Finding the chicken killers

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.

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10 Responses to “Finding the chicken killers”

  1. thom Says:

    Pretty good start Pete, I will keep reading…

    One of the best books ever written is about a chicken killer; it’s called
    About Alice, by Calvin Trillin.

    The first chicken we grow are our children, if you’ll pardon the association … and I think your wife and Alice are of the same tribe — tell me if this doesn’t ring true:

    Trillin writes that Alice believed that if you didn’t attend every performance your children were in, including the Wednesday matinees, then the government could come and take your children.

    I had the same teachers as Obama’s mama. Lucky me. And your children won the lottery, too.

    I’ve got a young man working for me who, when, he was 11, watched a man strangle his father on the front lawn. He’s one of Reagan’s children, so he doesn’t have much of a clue about the real world outside of Hollywood and 7-11’s.

    But he is still a great kid, who can do about anything we eggheads can’t and he’s smart.

    As I see it, therein lies the problem. The queen of the honey bees gets royal nectar for 21 days, the workers: three. Your kids — 21.

    My helper Jason, maybe 8 hours total. This country is a so-called democracy — we can rarely do better than what the average is capable of….

    In my book failure is prologue — never rue it, for it is usually a blessing in disguise.

    This is no secret — most cancer survivors consider it one of the best things that ever happened to them.

    into the wild blue yonder…


  2. Bill McLaughlin Says:


    Loved the post. Since I was there as part of your chicken killer team on the media and analyst relations side I was wondering what kind of chicken that would be. Maybe a they were actually roosters as through them we got the word out about the innovative things Vivo was doing.



  3. Chad Maglaque Says:

    Working with the Vivo team – Mark, JohnB – is still one of the highlights of my career to date. Miss working with you guys. Thanks for the post Pete.


  4. Erika Shaffer Says:

    This kind of inspired me to get up and get those chickens killed. Sometimes I also think there is a lot of talk of killing the chickens or indecision about what should actually be killed that stands in the way of people getting out there and getting things done (moving away from the killing analogy here.)

    I’ve worked with clients who just aren’t sure what they should be doing or even tell us to do things that we say don’t make sense given our understanding of the market, their story etc. I enjoy being a person who gets things done but am the first to admit I like working with other people to figure out what is the right thing to get done to effect the most change and progress. I think what is interesting about this post is just that – the person getting the work done might not be the person who should be 100% deciding what needs doing first! It takes all kinds of people to get the most good out of the doers of an organization.

    And I have to point out that one of the ‘possibly related’ posts above is that now is the time to actually buy the chickens to be killed. So funny!


  5. Phil Yerkes Says:

    Best thing I’ve read all week. Thanks to John Cook for sharing. Pete, hope you’re well.


  6. Finding the Chicken Killers – part two « Open Ambition Says:

    […] Open Ambition The juncture of success and meaningful failure « Finding the chicken killers […]


  7. IanMcK Says:

    Great story Pete – thanks for sharing. I’ve used the expression “chicken killer” recently with two of my employees when describing who they should be looking to hire to join our team. This leads to inevitable requests for explanation. Funny thing is that both of my employees had literally killed and eaten chicken (or at least small game birds) with their hands and simple tools. One explained that he learned how to do it in survival training in the army and the other was taught by her father – an avid hunter…


    • Peter Zaballos Says:

      Well, it sounds like you hired well, Ian, and in the world you navigate in the mobile internet, army survival and hunting seem almost like requisite skills! A whole lot of the unknown to sort out and develop plans in and around, I would think this is the perfect environment for chicken-killers to thrive.

      Given the two team-members you’ve got, I wonder how that might inform your next team offsite’s activities?

      Thanks for the comment, Ian!



  8. Peripateia and the value of getting it wrong « Open Ambition Says:

    […] for discovery and learning, and improving the quality of your results.  This is a benefit of chicken-killing I hadn’t thought […]


  9. Man on Wire – Best Startup Movie Ever? « Open Ambition Says:

    […] do things that are difficult and way outside your comfort zone.  You will find out who the chicken killers are, who can be relied on and who can’t, and most importantly what you can rely upon yourself […]


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