Opportunity Knocks

Monday, October 1, 2012 - 12:12

It's easy to believe the world's richest people attain wealth by luck, but most will say it's about creating your own good fortune. By Amy Birchall

At first glance, billionaires such as Warren Buffett and Bill Gates appear to have been blessed with more than their fair share of luck. Buffett, for example, has a net worth of $41 billion and is considered by many as the most successful investor of the 20th century. He has claimed he won the "ovarian lottery" by being born at the right time and in a country where his skill set allowed him to become rich. Had he been born 2000 years ago, or on a desert island without a capital market, his gift of allocating money would have been almost useless.

"I was born in the United States ... I was born white ... I was born male ... I had all kinds of luck," Buffett said last year at the Fortune Most Powerful Women summit.

Similarly, Microsoft's Gates was born into an upper middle-class family in the United States just as the field of micro- electronics was advancing.

His parents enrolled him at a school with a Teletype connection on which he could learn to program - something the New York Times reported was unusual for schools at that time.

Some years later, Gates' friend Paul Allen happened to read a magazine article about microcomputer kits, which inspired the pair to convert programming language into a computer product. This apparently lucky sequence of events laid the foundations for the creation of Microsoft's multi-billion dollar empire.

While luck may have played a role in Buffett and Gates' success, it is certainly not the only contributing factor. Buffett and Gates capitalised on their luck by working hard and searching for new opportunities. In writing this article, Mt discovered that, like Buffett and Gates, some of Australia's most successful business people believe in the ability to capitalise on "lucky" opportunities.

One such person is Harold Mitchell, who began his working career in a sawmill aged 16 and went on to become Australia's most influential media buyer.

He told Mt that luck is more than a product of convenient timing: "You make your own luck."

Entrepreneur Kate Kendall, who is listed as one of StartupSmart's top 10 female entrepreneurs and was last year acknowledged as one of Melbourne's most influential people by The Age, believes in making luck by creating opportunities.

The founder of the online guide for digital and creative communities The Fetch, which started in Melbourne in 2011 and is now in Brisbane, Sydney, Perth, San Francisco, London, New York and Berlin, thinks of luck as the ability to "curate serendipity".

"You can't control luck, but you can optimise for it," she says. "Everything that's ever come my way has been through maximising opportunities and working hard to create situations, not chance."

Once the opportunity has been identified, those who are considered to be lucky in business, such as the founder of drinks catering company Liquid Infusion, Ben Neumann, will usually work to maximise its potential. Liquid Infusion, which started in Neumann's parents' garage in 2005, was named Smart Company's top entrepreneurial company in Australia in 2012. "You won't just stumble across $100,000 lying on the floor," Neumann says. "You need to spot an opportunity, push that opportunity and then capitalise on it. Then you'll receive the reward.

"A lucrative deal with a large client is considered 'lucky'. However, it also takes years of clever marketing, brand and market positioning to create the opportunities for that to happen."

Similarly, internationally stocked skincare brand La Clinica's CEO Rita- Marie Hopfner attributes part of her success to being able to respond to opportunities. "It is my response and call-to-action that determines the outcome, rather than luck," she says.

For others, luck is part of a broader business strategy. For example, Harvey Norman's executive chairman Gerry Harvey says luck is worth little if it is not used wisely. "You've got to get lucky in life and then pick the people who weren't lucky, but are smarter than you," he says.

"Find all the people who are smarter than you, and employ them. Then you have the best team possible, and nobody can compete with you."

There are also those who say luck has had little impact on their professional success. Many of these people prefer to attribute positive results to planning and hard work, rather than chance and luck. Serial entrepreneur and founder of Kogan Technologies Ruslan Kogan's attitude to luck is one example.

As Australia's richest person under 30 and with a personal fortune valued at $62 million, he says if he believed in luck he would spend his time "buying lotto tickets rather than scientifically analysing the business world".

"Whenever someone wishes me luck I tell them, 'Don't wish me luck because that's got nothing to do with it'," he says. "At kogan.com, we scientifically analyse market data on a day to day basis. We then make decisions based on what we know rather than what we think."

Founder of online gifting company RedBalloon Naomi Simson takes a similar approach. She may be at the helm of an organisation with annual revenue of $43 million, but says luck has no place in business. She attributes her success to working hard and staying focused on goals, rather than spending time "waiting to get lucky". "I am often heard to say 'There is no power in hope'. I feel the same way about luck," she says.

So what is the lucky formula for business success? Co-founder of the world's fastest growing e-commerce platform, Bigcommerce, Mitchell Harper, might sum it up best. "All good businesses, ours included, depend on a few things - hard work, the right decisions and a bit of luck."

Make your own luck

Executive coach Michelle Landy's tips:

  • Prepare: "Be prepared for luck. This means be ready so you can respond to opportunities when they arise and give them the best chance of success."
  • Develop confidence: "Luck has a habit of falling in the hands of confident people because they give things a go, volunteer and don't wait to know everything before starting."
  • Act as though opportunities will come your way: "Seeing yourself as someone who good things come to changes how you take in information around you. It allows you to see opportunities that others often miss."