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Hacking Serendipity

Last week wrapped up the latest installment of MozCon, our annual user conference. Out of all of the amazing content, one thing has been lingering in my mind over the weekend and into today.

During Rand’s keynote, he touched on the idea of ‘Investing in Serendipity’, which was originally coined by fellow Seattle entrepreneur, Dan Shapiro. In an interview on GeekWire, Dan laid it out this way.

“In general, in startups in particular, and as a leader of a startup most specifically, your job is to create serendipity. It is to give it every opportunity for the right thing to happen, magically and by sheer dumb luck.”

Typically, serendipity isn’t something that’s thought to be alterable. The default place for it lies in the ‘dumb luck’ bucket. In my mind, as with most things, serendipity can be hacked. Actions that are taken can increase the likelihood of serendipitous encounters. Chance meetings like an unexpected upgrade to first class that put you next to the eventual acquirer of your company (in Dan’s case) are great examples of that.

So, how can we hack serendipity?

Location

There’s a reason why the Valley is the place to be, it’s where serendipity and chance encounters run rapid. The sheer density of like-minded people produces opportunities that are nonexistent in other parts of the world, at least if you’re in the technology industry. The same holds true for finance folks working on Wall Street. In a digital world, geographical proximity is undervalued, but it’s just as relevant as it ever was. The same value exists in places like Seattle, Boston and New York, but to a much lesser extent.

Network

We all know that network plays a huge role. The difficult question is how to build a powerful one. The former point obviously plays into network, but there’s ways to build from wherever you are – it’s just much harder. Between 2008 and 2011 I was based in Bellingham, a little town just north of Seattle, but my network was highly centralized in Seattle, San Francisco and New York. I attribute much of that to a habit I’ve worked myself into over the years, which is emailing one person that I’ve never met before each week. There’s no agenda attached to the note, the goal is simply to connect with great people on a regular basis. Those emails started long-term relationships that account for at least half of my network today.

Optimism

When it comes to the way you lay out each day, optimism in the likelihood of serendipity plays a large role. Personally, I’ve fallen into the pattern of putting aside optimism and have instead been spending my evenings working, learning and growing. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it leaves an eventual drought on serendipity. Without optimism in the things that sound trivial like grabbing coffee with an old friend, attending a meetup or making a trip out of town for a conference, opportunities simply don’t present themselves.

Clearly this is all stuff that we already know, but context in the way we think about our day to day activities changes the decisions we make.

Hacking serendipity should be a priority.

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