Startup stories of lucky breaks – or are they something else? (By Kate MacArthur, Special to Blue Sky
Some entrepreneurs seem to have preternaturally good luck, while others can’t catch a break. But luck is often less about pure chance than you may think, according to startup founders who’ve had their share of good fortune.
As a high school wrestler, Troy Henikoff became accustomed to seeing a poster on the gym wall that said “Luck is where preparation meets opportunity.”
“I remember it 30 years later,” said Henikoff, managing director of business accelerator Techstars Chicago and co-founder of the 1871 tech startup center. “That’s why we built 1871, to create a place where serendipity happens all the time.”
Luck favors “being someone others want to help,” said Neal Sales-Griffin, co-founder and CEO of The Starter League, housed at 1871. He credits connections including Henikoff and computer engineer Harper Reed for helping to get the software school up and running.
One of his advisers posted on Twitter about the school, and the tweet made its way to Jeff Cohen, a highly regarded coding instructor. Cohen tweeted back his interest, and today he is the academy’s chief instructor.
“We wouldn’t have a school if we didn’t have our first teacher,” Sales-Griffin said.
Such a grateful attitude is a key ingredient of kismet, said Michael Maddock, CEO of Elmhurst-based innovation consultant Maddock Douglas Inc. “People who live their lives with gratitude naturally program themselves to look for possibility where other people see stop signs,” he said.
Just as Carolyn Watson was trying to pull her Chicago-based granola business, Milk & Honey Granola LLC, out of a sales plateau in March, Wilmette-based food marketing representative Fred Neubauer called her “out of the blue,” she said. He was looking to pair a gourmet granola with his client, Noosa Yoghurt.
In the past, Watson would have ignored the pitch, but “something in me thought, ‘let’s just hear him out,’” she said. Now the two brands are being promoted together, and Neubauer is working with Watson on a business-development strategy. They’re now planning to roll out the granola in at least 100 Jewel food stores.
Knowing what to do when an opportunity presents itself also made a difference for Scott Skinger. He said he ran up $120,000 in credit card debt to fund his information technology training startup TrainSignal Inc. In 2005, after three years, no real business plan and just enough money to get by another few months, Skinger said he “lucked” into a pair of pivotal relationships.
One happened as he surfed the Web to plan a course he was teaching. The website Petri IT Knowledgebase kept popping up in his search results. Impressed by its content, Skinger contacted the owner.
They set a deal to promote TrainSignal on the site in exchange for a portion of its revenue. He said sales doubled from $500,000 to $1 million. “I was lucky they came along when they did because my sales weren’t high enough to sustain the expenses we were taking on,” Skinger said.
He purchased the website a year later and still owns it under his company Blue Whale Web. In July, he sold Schaumburg-based TrainSignal, which grew to $7.4 million in sales in 2012, for $23.6 million to software developer training firm Pluralsight.
For CheekyChicago.com, luck arrived in aWhole Foodselevator.
Five years ago, as Erica Bethe Levin and Jessica Zweig prepared to launch their local lifestyle website, they received an email from a Midwest vice president of marketing for Miller Brewing Co. The Miller executive explained the brewer’s interest in reaching more women and expressed interest in advertising on CheekyChicago — even though at the time, the only thing that existed was a place holder web page the co-founders had posted a week before.
The executive told the stunned partners that she had overheard Zweig talking about the website in the Whole Foods elevator. Miller signed a year-long sponsorship contract before the website launched, and MillerCoors LLC confirms the agreement continues.
Still, Levin doesn’t believe in blind luck, but some combination of factors.
“If Jess hadn’t have been in the elevator talking about it, and this woman hadn’t been in the elevator, and if we hadn’t put that splash page up, we would never have met them,” she said.