A few weeks back, a guy came into Thrillist’s office to interview me for a book he’s helping to research about entrepreneurs. He spoke about the four traits that most successful entrepreneurs have: heart, guts, luck and smarts. And the more I thought about those four traits, the more I kept finding myself obsessed with the idea that heart and luck are the most important by far, and having smarts is a distant fourth to the other three. Let me explain.
When I look at our personal experience at Thrillist, as well as at the experiences of the founders we invest in at Lerer Ventures, it’s clear that heart and luck are the two dominant forces. Most of the entrepreneurs I’ve met don’t attribute the success of their business to them being mentally superior to the people they’re competing with. This might be confused with modesty, but it’s not modesty. The role that luck plays in any business working out is underestimated and much bigger than many people would like to think. It’s more about luck combined with making your own luck.
At Thrillist, we’ve definitely been lucky. When we launched, ad dollars had just started to substantively shift to digital. E-mail was beginning its renaissance and was finally being understood as an incredibly powerful marketing medium. Curation was a trend that we caught at the tip of the wave. And when the economy took the hit and the bottom fell out, we were already in such a rapid-growth mode that it was nothing more than a speed bump because we weren’t at scale yet (as businesses at scale are more susceptible to the ebbs and flows of external factors).
So in many ways, we’ve been so lucky. But we’ve also made our own luck—the heart component. I constantly preach internally to people in every department, “Don’t hope.” And this applies particularly to salespeople. If a salesperson is looking at his or her goals and hoping that a piece of business comes in, that’s basically a guarantee that they’re never going to hit their number. If you leave it up to chance, it doesn’t mean it’s going to come - in fact, it probably means it won’t. To succeed you need to put enough lines in the water that the probability of success skyrockets. You’re not waiting to get lucky.
As we’ve gone and built this thing, the best piece of advice we’ve ever received came from the first guy we pitched who didn’t pat us on the back and tell us what smart kids we were and how successful we’d be. He said, “Why are you wasting my time? I’m a serious guy and you’re in here telling me you’ve got some idea. Go build it. Go do it. You have to do the work yourself.” That idea of taking personal responsibility is the idea of heart. As best you can, you make your own luck by not crossing your fingers and waiting to get lucky or feeling entitled; it’s about going out and blocking and tackling, and stacking the odds in your favor.
So am I saying you don’t need to have any smarts to be successful? Not exactly. But what I am saying is that you need to just not be a moron, and that generally, traditional intelligence plays a very small role in most entrepreneurs’ success. Actually, in some ways, it can be a real advantage to not be such a deeply thoughtful and intelligent person. Those people can spend way too much time analyzing risks. And as many of you know, the overall odds of succeeding are rarely going to be in the entrepreneur’s favor.
Follow Ben on Twitter: @BenJLerer
Image credit: TZA