Short story: The Success Predictor

He felt exhilarated, confident he’d got it made.  Like a trainspotter witnessing a lovingly restored steam engine emerging from its shed, he knew perfection when he saw it.

Most people would have thought that breaking free from the Institute, with its job-for-life security and badge of respectability, was a rash move.   But George Silvester, not yet 30, was never given to self-doubt. 

‘Are you quite sure you want to do this?’ the Principal asked, having just read George’s letter of resignation.  ‘I could tear it up and we could forget the whole thing.’

‘Thanks for the offer, but I’m quite sure I’m doing the right thing.’  George squinted back through his thick lenses, gently stroking his goatee beard − a mannerism he had cultivated when he wanted to look studious and worldly-wise.  

‘Well, if you insist.  I must admit,’ the Principal chuckled, ‘life will be a lot easier without you continually whinging about the way we do things.  But we’ll be sorry to lose you.’

George smirked at the backhanded compliment.  ‘Thanks, but I’ve done my research, got all the ducks in a row and secured a lucrative contract.  I’m definitely onto a winner!’

‘Well, good luck to you,’ the Principal said insincerely,  ‘one has to admire your pluck.’

George had always been a loner.  A slight figure with an unruly mop of hair, at school he had hated any sporting activities, preferring to read a book or play chess, twitching with glee as he plotted his opponent’s downfall.   He was academically gifted, worked hard and emerged from university with a BSc, first class, in Mathematics and Statistics.  Remarkably, he’d never been picked on nor bullied.  People just left him to his own devices.

George’s decision to quit his job at the Institute and become self-employed could be traced back to his initial obsession with doodles.  He couldn’t help but notice how often his students, ostensibly listening to his lectures, whiled away the time by doodling on their notepads.  George was an uninspiring lecturer.  He considered lecturing to be a chore, taking him away from his precious research projects, but his contract required him to deliver a few hours of lecturing each month so, grudgingly, he obliged.  

George saw that his students’ doodles fell into two broad categories: those with predominantly straight lines and those with predominately curved lines.  At first he thought it might be a gender thing − women inclined to ovals and circles and men to squares and triangles − but he quickly realised this was too simplistic.    

Might there be, George wondered, a correlation between the type of doodle and academic performance?  Perhaps students who doodled using straight lines out-performed those who were predisposed to curves?   Or vice versa?   Or might the type of doodle be something to do with differing personalities?  For example, straight for extraverted, curved for introverted?  Or vice versa?  

He researched ‘significance of doodles’ and found over 16 million entries on the web, but everything he read seemed to be pure conjecture, just home-spun stuff with no scientific basis.

Intrigued, he decided to conduct an experiment.   He’d deliver an even more boring lecture than usual and conclude by inviting his students to hand in whatever doodles they had produced.  He’d stress that participation was entirely voluntary and promise to share the results of his analysis with those who were interested.

All went according to plan, apart from some students dozing off rather than doodling and two Chinese girls who, giggling deferentially, claimed they hadn’t doodled because they’d found the lecture so enthralling!   George received 28 pages of doodles from a class of 45, more than enough for a preliminary analysis.

George set to work, but his attempts to sort the doodles into meaningful categories and correlate them with academic performance proved fruitless.  One evening, after easily winning a game of chess against Dave, a fellow statistician at the Institute, he shared his frustration.  ‘I’m sure doodles signify something, but exactly what eludes me right now.’

‘You’re on a hiding to nothing with something as daft as doodles,’ Dave laughed.  ‘Even Freud gave up on them.’

‘Yes, but surely they can’t just be random?  They must have some significance.’

‘Maybe, but no one has sussed it out and it’s not for want of trying.  Your only hope is to reduce the variables.’

‘No doubt, but it would be a nonsense to dictate what people should doodle.  Surely free expression is of the essence?’

‘Ah well, I’ll leave you to sort out that conundrum but, if I were you, I’d turn my attention to something more worthwhile.’  Dave stooped to tie up his shoe lace.  ‘How about why the lace on my right shoe undoes itself, never my left? ‘

‘Very funny,’ said George.  ‘A double bow would sort that out.’

