heard of them until 2004 personally, when a friend told me about this cool ‘new’ company that was delivering DVD by mail. By that time this ‘new’ company had already been grinding it out for 5 years. 

    I wonder what netflix’s KPI curves looked like back in 1999 or 2000 or 2002 … when blockbuster still had the market? I wonder how many people told them they were stupid. That their subscriptions were too expensive, or that even if they showed early signs of success that blockbuster would retaliate once they had gotten big enough for the competition to care. I wonder how many people told them to just quit and go home. 

    Lots of journalism these days makes it seem like a walk in the park. You launch a mobile app, you magically attract 10M users (no one talks about weather they are active or not), 3 months later you ‘flip it’ to some big tech company. Sure those examples exist. Sure the social / viral thing has accelerated certain types of startups. Sure certain distribution channels (like the app store for angry birds or facebook for farmville) have proven to be insanely rewarding IF you can break into the leader board list of recommended apps. But I feel the rest of us out here sometimes need a reality check… sometimes and your words are just that. Even angry birds… those people have been grinding it out since 2003… angry birds came (overnight) in 2009… 

  • http://twitter.com/cselland Chris Selland

    I’ve always wished the media would spend more time telling the other side of this business but they continue to focus all of their time & attention on the outliers. Apparently it’s up to us bloggers to fill that gap.

    Thanks for the reminder of what this industry is really all about.

  • datt

    yeah their is no magic to become a rich or attaining success.It’s all about hard work and dedication.once if you get a luck but will be temporary and to retain the success which obtain from the luck also need lot of hard work. 

  • http://www.palantirisystems.com John Canosa

    Mark, thanks for another great post.  I have always believed in overnight success – if you are putting in the 80-100 hours a week required to be a success as an entrepreneur that means you are often working overnight.

  • http://anyessays.com/writing/essays Essays

    Hi, nice post. I have been pondering this topic,so thanks for sharing.

  • http://blog.sixstringcpa.com Geoffrey

    AWESOME!

  • http://www.binfire.com David Robins

    Great article, thank you for sharing!

  • http://twitter.com/wfjackson3 Willis F Jackson III

    I would like to point out that this is the real value of experience.  Let’s extend the success of your blog back even further.  You really started to build the success of your blog probably 20 years ago.  You have paid attention to what made a difference when things went well and when they went poorly.  You had a vision for how to do things and you executed for a long time.  You challenged yourself to share what you know in an authentic way and started writing.  Without those experiences and your authenticity, your blog traffic wouldn’t be 10% of what you get now.

    The most surprising thing about my experiences in the past 1.5 years is that I have learned to be (more) patient.  Do the right things, believe in what you do, work your ass off, and you will find a way.

  • http://twitter.com/bcrimmins Bob Crimmins

    Mark, thanks for a terrific post on a topic that just doesn’t get enough drumming.  This shit is hard and the reality is that the odds are against your success… even if you have a LOT going for you.  There are many thousands of really smart tech startup guys and gals out there right now slugging away at it and the vast majority of them will never be heard from again.  There must be a hundred top 10 things a startup needs to be successful and every one of them is, as you said, “necessary but not sufficient”; at a minimum, none of them are sufficient.  Passion, experienced team, a big problem in a big market, innovative tech, a writeup in TechCrunch, enthusiastic customers, an investors who “get it”, lean/agile/nimble, an obsession with metrics, … even luck (which can be bad as well as good.)   Perhaps the one thing that might trump all is Profitability.  But even that can be illusive and fragile.  I don’t think my current startup is one you’d be interested in but if it ever evolves into one that was a good fit for you then I’d consider myself lucky to have an investor who “gets it.”

  • http://www.poweredbysearch.com/ Dev Basu

    Definitely an inspirational post Mark. Luck is where opportunity meets preparedness. There is no substitute for good ol’ elbow grease and ingenuity.

  • simon minitzer

    it was gary player who said ‘the more I practise the luckier I get’…. my uncle coined a great acronym which from what I took out of your post sums it up perfectly. L U C K = labouring under correct knowledge 

    thanks for sharing your insights and congratulations on your 2 year anniversary. 

  • Johngreathouse

    Hey Mark – I remember reading your first post! Awesome job.

    This topic is one of my favorites and is something I drive home to my UCSB students – overnight successes are generally fairytales we read about and watch in 3D. Whenever you take the time to learn about a non-fictional character’s success, you learn that it came after years of challenges and failure.

    I am looking forward to several more years of your “overnight” success!

    John

  • http://twitter.com/rzeligzon Ron Zeligzon

    Spot on Mark. Hard work and luck are definitely intertwined. It’s about being in the game as opposed to watching the game and the art of picking your spots. 

  • http://twitter.com/evanjacobs Evan Jacobs

    Wait, you still watch news? On TV?

  • http://twitter.com/pcambron Patrick Ambron

    First, this reminds me of a favorite quote from Thomas Edison “Most people miss opportunity because it comes dressed in overalls and looks like hard work”.   In retrospect all successful business ideas look obvious. It’s almost too easy to think “I would have thought of that! What a lucky guy!”

    Those people underestimate how truly difficult it is to execute an idea in all the right ways. In fact, the simpler a business or product is, the more work that probably went into executing it.

  • Bradley Kipp

    Don’t forget Thomas Jefferson’s quote about luck:

    “I’m a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it.”

  • http://twitter.com/siberianfruit Deena Varshavskaya

    This is comforting because hard work is a known concept and something that’s in my control, whereas other success factors seem more elusive. 

  • http://twitter.com/statspotting StatSpotting.com

    how do you explain a success like the MDHP for example? Or the recent bitcoin rush?

  • Anonymous

    Absolutely a Gary Player quote. Another great golf quote is ‘you find your swing in the dirt’ (i.e., by hitting a lot of balls). It is interesting, because you don’t really, you find the confidence to believe in your swing (under pressure) by hitting a lot of balls.

    Confidence and luck – both the residue of hard work it seems.

    I am more impressed by Mark’s (not that he should care ;-) old school VC interest in entrepreneurs who see an opportunity to fundamentally change a market and are committed to making that happen.That’s the attitude that is rare in VC these days and it is why people should approach funding as a risk management exercise.It didn’t take too long to figure out. That’s an eye opener, because readers figured out you believed in work a long time ago!