How to Turn a Business Failure Into an Opportunity—Seeking Serendipity-EP 211

March 1, 2024 - 1:17pm -- Selcuk Gulboy
Noah Graff with an INDEX MS42C CNC Multi-Spindle like the one he sold from Spain

How many times has something happened to you that really sucked but then eventually turned out to be a good thing or even a great thing that happened for you? 

Today, I’m going to tell you a story about when a big machinery deal went to hell and then how its failure led to an amazing turn of events—a way better result than if things had gone the way they were supposed to go.

You know. Serendipity.

We’re going to explore how good things can come out of bad things, so the next time when something seemingly bad happens to you, or me for that matter, we’ll be mentally prepared to turn the bad into something really good, or even life-changing.

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Interview Highlights

Spring of 2017, I met up in Stuttgart Germany, with Rogerio, a Brazilian customer, to hopefully broker him an INDEX MS42C mfd. 1999. For those who don’t know, INDEXs are the Mercedes Benz of CNC multi-spindle screw machines. New ones cost millions of dollars, old ones can cost hundreds of thousands. 

As soon as I landed, my Brazilian customer and I drove three hours to go inspect the machine. After checking the machine, Rogerio told me he wanted to buy it, but he asked me to reserve the machine for a few days so he could talk it over with his boss. I warned him that it really wasn’t possible to reserve a machine, no matter what anybody says. But he just couldn’t buy the machine that day, so I asked the seller to reserve it and he agreed.

I stayed the night in Stuttgart, and I when I woke up, I called the seller to touch base again about the machine. Then he told me that he had just sold it. At first, I was sort of baffled when I heard it. It was the kind of thing where the letdown doesn’t register right away. Then I hung up, and yelled some four letter words as the disappointment set in.

I laid in my hotel room bed thinking about what to do next. I had planned the trip to have some extra time available in Europe, something I always used to do when I traveled internationally, just in case various serendipitous occurrences pop up. It’s something you do during the period in your life when you travel to cool places and don’t have any children waiting for you back home.

I had flown across the Atlantic to close a very nice deal that disappeared less than 24 hours after I had arrived, but still I wanted the trip to count for something. 

Lying in bed, I thought about who I knew in Europe who might have machines for sale. I called one my best customers in Barcelona, Spain. I figured I might as well first try calling a destination where I loved to go. I asked him if his company had any machines for sale. He told me they had three INDEX MS42Cs that were around the same vintage as the one in Germany that had gotten away from me. That morning I got on a plane to Barcelona to check them out. 

The machines were in good working condition, and my Brazilian customer was interested, but he couldn’t fly back to inspect the machines for several weeks, so I went back to Chicago in the meantime. 

Three weeks later, my customer was ready to meet me in Spain. As “luck” would have it, my girlfriend at the time and future wife, Stephanie, had lost her job just a few days before. She disliked the job, but she still felt rotten about being let go and didn’t have any new options lined up. The bright side was that now she had free time, so I asked her to come with me on my trip. We would make the trip half business and half vacation. 

Stephanie and I met up with Rogerio in Barcelona. We all went out to dinner and had a great time. He’s a great guy. A few years later I interviewed him for this podcast!

Back to the deal. 

Instead of selling Rogerio one INDEX MS42C, I sold him two MS42C machines! We made a much better deal than I would have if the original deal had gone right. Rogerio got two machines rather than just one, and he received a day of free training from the company selling the machines.

Stephanie and I enjoyed several wonderful days in Barcelona. Then we drove through Basque Country visiting machining companies, ending our roadtrip in San Sebastian, which may be the most romantic place we’ve ever seen.

While we traveled around Spain, a guy from the Netherlands called Graff-Pinkert, looking for a very rare model of multi-spindle screw machine. He wanted two Schutte SF20 chuckers. I quickly remembered that I had a dealer friend in Milan, Italy, who owned two of those exact machines because I had visited him several times. There are just a few Schuttes configured like this in the world, so they stuck in my brain. Those machines had probably been sitting in my friend’s warehouse for 20 years.

Stephanie and I caught a plane to Milan. I sold those machines to the Dutchman on the spot. It was really satisfying to connect the dots around the world that I had created from years of treasure hunting. Graff-Pinkert has done many deals over the years with this Italian dealer, but there were several times I had been to his warehouse and never bought anything. Now those visits had paid off.

