Why entrepreneurship favours the bold

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When I was a child, my mother told me that I would miss all the shots that I didn’t take. Her words didn’t make complete sense at the time, but after almost 50 years in business, I have come to truly understand what she meant: You can’t rely on luck, but on the other hand, fortune favours the bold. I believe that what people refer to as “luck” is one of the most misunderstood and underappreciated factors in life.

Richard Branson

Businesses and entrepreneurs that are generally considered to be more fortunate or luckier than others are usually those that are prepared to take chances and experiment with new approaches – and to fall flat on their faces every so often.

When I was watching the final round of the British Open golf championship on TV some time ago, one of the leaders chipped his ball out of a deep bunker. His shot was too high, but the ball clipped the top of the flagpole and, amazingly, dropped right into the hole. “Oh my goodness, what a lucky shot!” exclaimed one of the TV commentators.

Another, a retired American champion, as I recall, immediately snapped back: “Lucky? What do you mean ‘lucky?’ Do you know how many thousands of hours we all spend practicing shots like that? He was trying to put it in the hole and he succeeded. Let me tell you, he worked long and hard on getting that lucky!”

As I’ve written in this column before, the same sentiment was more eloquently expressed once by Gary Player, one of the all-time golf greats, who famously declared, “The harder I practice, the luckier I get.” Like that golfer at the British Open, I have also been accused of being merely lucky when it comes to business.

However, I, too, believe that a lot of very hard work has played a major part in any luck that has come my way. If you try, try and try again, eventually you may be successful. I must admit to sometimes struggling to figure out where coincidence stops and good luck begins, or how just happening to be in the right place at the right time can so dramatically play into one’s path through life.

One thing that’s clear, however, is that entrepreneurs who play it safe for fear of failure are the ones who just never seem to get as lucky as the risk-takers. Is this just a coincidence? I don’t think so. Yet a vast majority of people seem to view their chances of “getting lucky” in business in much the same way that they view the likelihood of their being struck by lightning: They think they have zero control.

Well, that couldn’t be further from the truth – anyone who makes an effort at whatever they hope to accomplish can, and will, seriously improve their chances of succeeding.When people bring up luck, I often mention a coincidence that had a huge bearing on Virgin’s success.

Back in the ‘70s, to our surprise and delight, Virgin Records’ first album, Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells,” had become a huge hit in the UK, but we were still trying to get someone to distribute it in the US. I tried and tried, but I just couldn’t convince the legendary head of Atlantic Records, Ahmet Ertegun, that an all-instrumental album would sell in North America. He just didn’t get it.

One day, Ahmet just happened to be playing the album in his office, and in walked movie director William Friedkin, who was looking for music for a movie he had in the works. Friedkin heard “Tubular Bells,” loved it, and that was that: He had his backing track and we had our U.S. deal with Atlantic Records. (The movie Friedkin was working on, of course, was the box-office hit “The Exorcist.”)

Call it luck if you want, but I’d spent a lot of time yammering away at Ahmet about this music. If he hadn’t been intrigued enough to listen to the album one more time, Friedkin wouldn’t have heard it at that critical moment. Remember: We can all make our own luck by making it easier for luck to play a part in our lives. Yes, luck is unreliable, but a gamble can be worth the reward.

(This article first appeared in the Indian edition of Entrepreneur magazine (November, 2015 Issue).

Richard Branson

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Sir Richard Branson, founder of The Virgin Group, is a world-famous entrepreneur, adventurer, activist and business icon. His first memoir, Losing My Virginity, and his numerous books on business have been international bestsellers.