Serendipity in Business
How a stroke of Luck Can Change Your Fortunes Forever
Recently I’ve been reading on the topic of serendipity in business: how by a seemingly random sequence of events, you can see both your personal and professional life changed forever. There’s a few notable examples of this that we’re going to cover in an upcoming thread of content kicked off by the piece you’re reading right now. We’re going to discuss how Starbucks became the world’s largest coffee company, buoyed by a stroke of luck in Italy, as well as ways in which you can foster more serendipity in your life.
Let’s get into it.
There’s a researcher at the University of Hertfordshire in the UK who has written a body of work focussing on serendipity, Richard Wiseman and says that good fortune isn’t simply a matter of chance, but the product of choices that leave an individual open to more opportunities, and therefore more serendipitous opportunities than others. Judging from my experience, I have to agree. I’ve noticed that some people can become more closed-minded and rigid in their schedule, which leaves them less likely to come into contact with that potentially life-changing rendezvous.
“Opportunity may be the one to knock on your door, but serendipity is the one that makes sure you’re home at the [right] time.” -Serhat Pala
A Starbucks Story in Serendipity
Wiseman says that people who are more likely to run into serendipitous strokes of luck are more “skilled at creating, noticing and acting upon chance opportunities,” through the way in which they are experts at “networking, adopting a relaxed attitude to life and by being open to new experiences.”
Howard Schultz is a household name in business circles, having steered Starbucks from a modestly-sized company in Seattle selling coffee beans and homebrew machines to nearby clients. In 1983, Schultz was working as the Director of Retail Operations and Marketing for Starbucks, who sent him to Europe to attend the international housewares show in Milan, Italy.
Rather than attend the conference in full, Schultz took the opportunity to check out local cafes to gain an understanding of European coffee culture, and more specifically, Italian coffee culture; arguably the most fiercest coffee fanatics on the continent. According to Schultz’ autobiography, his detour away from the conference was the catalyst or change that would soon see Starbucks become one of the world’s largest companies. “It was like an epiphany,” he wrote. “It was so immediate and physical that I was shaking.”
What Schultz realised as he cruised Milan’s backstreets observing locals in their natural habitat was that people weren’t at the cafe for the sole reason of drinking a coffee- they were there for the conversation and the heated debates amongst friends. Schultz says that this single-handedly changed the way he envisaged what Starbucks should become: a company that pays more attention to the communal setting in which customers drink their coffee, rather than just the coffee itself. Starbucks soon set out to conquer the world of caffeinated beverages with an emphasis on the setting in which people drink, hoping American buyers - foreign to the concept of a European-style cafe - would buy into the idea, as well as the cup of joe.
Frans Johannson, author of The Click Moment, which talks about both randomness and serendipity in business says that “as ironic as it may sound, it actually pays to schedule time to do something unscripted and unplanned,” he says. “Leave some flexibility in your schedule. Then, make sure you use the flexibility to explore something unrelated to what you are doing now, or follow up on a curious idea you have been considering.”
How to Foster Serendipity in Your Life
Make sure that as you move through your life, you keep your mind open with everyone you meet; more often than not, they won’t be the life-changing contact, but you need to remain open to the possibility they will be- or how they could spark the idea for an organisation-changing product or service. As Frans Johannson mentioned above, keeping time spare to explore seemingly unrelated areas of your life opens you up to the potential for making those life-changing connections, or having a profoundly powerful epiphany.
On a similar note, you need to remain true to your gut-feeling, or intuition. Intuition can admittedly steer you off course sometimes, but it’s also one of the most important tools at your disposal when you’re making a tough decision; don’t underestimate the power of your instincts. When it does steer you off course, make sure you’re taking note of what went wrong, and you turn this into a learning experience. Everyone makes mistakes- but it’s how we deal with the aftermath that defines us; there’s always an important lesson to be learnt following a decision gone-bad, the difference is who learns from it, and who doesn’t.
From here, go about your personal and professional life with an air of confidence that will hopefully sweep up the right people and put them in a position near your circle that you can act upon. Remember that deals can quite often be sealed at the bar shortly after the conference wraps up, not at the conference itself, so you need to be prepared to go out and make those potentially life-changing connections.
Thanks for your time- I'll see you in the next piece.