Archive for the ‘chicken killer’ Category

Finding the chicken killers – part two

March 2, 2009

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?”

RealNetworks.

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.”

What?

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.

Finding the chicken killers

February 24, 2009

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.

Heartbreak and principles

February 7, 2009

Sometimes what we work so hard to accomplish and produce, even in the face of relevant experience and exquisite talent, just doesn’t materialize. How sad to view that as failure. Or rather, how sad to view the outcome as the only measure of success, when you have the opportunity to measure success by examining how you are working along the way.

One of my favorite short stories is “Ball of Fat” by Guy de Maupassant. It concerns a group of six citizens fleeing the oncoming Prussian army by stagecoach, attempting to find safety in a town far away. One of the characters is a plump prostitute nicknamed “Ball of Fat”. The others in the carriage are a range of upstanding citizens who view her with equal parts contempt and curiosity.

As they make their way the group gets hungry. The other five become irritated and cranky, hoarding what little food each has brought. Eventually Ball of Fat produces a veritable travelling feast, and generously shares the food she’s thought ahead to pack. A change in her status takes place, that day’s journey ends with the group treating her almost as an equal.

They don’t make the progress they expected, and have to stay the night in a town that they discover is occupied by the very army they’re fleeing. Circumstances are dire. Will they be held for ransom? Imprisoned? It turns out Ball of Fat is well known to the commander, and when he indicates he will set them free in exchange for an evening with her, the group takes a principled stand protecting her. But time wears on, and it becomes clear there is only one way out of this town. So Ball of Fat, against the protests of her carriage-mates, agrees to this bargain for the good of the group.

In the morning, all is well, the carriage is provisioned, and the group boards, but unlike the sense of shared destiny of the day before, the group shuns Ball of Fat, passing severe judgment on a woman who would “sell” herself. The atmosphere is cold and harsh in the carriage. They make their way along, and members of the group get hungry.

This time the others have planned ahead, and produce a wonderful array of food. Except Ball of Fat, she had no time to think about food (she was busy securing their freedom).  But no one offers food to her, in fact, food is shared liberally to everyone else, but her. The scorn heaped upon her is overwhelming. She slowly begins sobbing. The story ends.

Well, one reaction is “jeez, how bleak and sad”.  But is it really?  Ball of Fat acted generously and bravely, with a clear sense of herself and her values. She made her way through uncertain and ambiguous circumstances making clear decisions and tradeoffs based on principles that were transparent and honest.

My former assistant thought it was “the worst blog idea she’d ever heard”. And she’s partly correct. The message – it’s not about the destination it’s about the journey – is obvious and well trodden. Except because it’s so familiar, I think we spend a lot less time examining this than we would like to admit.

It’s easy to focus on the journey when the terrain is familiar, with familiar unpleasant junctures.  But when truly severe shocks occur, it can be hard to hold onto those principles to guide you. 

This is why I love working with people who have experienced spectacular failures.  You learn a lot about yourself and those around you when the product you’ve been developing and counting on doesn’t work and you miss your revenue plan, strain or destroy customer relationships, and all you know is only time and more hard work will solve the problem.  How you respond then matters a great deal.

Because Ball of Fat is so heartbreaking, it’s too easy to focus just on the heartbreak, and not on how she navigated the heartbreak.  Those principles produced honest and generous responses in the face of stingy and uncomfortable circumstances.  There’s no heartbreak in that.