‘That would undoubtedly solve the problem but fail to explain why it happens.’

‘If you don’t mind, I’ll stick with doodles.’

‘Well, don’t say I didn’t warn you,’ said Dave, putting on his anorak and stuffing his things into a small rucksack.

George mulled over the conversation.  Reduce the variables.  He knew that was the key, but how?

Then he had his brainwave, his lightbulb moment.

It took a further two years of experimentation, thoroughly testing the reliability and validity of his discovery, before George was ready to launch his website.  He had been canny enough not to divulge his formula to anyone, neither was it written down anywhere.  It was just in his head.  

George designed his own website: SuccessPredictor.org.  It was unashamedly boastful, claiming to predict, with 99.9% accuracy, whether an aspiring entrepreneur would be successful.   There were no upfront fees to pay, just a contract to sign giving George a 10% stake in the entrepreneur’s business venture.  George was happy to wait for his rewards, confident that in the fullness of time the accuracy of his success predictor would make him a very wealthy man.

But absolutely nothing happened: very few visitors to his website and certainly no takers.

‘You need some enthusiastic endorsements on social media from the likes of Richard Branson and James Dyson,’ Dave suggested after suffering another humiliating defeat at chess.  ‘How about getting a dragon from Dragons’ Den on board?’   

George spurned television and had never seen the programme, but he watched some videos of the Dragons putting would-be entrepreneurs through their paces and quickly realised they were missing a trick: they spent too much time scrutinising the viability of the business offering and not enough assessing whether the proposer was a winner. 

George knew, just knew, they should be using his success predictor.  

He contacted the BBC and with his usual conceit more or less said ‘here I am, come and get me’.  He was invited to a meeting with one of the programme’s researchers, a young, earnest-looking woman called Rachel.  They sat in a corner of the cafeteria.

‘So,’ said Rachel, consulting a document on her clipboard, ‘you say you are able to predict the likelihood of a venture being successful?’

‘Yes, absolutely.  Not just the likelihood, the certainty.’  George stroked his beard and gave Rachel one of his self-satisfied smiles.

‘But how can you possibly do that?  If we’re to go forward with this then we’ll need irrefutable evidence, cast iron proof, that it works.’

‘I’m afraid I can’t divulge exactly how it works, that must remain a commercial secret.  But I’m happy to provide you with all the statistical data backing up my claim.’

‘Well,’ said Rachel, standing up abruptly to signify the meeting was over. ‘Send us the data and we’ll take it from there.’

‘Sure,’ said George, ‘but don’t leave it too long.  Lots of other people are showing a keen interest,’ he lied.  ‘I’m giving you first refusal.’

‘Just send us the data and we’ll take it from there,’ Rachel repeated, seemingly unmoved at the prospect of competitors’ scrambling to secure rights to the success predictor.  She escorted George to the lift without saying another word.   

George duly submitted his data and after a few weeks was pleased to receive an invitation to another meeting.   This time he was ushered into a small side room where, after a fifteen minute wait, he was joined by two middle aged men.  There was no sign of Rachel. 

‘Thanks for coming in, Mr Silvester,’ said the man with greying hair.  ‘I’m Harry, one of the producers of Dragons’ Den, and this is Stuart from the BBC’s legal department.  We have looked at your research findings and found them very interesting.  We’ve taken the liberty of running them past a statistician and he has confirmed that your methodology appears to be sound.’

‘Just as I expected.’ George smirked.

‘However,’ Harry continued, ‘I’m afraid we cannot proceed unless you are prepared to share your formula with us.  We require total transparency.  No transparency, no deal − it’s as simple as that.’

‘But,’ said George, stroking his goatee beard, ‘if I told you exactly how my success predictor works I’d have no bargaining power.  You could just copy my discovery.’

‘Mr Silvester, I can assure you that’s not the way we do business,’ said Stuart, the lawyer, quietly, as if aghast at the possibility of any skulduggery. ‘You must appreciate that we have contracts with thousands of creative people and our reputation depends on respecting their intellectual property.  In fact, we are prepared to offer you a generous upfront fee but it is conditional upon you being entirely open with us.  It’s a matter of trust.’

