Editor’s note: Scott Weiss is a partner at Andreessen Horowitz and the former co-founder and CEO of IronPort Systems, which was acquired by Cisco in 2007. He works with companies like Lyft, Dwolla, Platfora, Bluebox, App.net and Quirky. Follow him on his blog or on Twitter @W_ScottWeiss.
In many of the old war movies, every elite unit has at least one member that has the critical talent to make something out of nothing: the scrounge. You know this guy: when everyone is out of rations or ammunition and the truck is broken down, he quietly heads out. The next day, when all hope of completing the mission seems lost, the scrounge comes rolling up in a freshly repainted jeep, full rations, ammo, and, stereotypically, a case of cold beer. How did he do that? Where did it all come from? “Don’t ask,” he growls, “Let’s get movin’.”
Harvey Keitel’s Winston “The Wolf” Wolfe in Pulp Fiction is another iconic fix-it guy. He comes directly from a party in his tux to “clean up” the situation. I love his “Can I get some coffee?” calm demeanor as he carefully assesses the situation, starts prioritizing, and then takes swift action to get Jules and Vincent out of their blood-soaked jam.
During a crux scene in Apollo 13, the engineers in Houston realize they have to somehow fit the Command Module’s square carbon dioxide filter in the Lunar Module’s round receptacles if they want everyone to keep breathing. They got together in a room, dumped the box of materials available to the astronauts on the table and said, “Here’s what we have to work with…” After working for a tense few hours, they cobbled together a solution with step-by-step instructions for the oxygen-starved astronauts. That scene always gives me goose bumps.
All of the successful entrepreneurs I know are part-scrounge, part-Wolf, with a good dose of calm-under-pressure space jockey thrown in. In other words, they are ridiculously resourceful. It’s this magical combination of wicked-smart, tenacious as hell, works harder and longer than most people think is humanly possible, thinks way outside the box and is also unbelievably passionate and compelling. In short, they have special tools to just get shit done.
Special, but not unobtainable.
Over the years, I’ve noticed some patterns and methods that explain how great people manage to pull off the impossible. And with Mr. Wolfe’s permission, here they are:
“Crack the egg with a sledgehammer.” This was a quote from my VP of Engineering, Nawaf Bitar, at IronPort. When IronPort anti-spam wasn’t working and it looked like our partner Brightmail was going to terminate our contract, we had a complete “Oh shit!” moment. Nawaf moved the entire engineering team over to work on it. He called them all in to work nights and weekends until it was fixed, and urgently sought out every anti-spam expert on the planet to help or to hire. Other people would have done one or two of those things – he did them all simultaneously and immediately. Nawaf saved our bacon.
Set a measurable goal and brainstorm like hell. When we were developing our first product at IronPort, we desperately needed to get feedback from email administrators at large companies. Our dream was to quickly talk to 50 of them to get to a critical mass, but how the hell do you do that when you don’t know any? We brainstormed, tested, stalked, and leaned on our networks. We made a list of the Fortune 500 and tried to line up anyone we knew on the inside. We all went through our school alumni networks.
“Can you introduce me to someone who runs your email? Who do you call when email goes sideways?” Everyone we did get through to was pumped for information to get to more: “What conferences do you go to? What do you read? Who else can you introduce us to?” We reached 43 of the exact right people — not quite 50, but it did the trick.
Cheat time. During a board meeting last year, Quirky’s CEO Ben Kaufman recounted a story about preparing for a critical Home Depot meeting. Quirky was just starting to build things for the “connected home” and Home Depot was a dream opportunity. When he got the call in New York one afternoon that the home improvement giant could squeeze him into a new product-review meeting the very next day in Atlanta, he brought nearly the whole company in for an all-night prep session. They split up into five different teams and came up with seven working products — overnight. They packed up prototypes of a Wi-Fi-enabled mousetrap, garage opener, smoke detector and water sensor, among others, and then slept on the flight down. A month later, Home Depot ordered $7 million worth of products.
“Insanely violent passion.” This is a phrase that I’ve heard used to describe Andrew Rubin, the CEO of Illumio. Andrew came out to Silicon Valley from the Midwest with virtually no connections. Within 18 months he raised two rounds of capital and hired one of the best leadership teams I’ve ever seen. How did he do it? Andrew “glows in the dark.” He is so charismatic, compelling, logical, and excited about what he is pursing that you can just feel the energy — even see it glow. Getting to the right person often requires a series of small baton passes or jumping from lily pads of different people to get to your destination.
Andrew was unrelenting when it came to asking for suggestions and pursuing connections and introductions from just about everyone. And since he came across so passionate and compelling, people actually felt like they were building social capital by helping him.
Foot squarely on the line. I wouldn’t suggest that being resourceful has anything to do with doing something illegal or unethical, but I’ve definitely noticed a pattern of being “creative.” When my then head of sales, Shrey Bhatia, was trying to close a $900,000 purchase order from DoubleClick in New York, he called up the CIO and said, “Hey, I’ll be in New York tomorrow, could I drop by for 15 minutes to discuss this?” Of course, he had no intention of going to New York unless the CIO confirmed the meeting. When the CIO finally did, at around 7 p.m., Shrey turned his car around, jumped on the red-eye, slept on the plane and brought home the order the next day. We had the check framed.
Pulp Fiction’s Winston Wolfe is obviously a fictional character, but the stereotype he represents is worth exploring. A guy that’s seen it all, he’s completely unflappable, methodical and decisive. How did he get that way? Like an old sea captain, he is the sum of so many hard-earned life experiences of living on the edge.
While there’s no substitute for real experience, I believe it helps to hear and share stories of resourcefulness in action — almost like case studies in school. With every new account, we open our mind to a new path to take and learn the tactics that others have used to overcome much larger obstacles than the ones that are currently in front of us. I’d love to hear about more “great moments in resourcefulness” in the comments section.
Photo: Bobby Bank/WireImage.com