Serendipity’s Value in Business
Serendipity is a significant factor in both the creative process and the business process. In my experience, making good use of serendipity is a combination of things: actively setting up opportunities, a willingness to go with the flow of events, the ability to see the thing that arises by chance, and finally, being prepared to seize the opportunity—prepared both in the sense of being open to the possibility and ready to take advantage of it. A recent article in the Economist, “In search of serendipity” reviewing the book “The Power of Pull: How Small Moves, Smartly Made, Can Set Big Things In Motion” by John Hagel, John Seely Brown and Lang Davison reaffirms some basic ideas I have long practiced in both my creative and business life.
These are ideas of value to anyone in business. If I look at nearly every one of my key business relationships—vendors, employees, clients—they all have this one thing in common: They came to me primarily by some chain of tenuous, circumstantial connections, or seemingly random sequences of events. From this has come to me a valuable business resource. I have developed a kind of faith in this process, and I have come to terms with a certain lack of control that this entails. I also recognize that this is not, by any means, a fool proof mechanism for business or for life, and I can cite not a few blind alleys it has led me down, but upon reflection, all of those came with significant educational benefits.
I’m not a Daoist. I don’t just wait for opportunity to float into view. Far from it. The serendipitous opportunity must, in fact, be actively sought after. The key is to seek out environments of opportunity—for me this means to do business in New York City, to network socially and formally, and to always talk to my neighbor, friend, acquaintance about my passion, which is my work. Having that conversation while listening very carefully and staying alert to what opportunities pass within this orbit of activity, then acting on them with tools that have been well prepared, is easiest to understand in the context of sales.
Let’s take a most recent example: My home in Brooklyn is rather large and we regularly have short-term exchange students that put some of our extra bedrooms to good use, and expose our kids to world cultures. Prior to our current pair of high school students from Mauritania, we had a student from Japan who was also, it turns out, an employee of a large educational toy manufacturer in Japan. On his last day here, I showed him our company portfolio and he took a digital version back with him to Japan. It’s been two weeks since he left and now we are in a contract to develop his company’s US brand and website, and to shepherd the process of introducing their product line to US. This is a pretty strong case for an entirely serendipitous opportunity consummated on mutual recognition of the benefits, and a little preparedness.
If you think about your own experience, I’m sure you will recognize that this kind of thing happens all the time. The key is to pay attention and to be ready. Our company portfolio was ready. I also speak fluent Japanese, have kids in the target age groups for their products, and wrote a strong and reasonable proposal when the request came in the day after he returned to Japan.
In another example, we are presenting to Wollmuth Maher & Deutsch today to redevelop their brand and website. This is happening because one of the partners was for one season the coach of my son’s soccer team. At the end of the season we hosted a barbecue at our house. During the barbecue, I found out that he was a partner in a law firm which lead to a discussion of our Chaffetz Lindsey project then in production. When the Chaffetz Lindsey site went live in August last year, I sent him an email about it. That was our last correspondence for nearly a year. Last week he called saying simply “We’re ready. When can you come in and present.” I don’t need to pile on the examples to make the point. If not for this barbecue I hosted, this never would have happened.
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