”A fee? ‘ George gazed at them through his thick lenses, keeping a straight face and concealing any signs of excitement.

‘Yes,’ said Harry. ‘Our offer is set out in this document which you are welcome to take away and peruse at your leisure.’  He slid an envelope across the table.  ‘In summary, we are offering you a one-off payment of ten thousand pounds in return for the exclusive use of your success predictor and thereafter we’ll pay you a consultancy fee of twenty thousand pounds per programme.  As you know, we make ten programmes per season so I’ll leave you to work out the maths.’  He smiled at George.  ‘We very much hope you’ll decide to work with us and look forward to a beneficial collaboration.’

‘Thank you,’ said George.  ‘I felt sure you’d see the merits of using the success predictor.’

‘And,’ Harry added, ‘as you are probably aware, versions of Dragons’ Den are produced in approximately 30 other countries around the world and, whilst we can’t make any promises, it is highly likely that your success predictor will be of interest to at least some of them.’

As soon as George had left the building and turned the first corner, he punched the air and let out a whoop of joy.  Passers-by looked at him askance and gave him a wide berth.  On the train journey home he calmed himself and read through the contract a couple of times.  He gazed out of the carriage window.  Might it be worth seeing if they would stump up more?  But surely a contract worth £200 thousand pounds per annum, plus the possibility of more from foreign versions of the programme, was more than adequate?  Especially for such a simple discovery.

George duly signed the contract together with a legally binding clause forbidding him from disclosing anything to anybody about his association with the programme.  It was to be a clandestine collaboration.  Not wishing to appear too eager, he waited for a few days before posting it, together with details of how the success predictor worked, by recorded delivery.   By return came a countersigned copy of the contract and a cheque for ten thousand pounds.        

Then nothing happened: no calls, no involvement in the programme.  Nothing.

George emailed Rachel only to receive a curt, out-of-office reply.  He phoned and a secretary, claiming to know nothing about his contract, promised that someone would get in touch.

But they didn’t.  He phoned again asking to be put through to Harry or Stuart but was told they were abroad attending a conference and would be in touch upon their return.  George waited anxiously but still nothing happened.

One evening, feeling fraught after Dave had beaten him at chess, a rare reversal of the usual outcome, George decided, despite the non-disclosure agreement, to tell him about the arrangement.  ‘Do you remember you suggested I should get in touch with the Dragons’ Den people?’

‘Anything come of it?’

‘Yes, I’m not supposed to tell anybody, but they gave me a contract.’

‘Great!  So why are you looking so glum?’

‘Well, I can’t understand it,’ George shook his head.  ‘It seemed such a promising deal but nothing has happened and they aren’t answering my calls.’

‘And you’ve agreed they can have exclusive use?’

‘Yep, that’s right.’

‘For how long?’

‘In perpetuity.’

‘What?  You clown, they’ve got you stitched up.’

‘How come?’

‘My guess is you’ll never hear from them again.’

‘But why?  I don’t get it.’

‘Because they’ve realised your success predictor would wreck the programme.’

‘Wreck the programme?  How come?’

‘Think about it. The entertainment value of Dragons’ Den thrives on uncertainty.  Being able to predict the success of a venture would remove the need for the dragons to take a gamble when deciding whether or not to invest their time and money.’  

‘So what can I do?’

‘Absolutely nothing, mate.  They’ve decided to gag you.  Simple as that.  You’d better get to work and dream up something else.’

George, in a rare display of emotion, slammed his fist on the table.  Chess pieces scattered as if taking fright.  ‘Bloody hell!  And I was sure I was onto a winner.’

‘Dare I ask,’ said Dave, ‘if you took your success predictor yourself?’

‘How could I?  It would be like marking my own homework.  I invented the bloody thing.  I was the only person in the world who knew how it worked.’

‘And how does it work?’

‘Simple.  You just ask someone to draw a road disappearing into distant hills.  Successful entrepreneurs draw roads with straighter lines than those that are destined to fail.  Meandering roads are a sure sign of failure.’

Dave laughed.  ‘You’re kidding!  And they gave you ten grand for that?  Cheer up, mate, you should definitely clock that up as a triumph.’

George looked unconvinced.      

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