Faisal Butt: The power of serendipity

Serendipity is more than luck. Entrepreneurs need to be able to recognise and seize opportunities, says Faisal Butt.

by Faisal Butt
Last Updated: 29 Apr 2015

The microwave oven had a serendipitous beginning. While experimenting with magnetrons just after World War II, Percy Spencer discovered a strange reaction. The radar technology he was developing formed a high-energy electric field that had the ability to heat objects. More precisely, he noticed the candy bar he had in his pocket had melted as the machine distributed microwave pulses.

Others working on the project had noticed this strange reaction, but only Spencer chose to investigate. He began to bring various types of food to work with him to see if they cooked when microwaved. His theory proved a success and Spencer created the first true microwave oven. He even enjoyed a bowl of the world's first microwaved popcorn.

To the untrained eye, Spencer's invention could be confused with luck. On closer inspection, he skillfully took advantage of his situation. Many of Spencer’s co-workers witnessed the same thing. Why weren't these people accredited to a ground-breaking invention? Two reasons: recognition and action.

A ‘pleasant surprise’

The word 'serendipity', today translated as a 'fortunate happenstance' or 'pleasant surprise', was coined by English art historian Horace Walpole in 1754. In a letter he wrote to a friend, Walpole explained an unexpected discovery. The word serendipity is a reference to a Persian fairy tale, 'The Three Princes of Serendip.' The princes, he told his correspondent, were "always making discoveries, by accident and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of".

Luck and serendipity are oft connected, but are actually quite different. To become a master of serendipity is to navigate and strategise until you are positioned in the right place at the right time. To be lucky is to simply find oneself in the right place at the right time. There is a subtle, important difference.

It is in the entrepreneur's nature to challenge existing structures. It is only within their flaws that we find new opportunities. This is a form of 'negative brainstorming', in which we pin down a problem and create new businesses as a result of the issues with existing ones. Think about how Uber founders Garrett Camp and Travis Kalanick identified the inefficiencies (poor logistics, limited payment methods, low tech customer experience) in the taxi industry and created something superior from that thinking.

When the entrepreneur is in problem solving mode and a light bulb moment occurs, what can we attribute the discovery to?  It is a mixture of context, business acumen, team make-up, focus, and luck, but never luck alone.

Don’t stand in a storm

The truth is that you can pivot, manoeuvre and position yourself so that moments of serendipity become a daily occurrence. This is not a case of standing outside in a storm in the hope that lightning strikes you. Attracting serendipity is a skill.

Strategic positioning is vital in business and will be of great benefit once you open your eyes to it. Why do savvy entrepreneurs base themselves out of co-working centres today? Placing yourself amongst other ambitious entrepreneurs, engineers, and problem solvers allows you the opportunity to converse with creative people and spark the latent creativity that lies in the recesses of your mind.

There are many people out there who have seemingly stumbled into good fortune and have found themselves in positions that exceed their perceived abilities. There are an equal amount of people who suffer undeserved hardship. These facts of life work with equal yet polarising force. Every time we are put in a position where we are required to take action, there is a skill in thinking strategically and picking the correct path. Often we are in "auto-pilot" mode and life just passes us by.

The entrepreneur cannot afford this luxury. To attract serendipity the entrepreneur must think strategically. Everyone experiences these opportunities. Not everyone recognises them.

Shake hands

One of the most successful businesses I’ve launched is 90 North. The business started with a handshake at a cocktail party. I was there to network, but it had been a rather uneventful evening, so I decided to leave early. Not wanting to make the evening a complete waste of time, on my way out the door, I decided I would meet one more person before departing.

Almost with my eyes closed, I put my hand out to one last person. The man who shook my hand was someone I had never met before. A few months later, we founded 90 North together. The business has now executed over £300 million in property transactions and is one of the most successful ventures I have been involved in.

Luck is winning the lottery. Turning a meeting at a party into a viable business is not luck - it's a product of serendipity. You must develop the courage to make that ‘blind’ handshake. You must be able to identify patterns that are seemingly unconnected and bind them.  You must pivot and position yourself towards serendipity.

It must be tuned into. Like receiving any signal, one must recognise the signs and interpret them. When you do, you'll start to receive reverberations that others could mistake as noise. But you will know better how to translate and action them.

Serendipity and superglue

A final example: on trying to invent a new precision gun sight, Harry Coover decided he had failed miserably. He got increasingly irritated as the substance he was using stuck to everything. Several years later, he came across it again. Where before he saw uselessness, now he saw profit, and he patented the substance now known as superglue, which is still commonly used today.

Essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson was onto something when he said: 'Shallow men believe in luck or in circumstance. Strong men believe in cause and effect.' But it appears that even before his own serendipitous moments led to this insight in the 1800s, the Persians had it all figured out, as is so jovially illustrated in the Three Princes of Serendip fables, as far back as the 14th century.

I encourage aspiring entrepreneurs to go the way of the three princes - to explore foreign ground, to embrace the unknown, to put themselves into situations of discomfort, but to keep their antennae tuned to opportunities - you never know what might be waiting around the corner.

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