Never underestimate the power of chance! “Planned happenstance” is a career theory introduced in 1999 by Mitchell, Levin and Krumboltz, and it has dominated my career as a whole, including my entrepreneurial journey. I believe, many entrepreneurs are also where they are due to planned happenstance. By some estimates, entrepreneur ventures have a staggering 90% failure rate, making it difficult decision to jump if some happenstance doesn’t push you. But what are the planned happenstances that befell me?

Let’s start with how I obtained my PhD scholarship. I was a software developer working for a commercial company. Out of the blue, I received an email from a former senior colleague. She was having a watercooler conversation with a professor about how she had a research assistant position open.  The requirements for the position made my ex-colleague think of me, and an email quickly ensued.

Taking risks and cultivating skills

I was not looking for a new position, but I have a policy of ‘not saying no to interesting opportunities’ without some exploration. During my interview for the research assistant position, I mentioned that it was my life goal to get a PhD. At that point, the job offer was modified to a scholarship. I wouldn’t have accepted a job offer, but I could not say no to the PhD scholarship.

The story of how I ended up doing a PhD when I did is planned happenstance at its finest. The planning part was the skills I cultivated as well as the social connections I made, often by going out of my way. The senior colleague who remembered me did not have daily contact with me. She noticed me because I made myself known during company-wide events.

My PhD was very applied, and the domain of application was the motion picture industry. The latter was because my PhD was funded through the Centre of Excellence in Creative Industries (CCi). My thesis, “Ontology-Based Information Extraction and Classification: Exploiting User Perspective within the Motion Picture Industry”, was in the field of information retrieval and knowledge management. I calculated expertise based on a domain model and used the results for better information retrieval. Because I had to work closely with experts from the creative industries, I have grown into a much better cross-disciplinary communicator and much more adept at thinking in terms of the big, interconnected picture.

Understanding commercialisation

I also worked on the academic side of my entrepreneurial skills during my PhD, taking advantage of any and all opportunities to study commercialisation that I could. My efforts culminated in obtaining a graduate certificate in research commercialisation. A degree in entrepreneurship is not something I would recommend outside of a compliment to a PhD, but I am glad I took the time to have a formal, academic look at the whole process of commercialisation.

Of course, if you don’t have the skills, people knowing you will amount to nothing. But if no one knows you, they can’t offer you unexpected opportunities. Take for example how planned happenstance struck again for my post-doc. For various reasons, I have always wanted to work in the UK. So for my post-doc, I almost exclusively applied for positions in the UK.

Putting yourself out there

Looking for work can be frustrating and daunting, often made worse by stumbling across opportunities a little too late. That’s what happened with one position listing. I saw it about two days past the application due date. I could have just moved on, but instead, I emailed the professor and made a case for my inclusion in the application process despite the lapsed due date. I never heard back from him, but a couple of weeks later, one of his colleagues emailed me asking me to apply for a position he had open. The first professor remembered me and recommended me to his colleague, even if he never replied back to me. That’s how I secured a three-year post-doc in London, England.

I returned from England at the conclusion of my post-doc for a combination of personal reasons. Following my return, I tried to stay in research but with little luck. Around this time, a friend who had already made the jump from research to startup suggested that I explore developing some of my ideas for research projects into commercial ventures. But how do I even start?

Showcasing expertise

I began by developing my professional portfolio by coding a niche app. My time was my primary development cost, but I did have some monetary outlay from purchasing stock graphics. I also incurred some Facebook advertisement costs as I explored how I could go about promoting an app. I learnt a lot, so my app served its purpose. I was one step closer to my “big idea” about personal health and well-being.

More importantly, apart from my friend, who moved to the US shortly after my return to Australia, I didn’t have any contact within the Brisbane startup space. But then I happened upon an advertisement for Techstars Startup Weekend. I remember looking into it, being confused by it but signing up anyway because, why not?

Developing networks and community

That first Startup Weekend served as a big boost to my entrepreneurial journey. I got to meet people already involved in startups. I got to hear ideas and see what resonated and what didn’t. I started to make connections, and through those connections, I am now in a position where I can realise my ideas around health and wellness, partly through my own startup and partly through my involvement in another startup, Your Happy Place, as the Chief Technology Officer (CTO).

The Your Happy Place CTO position came my way through the new social network of entrepreneurs that I now possess. I met someone at a startup weekend, who knew someone whom they felt I could help. At the two degrees of separation was an urban designer looking to find new ways to gather data about people and how they use places. Before I knew it, I am developing the minimum viable product (MVP) as the CTO of Your Happy Place. The goal of the startup is firstly to empower individuals by enabling them to understand their emotions and their association with the physical spaces they inhabit. But also to use the data to create emotionscapes that will hopefully lead to better urban designs.

Embracing happenstance

To bring it all together, you need to work on your skills and cultivate your network. But you also need to be ready to embrace happenstance when it befalls you. Because for all the planning, you’re best opportunities can come by chance!

About the author:

Dr Sharmin Choudhury (Tinni) does a lot of things and wishes to do more things! She has a double degree in Computer Systems Engineering and Commerce from the University of Queensland. Following that, she worked as a research engineer with Distributed Systems Technology CRC (DSTC), leaving the centre once described in parliament as “gigabyte playpen for propeller heads” to join Mincom, now ABB. She left Mincom to do a PhD in Computer Science with Queensland University of Technology (QUT). While at QUT, she also obtained a graduate certificate in Research Commercialisation. After receiving her PhD, she moved the UK to undertake a post-doc with Middlesex University on a project jointly funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and Ministry of Defence UK. Since returning to Australia, she has slowly transitioned into the exciting but terrifying world of entrepreneurship and startups. She’s currently the CEO of Route 17, operating under the business name Virgo 19, and the CTO of Your Happy Place.