What if successful startups are just lucky?

When I was 25, I joined my first startup as a developer in 2000. I was convinced that if we created an appealing product, people would talk about it, use it, and it'd be a success.

Between 2000 and 2004, we raised $10 million, hired experienced people, and worked 4 years on a MMORPG called Ryzom. This was before Blizzard Entertainment announced World of Warcraft.

With a team of 15 developers we programmed an amazing 3D engine, a realtime distributed system for the server clusters which can handle thousands of players, an amazing AI system for monsters and NPCs, tons of tools for game designers and artists and more. For a grand total of 3 million lines of C++. We had a great level and game design team that invented an astonishing universe with 4000 years of history and an original game play. We had an awesome team of artists who created gigabytes of textures, 3D meshes, animations, and particle systems.

The much anticipated release was a shock and a total failure. You may not be surprised because today it's obvious that big launches and working under the radar are bad ideas. Like I said: we were sure that people would talk among themselves about the game if the game was as good as we thought.

Of course it's not the only reason Ryzom failed. Releasing a game a few months after World of Warcraft didn't help as well as a lot of other reasons which I won't discuss here.

However, after this failure, I changed my mind and began to wonder. For a good product to succeed what do we need? So I began reading a lot about marketing, especially inbound marketing and everything related to communications on social media.

I tried to follow all the good advice successful entrepreneurs gave when explaining their accomplishments.

For example I started writing a blog. Some say content marketing is a key to success - to create a community that would be useful once the product is released. I also started looking at methodologies like Lean Startup. I released fast and failed fast. I went to startup events to find a co-founder because they said that it's mandatory if you want to succeed and so on...

I read so many things about successful entrepreneurs that in the end it became blurry in my head. They all gave opposing advice. When someone says you should do X someone else says you shouldn't do X. It felt like their advice was good, but only for them.

After a discussion with some friends about this awesome article talking about Survivorship Bias, I discovered Nassim Taleb's book, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. Everything I read and experienced became obvious.

What if startup success was just completely random?

Perhaps not as random as the mathematical definition but in that there are too many parameters that you -and nobody for that matter - cannot control that in the end, even if it's not random, it's too complex to be controlled.

You can take one parameter such as how many founders should you have, do some research, perform analysis, and extrapolate. However in the end it'll be completely wrong for your project because you need to take into account all the other parameters. Something that works for someone will not work for you because you are not them.

I know you prefer to think you are smart, experienced, skilled, and you know what you need to do to create a successful start. But, please, just for one second, imagine that this not the case. Imagine that it's just random.

It's interesting because in this mindset your vision of how to succeed is really different. You start thinking about how to maximize your chances to win at a random game.

Think of it like a lottery. In this case the obvious decision is to buy more tickets in order to get more chances to win. In the startup world it could mean that you should try as many different projects as you can. On each project you should always experiment and try a lot of different things to see what delivers you good feedback.

The important thing is to be always aware, to be ready to catch every small opportunity you see.
Here's an example; you meet a nice guy during an event, you like his idea, your skills are complementary. This could be an excellent occasion to try to develop the project together. Second example; you talk with a guy who has a problem and you know how to solve it easily. Go on, do it and see what happens.

You cannot know where you'll be in 3 months. Just be aware, experiment, and transform as many opportunities as you can. The more you do the more chances you have to succeed in one of these projects.

In the VCs or incubators world this mindset means you should invest in as many startups as you can. You'll maximize the chance to have a Black Swan and that's exactly what YC, KIMA or The Family are doing.

However, to be clear, trying all of the opportunities you find doesn't mean you should do or accept everything. Of course, it has to be something you like and find cool but it doesn't have to seem successful. There are lots of projects started with a small or a crazy idea that seemed to be everything except something that could become successful.

Don't wait, go! release something!

Follow me on Twitter @acemtp

Thanks to Marc Planard, Fabrice Lété, Alban Lecocq, Matt Raykowski, Raoul Roy for reading drafts of this.