“Mr. Lucky” on Success and Giving Back
Mitchell Epstein writes in his book, Mr. Lucky: My Unexpected Journey to Success, that he’s never been “the smartest guy in the room.”
Others might disagree. Epstein helped turn what one colleague described as “the stupidest idea” he had ever heard into a multimillion-dollar software business and started two successful companies focused on loan pricing, helping banks make more money and grow more profitably. Epstein will cop to being lucky—hence the title of his book. He spoke with This Is Capitalism about his journey to entrepreneurship, the role of luck vs. other factors in success, and the joys of mentorship.
Q: You write about some incidences in your book that might make people question whether calling yourself “Mr. Lucky” is fitting: being robbed at gunpoint, losing everything in a fire, and falling off the roof of your house and breaking your arm. So why do you think of yourself as “lucky”?
A: When I was robbed, I only lost money—not my life. My wife, my daughter, and our two dogs escaped our burning house in the middle of the night because my wife woke up and saw this strange glow out the window—our roof on fire. When I fell off the roof of another house after trying to fix the cable signal, I could have been killed or paralyzed if I had landed differently. So yeah, there are people who would say, “It was unlucky you fell or that your house burned down,” but I prefer to look at the positive outcomes.
Q: How do you characterize your success? Is that about luck?
A: The predominance of luck has been in my personal life. In my business life I feel fortunate. Thomas Edison’s keys to success—hard work, stick-to-itiveness, and common sense—resonated with me 100%.
The luckiest aspect professionally is I got into banking as interest rates were being deregulated. From a timing standpoint it was lucky that what I was learning about and becoming skilled at was suddenly significant.
Q: What’s the difference between being “lucky” and “fortunate”?
A: My success didn’t happen because of luck—I worked hard, figured out how to add value for clients, and was always willing to do what was needed to make things happen. The more prepared you are, the luckier you are. Were you lucky that a test was easy, or was the test easy because you had prepared?
I consider myself fortunate because I was able to make a very good living, sell my business, and retire in my 40s. There are plenty of people who work just as hard as I did who are doing it in minimum-wage or low-paying jobs, or for some reason their business just doesn’t take off. Those people are no less deserving than I was—or am.
Q: You started off working for the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta. How did you go from working at a quasi-government agency to being an entrepreneur?
A: The Federal Reserve was a great place to learn and get exposed to a lot of different things, but if you don’t leave a place like that in a few years, you are likely to become a lifer. That is not a bad thing at all, but I felt it wasn’t the path for me. After three years, I felt like I had learned a lot and frankly I was frustrated that I was always rated “outstanding” in my performance reviews, but the difference between my raise and anyone else’s wouldn’t have bought a six-pack of imported beer. I was ambitious for more.
Q: How did you find your entrepreneurial niche?
A: I went to work for a consulting firm and my boss got fired 90 days later. I either was forced to or given the fantastic opportunity to make our department work—you could look at it either way. I worked hard and learned enthusiastically and was able to focus on our clients and make sure they were extremely happy.
I stayed with the consulting firm for 13 years but I was my own little island, and I was able to run it how I wanted. A consulting firm can give you the chance to be entrepreneurial but it isn’t the same thing as being an entrepreneur. I thought about going out on my own a few times but it wasn’t the right time.
Q: How does an entrepreneur know when it is the right time?
A: Well, my experience is a good example of having been fortunate. My employer was selling or closing departments as I was considering going out on my own. I was able to negotiate with them to do an earn-out that allowed me to take 15 of our clients. It was a tiny amount of income—but I took the marketing materials and everything I had created rather than having to start from scratch.
Q: What advice do you have for would-be entrepreneurs?
A: People always think “I can set my own hours.” Yeah, you set your own hours, but they’ll be really long hours.
If you have a spouse or significant other, know it’s going to be hard on the relationship. Recognize that and make sure your relationship is strong enough because you just won’t be as available to be a terrific partner for a while. And you need some way to relieve the stress. I didn’t have a yoga or meditation practice at the time like I do now and I wish I had.
Don’t be afraid to ask a lot of questions and hire the best people you can afford and pay them well! If you don’t pay good people what they are worth, someone else will.
Q: You write a lot about mentoring. Did you have a mentor?
A: I didn’t and I highly recommend immersing yourself with whatever organization you can and getting guidance. As far as being a mentor, it is one of the most rewarding things I have ever done. I can’t encourage people enough to do it. Doing it will make you more introspective which will be a great benefit, but more important is the great joy I derive from seeing people I mentor do well.
Q: Do you wish you had started mentoring earlier?
A: I wasn’t in an organization that provided me that opportunity, and when I started my businesses, I didn’t have the time. But if you have the time or can make the time, do it. It is not only the right thing; it’s very fulfilling.
Q: Is there a difference in the satisfaction you get from mentoring vs. donating money?
A: Giving is important whether it’s time or money. My wife and I do both. But for me, it’s much more rewarding to give time because you see how people are directly benefitting vs. just hearing about it. But I certainly don’t want to discourage people from giving money. Organizations that do good always need more money.