Ideas & Debate

Business success takes more than just entrepreneur’s effort

Folklore goes that during its initial search for a slogan, the marketing team offered various choices to the Safaricom management team.

Then as the managers deliberated on which choice to settle upon, one of them opined, “I suggest we go with this one, it’s the better option!”

Then all of a sudden it hit the CEO, ‘The better option!’. He liked the sound of it. “Why not adopt it as the slogan?”

This, ladies and gentlemen, is how the Safaricom slogan reportedly came to be. That it was not even among the initial choices points to the genius of accidental discovery.

While I haven’t verified this story, what is unmistakeable is that the slogan has played its fair share towards the success of Safaricom’s brand for the past decade.

Let’s go back in time — to September 1928. A scientist returned home from a four-week holiday to continue his research work at a laboratory in St Mary’s Hospital in London.

Before leaving, he had stacked some bacteria on some dishes hoping to come and continue his research on the microorganisms upon his return.

The first thing he noticed when he returned was that the bacteria on one of the dishes had died and in its place stood a number of yeast and moulds.

Human triumphs

It seemed that the yeast and moulds had contaminated the dish. Quickly, the scientist zeroed in to the fact that one of the moulds had killed the bacteria in the area of the plate where it had infiltrated.

Excited by these conclusions, the scientist continued his investigations. He soon realised that the reason for the bacteria being killed was because of there was presence of an active ingredient.

The scientist’s name was Alexander Fleming, and the active ingredient he discovered by accident was penicillin — the world’s first anti-biotic that is responsible for saving millions of lives to date.

Let’s go back further in time — to the 17th century. Popular legend goes that Sir Isaac Newton was idly sitting beneath an apple tree when one accidentally dropped off and hit his head.

While many people would have cursed their bad fortune under their breath, Newton was more philosophical about it. He wondered, why, if the world was round, the apple falling off the tree did not go in the opposite direction.

This inspired him back to his lab where he was ultimately able to not only discover the force of gravity but formulate a formula of how to calculate it, appropriately christened, Newton’s Law of Gravity.

What am I leading to? I am creating a basis to hypothesise that many a time, fate has as much to do with success as other straightforward factors like say hard work and intelligence.

That there is an undeniable element of good fortune or even happenstance that shape the biggest of human triumphs.

The most eloquent argument of this hidden hand in success has to be Malcolm Gladwel in his book Outliers. He is convinced, as I am that there is something profoundly wrong with the way we view success.

We seem to think it’s only the personal attributes that explain individual’s rise to success. For some reason, we let the story of rising from grace to grass go unquestioned simply because it makes for more romantic listening or reading.

It is a better descriptive of the superior human attributes we wish to have and feel that by others having them, we too can have them.

Even when Newton himself admitted that the far he went was only because he rode on the shoulders of giants, hero worshipping makes us create a small god out of him and credit him with probably more than we should.

As Gladwel argues, the people who stand before kings may look like they did it all by themselves.

But they are invariably beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extra ordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn, work hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot.

There is some element of good fortune that lays them and prepares them for success.

Consider even in ecology. The tallest oak tree in the forest is the tallest not just because it grew from the hardiest a corn; it is the tallest because no other trees blocked its sunlight, the soil around was deep and rich, no rabbit chewed through its bark as a sapling and no lumberjack cut it down before it matured. Yet, we think all successful people arouse from hardy seeds.

But not just individual success, luck is also a big part of enterprise. Indeed, one of the biggest setback for start-ups is that many of them confuse being lucky to being smart.

They totally lack the humility to distinguish one from the other at a great cost. Hence, a home run of success that came in spite of and not because of your faulty strategy is attributed to the faulty strategy and a repeat of the same, in most instances causes a change of fortunes.

Serenity prayer

The problem is that we live in a society that will be in a hurry to convince you otherwise.

The Press, the shareholders, your colleagues, spouse, friends, and parents will work hard to convince you time and again that you are in fact a genius and should take complete credit for all the things happening to your company.

The reality is that too many forces shape the destiny of any single business. The best we can do as entrepreneurs is try to influence those we can manage to control towards our success.

It was Reinhold Niebuhr who famously quipped, “God give me the serenity to accept things which cannot be changed, the courage to change those I can and the wisdom to distinguish one from the other.”

Most investors seem to have both the serenity and courage but miss out on the wisdom hence are busy accepting those they can otherwise change and trying to change some things that are not within their grasp to.

The truth is that entrepreneurs have to be smart. But the smartest thing about them is that they are smart enough to realise when they are getting lucky.

Of course, with experience, successful businesspeople start learning the tricks of creating luck — a secret that I hope to research further and share my findings in due time.

But for today, let me end by quoting Albert Einstein, a genius who was modest about his intellectual achievements believing himself to be just but a conduit, “Sometimes it may seem like the solution is too simple, at which case God is answering.”

Of course “God is answering” simply being another way of saying, “you got lucky”.

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Twitter: @marvinsissey