Everybody asked me when we got back why I hadn’t asked Stephanie to marry me on the trip. It truly would have been a perfect conclusion to the serendipitous fairytale, but I just wasn’t ready to do it yet. However, we later referred to this trip as our “first honeymoon.”

I can imagine what many folks are probably thinking now. Great story, Noah, but nothing that bad had happened to you. Big whoop, your customer didn’t buy a machine and you wasted some time and money, and your wife didn’t like her job anyway. This is true, but the same concepts that I used to bring about the serendipity in this story can be applied to bigger “problems.” To make those problems turn out to be a good thing in the end.

So let’s analyze what happened in my story.

I’m giving you a caveat before I go any further. These concepts I’m going to talk about apply to having the right mindset. They are a struggle to execute, and I’m not claiming to have mastered them—sometimes I think I’m OK at them. Often I feel stuck like most people out there.

And, I admit that I don’t know what hardships you’re going through, and I’m sure many of you out there have had to deal with a lot bigger problems than I’ve ever had.

On the flip side, when you’re not dealing with horrible problems—just moderate problems—you can think about them rationally. Problems can become puzzles.

Puzzles, NOT Problems

My first principle is that I don’t have problems, I have puzzles.

I stole that beautiful saying from the great music producer Quincy Jones. I read it to myself in the morning before I write out my schedule in an effort to put my head in a rational place.

If you learn to look at all problems as puzzles, like you would in lower stakes situations, then when you are in a truly bad situation you hopefully can take the same rational approach. Just telling myself, “I don’t have problems, I have puzzles” calms me down when a situation is stressing me out. Then it puts me in a mindset to analyze things and figure out a creative solution.

Have Gratitude

My second principle for creating serendipity when I have problems is having gratitude.

If you’re down on yourself, you’re not going to have the energy, the creativity, and the optimism to try stuff that might change your crappy situation. 

Gratitude is scientifically proven to make you feel happier. I know I sound like a zillion other podcasters and authors preaching this, but honestly it works for me.

I dictate a gratitude list into my phone in the morning almost daily.

If you’re feeling really down, try writing or recording a gratitude list. Just saying it into the air doesn’t seem to have the same power for me. 

When you start thinking about the good things in your life and the things you like about yourself, you get shot of dopamine, and you’ll get some sound perspective about the situation. Then you can get back to thinking about problems like puzzles.

Having perspective on your situation is really important to stay positive.

The great negotiation expert Jim Camp once said that the only things you really NEED in life are food, air, and your loved ones. Everything else is just stuff you want. It’s another thing I like to tell myself when I’m frustrated with my circumstances.

But you might be asking now, what do you do when you have real problems? Like lack of food, air, and your loved ones. What do you do when things seem desperate.

Use Desperation as an Advantage

My last principle for creating serendipity is to use desperation as an advantage.

Desperate circumstances can be an advantage to turn a problem into something good.

We hear stories all the time about how being in a desperate place brings people to accomplish things they never thought possible. People undergo pain, and then afterward they have the ability to withstand more pain, which helps them reach big goals and overcome obstacles. 

Also, desperate circumstances can lead you to the point where you’re forced to make changes. You have no choice but to act, to make a tough decision that you may have put off for a long time because you were too afraid to do something. All of a sudden you’re liberated.

For instance, my brother got divorced from his wife, which released him from a miserable relationship and then led him to a new career as a life coach for men. He had struggled to hold onto his marriage for a long time—until finally that was no longer possible. Then he was free. And if you ask him now about how he feels about his failed marriage, he says he’s grateful because he wouldn’t be in such a good place today had it not ended.

I know I haven’t talked about truly horrible things that can happen to you, like the death of loved ones or mental and physical torture. 

But still, I try to believe that all events in the end can be seen as negative or positive. It may take a long time to see the positive effects that come out of tragedies, but they do happen.

Ultimately that result is decided by our mindset.

So remember, the next time things don’t go right for you, having the right mindset has the power to turn something bad into something great. See your problems into puzzles, stay grateful, and use difficult circumstances to your advantage.

This is seeking serendipity

This article was originally posted on

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