I got a lot of positive feedback and comments on Finding the Chicken Killers, where I explained what the concept of a chicken-killer was but stopped short of providing an example of one. Let me tell you about someone who was on my marketing team at Vivo.
[This is a longer post than usual; I hope you find it worth it!]
Ann-Marie was responsible for our online marketing, our website marketing, and our demos at Vivo. She grew up in a large Italian-American family outside Boston; while she was polite and well spoken, she had a nice independent streak.
The situation was this. We were now 18 months into the turn-around of the company, marketing our internet video product VivoActive. We’d become the market leader, but internet video was still small compared to internet audio, and RealNetworks was the big gorilla out there. Oh, and Microsoft was trying to muscle into the market; they’d recently licensed Real’s product and were giving it away for free (but not really marketing it). How’s that for being neighborly?
We’d aligned ourselves with Microsoft and could create internet video in their format. VivoActive together with Microsoft’s server made a complete solution, and we had their marketing and sales teams promoting it to their customers. The plan of course was to get Microsoft to buy us.
The bad news was we were running out of cash (we had about six months left), and we needed to sell the company – remember, we were on a Series D financing. There was no appetite for a Series E.
So, the CEO, my BusDev director, and I got on a plane and went to Redmond to try and move/force the conversation along, but all we got was a tepid commitment to consider an investment.
We came back from that meeting frustrated and depressed. The three of us were in our conference room, trying to figure out what to do. It was almost as if a literal light bulb went off when one of us said “Companies buy their enemies to take them off the market… who are we an enemy of?”
Holy cow. RealNetworks. Were so aligned with Microsoft; we could be a big threat to RealNetworks. We had at best an arms-length relationship with them (meaning relations were generally frosty). How could we get them to feel threatened, really threatened, very quickly?
So, I suggested “What if we let all the RealNetworks customers know they could replace the server they bought from Real with the free one from Microsoft? All they’d need to do is pay us $500 for VivoActive.” Hmmm… replace your $50,000 RealServer with a $500 alternative. That sounded workable.
But how to pull this off? We needed to quickly find out who was using RealServers and then somehow contact enough of them to make this a credible threat. I got my team together, and Ann-Marie was the first one to come up with an idea. “We can use Wired’s HotBot search engine to find web pages with the .ram file the RealServer embeds on pages with the media file, and then find out who the company is that owns those pages. We can look up who the exec team is at the company and send an email offer to them.” Great idea, but a lot of work. She agreed to take the lead on pulling this all together.
Working backward from our cash-out date, we’d need to get this done within the next few weeks. Otherwise, we’d run out of money in the middle of the negotiations.
Ann-Marie showed up at the next war-room meeting and said she’d gone through the process a few times; it was working, but it was going real slowly. I suggested she have our receptionist, Amy, help her out. Away she went.
The next day Ann-Marie came back, deflated. She and Amy had only been able to build a database of about 50 customers. This was going to take too long. More brainstorming. Ann-Marie offered to see if some of the developers could be pulled off their projects to lend a hand.
The next day everyone was looking haggard and tired. Ann-Marie showed up, looking worse than any of us. “I was up most of last night. I realized we’re never going to get this done on time, even with the developers.”
Then she said “But I realized we could do this differently. I wrote an automated script that queried HotBot and wrote the results into a log file, and then I wrote a script to filter out the domain name of the page where the content was hosted. I wrote another script to take that domain and query the “whois” database, and found out who the system administrator of the site was, and then put the email address and wrote it into another log file.” The system administrator was a long way from the guy who paid for the RealServer, but it was close enough.
“It’s working really well; I’m up to about 700 names so far, and should be up to about 2,000 by tomorrow.”
Around the table, jaws were bouncing off the floor. Ann-Marie hadn’t just killed the chicken, she’d plucked it, dressed it, and had it in the oven, roasting.
We got cracking. It was like a commando movie. We quickly established a launch date for the emails. Everyone had their task and took off. I finished off the copy and reviewed the design of the email. My busdev director made 1000% certain we had the license agreement in place.
Two days later, we were ready to go. We briefed the CEO and the rest of the exec team on the plan. Ann-Marie wrote a script (her new core competency) to send the emails out at midnight.
The next morning we came in, eager to see the results. By mid-morning we had lots and lots of irate emails from system administrators and, as a result of the system administrators forwarding them, a good portion of similar emails from business execs at companies who were loyal to Real. Irate was good. Especially when many of the forwarded emails also copied the account manager at Real or even Rob Glaser, Real’s hyper competive CEO.
Lots of tension; everyone ate their lunches at their desks. A little after 1pm, our CEO came walking down the hallway, a huge, huge grin on his face.
“Rob Glaser just called. They want to talk about buying us. I’m heading out to Seattle, tonight.”
I kid you not, it unfolded that cleanly. A little over twelve hours after sending those emails.
By the time the acquisition was complete, our CEO was neck deep in chickens, killed. But Ann-Marie was the one who so matter-of-factly and so fearlessly got that first chicken out of the way, and made it all possible.