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Was Bill Gates just a lucky upper middle class kid who happened to stumble into the PC revolution? Or was there something else at work that made him one of the biggest entrepreneurial successes on the planet?

A new book by author James Collins — known for his business titles such as “Good to Great” and “Built to Last” — explores that very topic by digging into the very elusive topic of luck. Collins printed an essay in The New York Times today related to his research, using the Microsoft co-founder as his test case.

It’s a fascinating read, and Collins introduces a new concept called ROL or Return on Luck. Basically, his thesis is that the very best entrepreneurs take advantage of both good (and bad) luck, harnessing it to their advantage.

According to Collins, Gates wasn’t the only American kid who was born to well to do parents in 1950s, nor was is the only kid who had access to computers at prestigious schools or knew how to program in Basic. Collins writes:

But how many of them changed their life plans — and cut their sleep to near zero, essentially inhaling food so as not to let eating interfere with work — to throw themselves into writing Basic for the Altair? How many defied their parents, dropped out of college and moved to Albuquerque to work with the Altair? How many had Basic for the Altair written, debugged and ready to ship before anyone else?

Thousands of people could have done the same thing that Mr. Gates did, at the same time. But they didn’t.

The difference between Mr. Gates and similarly advantaged people is not luck. Mr. Gates went further, taking a confluence of lucky circumstances and creating a huge return on his luck. And this is the important difference.

Interestingly, that passage parallels some of the comments made last week by entrepreneurs Rich Barton who spoke at the GeekWire Meetup in Seattle.

Bill Gates speaking at the University of Washington

“I would argue that it is just as likely that you will succeed if you swing for the fences as if you bunt, and the outcome will be much more magical,” said Barton, who had some good fortune for himself at both Expedia and Zillow.

The debate over luck in startup ventures has sparked an interesting debate on the Seattle Tech Startups list.

“If you or your startup happens to be lucky, by all means do everything you can to capitalize on it,” wrote Puzzazz founder Roy Leban. “But, even with luck, it’s all about execution.”

You often hear entrepreneurs say they’d rather be lucky than good. But, at least in the cases of some of the top innovators, they seems to have the killer combination of both.

What do you think? And how has luck — both good or bad — played a part in your business?

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