In early 1996 I was contemplating my next career move, and was taking a serious look at Vivo Software, who had developed the industry’s first software-only desktop video conferencing system. It was four years old, and had gone through three rounds of financing from some of silicon valley’s premiere VCs. But what they’d learned was no one really needed desktop videoconferencing back then (ie they were generating no revenue).
I liked the team a lot, they were being led by an experienced “CEO for hire” who was a well known entity in the venture capital community. He’d been brought on board along with a new round of financing (Series D!) to take the company in a different direction – to pivot the technology to internet video. He wanted to know if I would come on as VP of Marketing. After some serious investigation, I took the plunge.
But the company had been working 80+ hours a week, for four years, and had heard every “success is just around the corner” story under the sun. And here we were, needing to get them excited about success being just around the corner, again.
The first day, the CEO and I were in a conference room talking through the plan to get the company going again, and needed to quickly sort out who was up to the task. He grew up in Texas, and could get to the point with charm and a flair for language that was disarming.
He looked at me and said “Pete, we need to figure out who the chicken killers are here”.
“Huh?” is what I thought, and said with the expression on my face.
I asked him what he meant. He said something very simple: “everyone likes to eat chicken, but when most folks want it, they buy it in the supermarket wrapped in plastic. We need to find the folks who will go out back and kill the chicken themselves because they want it that badly.”
Then I smiled and nodded in acknowledgment.
What he meant was we needed the people who will do the dirty, thankless work, the unpleasant unseen tasks, stuff that most people assume someone else will do for them. It’s the person who you explain something to, they understand it, and only come back to tell you they it got done. And they did it differently than they’d planned or expected, dealt with broken commitments, maybe having to do someone else’s job. They just got it done.
There were going to be a lot of difficult, unpleasant tasks if we were going to take this embryonic internet video technology and make something of it. It gave me a new lens to see my team with; I had two in my marketing team, and we had two in the developer group. It mattered a lot as we restarted the company.
And we did make something of it. 24 months later, we sold the company to RealNetworks (by the time the lock-up expired, the value of our stock increased 10x). Success really ended up being around that corner, and the chicken killers got us there.
It’s crucial to know who these people are where you work, and in your life, if you’re going to get the big meaningful things done. I think about this a lot.
My wife is a chicken killer of the highest order. She can cause incredible, positive structural shifts to be made in the behavior of an organization, can build consensus spanning government and private interests, and can manage complex processes with precision and ease. She does this by making sure that everything and everyone has been considered, including the very unpleasant, messy things that no one else thinks of or quietly tries to avoid.
At her 40th birthday party, in a restaurant filled with her friends from all across the country, I made a toast to her. I’d worked with a friend who was a talented artist, and had transformed what I had written into a folding hand-printed and hand-colored card. At each page, there was a thought or reflection. Everyone had a copy to follow along with.
When I came to “She’s a chicken killer – doing the unpleasant, the tedious. The things that others assume just happen” I got that same look from the audience that I gave the CEO at Vivo.
Then I explained what a chicken killer was, and across the room appeared the smiles, and then nods of acknowledgment.