The Value of Serendipity (in Business and Innovation)

What is Serendipity?

A fortunate happenstance, divine intervention, or more plainly, the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way.

What is its value in Business?

Serendipity helps you create unplanned and unintended, but remarkable innovative value by taking advantage of unanticipated, unexpected and unsought information and make accidental discoveries.

In the world of advertising, technology and science, CEO’s spend millions each year designing and building environments at their headquarters to increase the likelihood of serendipitous moments. Spend any time in the offices at Google, Facebook or Apple, and you’ll notice how they’ve strategically orchestrated the potential for chance encounters and, ultimately, the likelihood of the next big thing to be produced through a conversation. 

A really radical example:

In 1998, Peter Theil gave a lecture at Stanford, and he ended up meeting one of the people who sat through the lecture, a Ukrainian immigrant names Max Levchrin. Levchrin wasn’t a student, but an aspiring entrepreneur who was visiting from Illinois. The next day, the two met and talked about a business opportunity over smoothies. In 2002, they sold that business to eBay for 1.5 billion dollars. The business was PayPal, and it made Thiel, Levchrin, and a few others (like Elon Musk and Reid Hoffman) very wealthy.

2 years later, a 20-year-old Mark Zuckerberg was spending the summer in Palo Alto with his friends, writing code for Facebook and partying like crazy. One day, while Mark and his friends were exploring the neighborhood, they ran into Sean Parker, who co-founded Napster, the music sharing service. Sean was staying in Palo Alto at his girlfriend’s parents place. Within a week, Sean and Mark became close and Sean moved in with the Facebook group. By the end of that Summer, Sean introduced Mark to Peter Thiel, who was the first investor and gave them $500,000. 

From the group that built and sold PayPal and this unlikely encounter with Mark and Sean, these people have gone on to create Facebook, YouTube, Tesla, SpaceX, Yelp and LinkedIn. 

There are plenty of other examples, like:

  • Howard Schultz and Starbucks
  • Dietrich Mateschitz and Red Bull
  • Todd, J.P. and the La Colombe story

So aside from the possibility of creating a multi-billion-dollar business, what’re some more practical benefits of serendipity?

  • Solve more problems
  • Discover more opportunities
  • Generate more ideas

The keyword here being “more”. It’s every business’ responsibility to solve problems, discover opportunities and generate ideas. You won’t have a viable business for very long if you aren’t consistently doing those 3 things. However, by taking advantage of the serendipity phenomena, you’ll create more. And in these 3 cases, more is definitely better.  

How do we encounter serendipitous moments if offices all over the world are forced into having their teams work remotely?

  1. Look for it – once you recognize its value, you have to look for it. By being more open minded and aware of your surroundings, you’ll inevitably encounter more serendipity. 

For example, have you ever started looking at a car you want to buy, and all of a sudden you see that car everywhere? Well, that’s called “frequency bias”. These cars didn’t just start popping up, you just never knew to look for them before. 

What do you do?  Be intentional about the opportunity of encountering serendipity and look for it wherever you can!

  1. Be out and about – just because you’re allowed to work from home, doesn’t mean you should do that 24/7! Get out. Go to different coffee shops around town, try a new gym or fitness studio, go for an occasional walk on the beach or at the park, and attend any events you can.

La Colombe, the company I mentioned above and one of the largest coffee distributors, started from a social event. About 30 years ago, J.P. and Todd, the founders, met while grabbing a drink at a grunge concert. 

  1. Create connections – once you start finding ways to get out and be around people, you have to make a conscious effort to meet them!

I’m not sure how exactly Zuckerberg met Sean Parker, but one of them had to step outside of their comfort zone and introduce themselves. Because of that connection, good or bad, we have the social networks that most of us spend our time on. 

If you’re still nervous about in-person interactions, try virtual events. You’ll have to Google that one if you want more info, but apps like Facebook Groups, Eventbrite and Hopin are all great avenues for joining online gatherings. 

What do you do? Make a goal for yourself to meet 1 person a day. Even though it’s a small goal, it still might be intimidating. But much like the “frequency bias” example I mentioned above, once you make a commitment to meet new people, the opportunities will start to present themselves. I literally just met a guy at the coffee shop while I write this; his name is Cory and he is a furloughed airline pilot for United Express. 

  1. Diversify your focus – a few of the radical examples of serendipity that I came across were from people learning about something completely irrelevant to their primary interests. 

For example, Steve Jobs audited a calligraphy class in college, which he later credited to be the inspiration for Apple’s beautiful typography. 

What do you do? Consider reading a fiction book instead of nonfiction or try watching a documentary when you normally watch action films. Choose to engage in an activity that you will most likely enjoy, but is much different than what you’re used to doing. 

  1. Be flexible – be spontaneous, travel, book a staycation, eat somewhere new, and be comfortable with a change of plans. Just don’t use the pandemic as an excuse for unnecessary rigidity.

In 1983, Howard Schultz went to Milan to attend a work event. Eventually, he decided to take a break and grab a coffee from a local cafe to see what the city had to offer. While he was there, drinking his latte, he noticed that people weren’t packing out this coffee shop because of the coffee – but because of the community experience. That experienced changed the trajectory of Starbucks forever, and it was his flexible agenda that day that got him there. 

  1. Passion about a cause – you have to care about something, and regularly be in pursuit of making a better world for others. 

When Steve Jobs was asked about why he started Apple, he said, “Basically Steve Wozniak and I invented the Apple because we wanted a personal computer. Not only couldn’t we afford the computers that were on the market, those computers were impractical for us to use. We needed a Volkswagen.”

Back then, everyday people didn’t have computers in their homes. Imagine that! So Jobs and Wozniak invented the Mac with the mission of putting a computer in people’s homes around the world. They were fixing a problem that they were passionate about, and look how far it’s gone.

What do you do? Take the time to consider the things you’re passionate about. What problems in the world would you like to solve? It can be big, like world hunger, or smaller, like creating an excuse-free opportunity for people to eat healthy by starting the first fully customizable meal prep company. 

  1. Talk about yourself – if you’ve got something valuable to offer the world, people need to know. This makes most people uncomfortable, but I think that’s because most of us don’t know how to properly look at self-promotion. There is usually a clear distinction between arrogance and confidence, but in a world with so many talented people, how will anyone know what you’re capable of unless you risk muddying those waters? The key is to find out how to graciously, confidently and consistently approach healthy self-promotion. 

Kanye West said it best, “Well I got to cheer for me before anyone else can cheer for me”.

So what do we do? Leverage social media and put your talents on display. Use your platforms to talk about how far you’ve come, because we are all on some type of growth journey and your story is bound to inspire a number of people. Speak up during the next meeting when you’ve got a great idea. Share your results. Become an expert in your field, and begin to teach others what you know. 

The case has been made for the value of serendipity in business and in life, and some of the ways for pursuing it have been laid out for you step by step. Now, all you have to do is start looking for it. 

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