Don’t Play with Dead Snakes, and Other Management Advice

“If you see a snake, kill it. Don’t play with dead snakes. And everything looks like a snake at first.” This sounds like it might be advice from a paranoid outdoorsman. But its author, Jim Barksdale, meant it as a guide to the business world that dangerous environment where, famously, only the paranoid survive.

During a long and illustrious career that is far from over (you can read all about one of his most recent ventures — building the most direct fiber-optic connection between Chicago and New York – in Chapter One of Michael Lewis’s new book), Barksdale has become a big believer in the value of the folksy aphorism as management tool. The Mississippi-born former IBM salesman, FedEx COO, and CEO of AT&T Wireless and Netscape Communications argues that funny sayings, especially if they involve animals, stick with people in a way that PowerPoint strategy slides usually don’t.

There are whole collections of Barksdale sayings online. Lots of them aren’t original to him, but former colleagues still tend to identify them with him. Which is why, when I got Barksdale and his fellow former Netscaper Mark Andreessen on the phone recently to talk about Barksdale’s pithy take on the role of bundling and unbundling in business strategy, conversation inevitably turned to some of his other proverbs. What follows is the continuation of that discussion, edited for readability and length:

HBR: Marc, are there any other Barksdale sayings you can think of with key strategic implications for today’s business leaders?

Andreessen: Well, how about this one? “In the battle between the bear and the alligator, what determines the victor is the terrain.”

Barksdale: I heard that from somebody, somewhere, way in my past life, and used it repeatedly in trying to push people to figure out the right terrain to take on a competitor.

HBR: What do you mean by the terrain, then?

Barksdale:  Well, in the animal world, a bear is not going to whip an alligator in water. And an alligator isn’t going to whip a bear on dry land. So, it’s not just the fighter, it’s the terrain that they’re on, the market they’re in. You know, who’s your customer base that you want to take somebody on in? Where do you want to be in this strategy? I like animal analogies to get the point across, just like parables. People can remember that, they can’t remember some long strategic discussion with a lot of PowerPoint pictures.

HBR: Well, here’s another one. There are lots of these Barksdale sayings online; one can find them pretty quickly. This is Barksdale’s three rules of business. “One, if you see a snake, shoot it. Two, don’t play with dead snakes. And three, everything looks like a snake at first.” What does that mean?

Barksdale: Well, when we were first getting started at Netscape, and I was the old man working with Marc and all of his 18-year-old buddies, it seemed like they used to love to have get-together meetings to discuss problems that could have easily been resolved at the base level. They could have just taken care of it.

So, the first rule of snakes is, if you see a snake, which is a problem — I had to explain that to one lady who accused me of not liking snakes — you kill it. You don’t shoot it, by the way, you kill it. It’s hard to shoot a snake. Anyway, you kill it. Just take care of it.

The second rule is, once it’s taken care of, don’t keep having debates about it, which is don’t play with dead snakes. And one time, Marc may remember, I cut off the heads of a bunch of little rubber snakes and threw them out in the audience of Netscapers. They loved that and stuck them on their cubicle walls to remind them. Just keep moving forward. Even if you’re wrong, just keep moving. We were so anxious to get products out the door, and we were at lightning speed, thanks to Marc and his folks, we just wanted to keep moving. So, don’t play with dead snakes.

And the last point, which is to me the most important and salient: all opportunities start out looking like a snake. If it wasn’t a problem, there is no opportunity. Because opportunities come from solving problems. So, kill it, don’t play with it, and then they all look like snakes in the beginning. The great business successes have all come from solving some seemingly insurmountable problem. Or non-obvious problem.

HBR:  Any thoughts on that, Marc?

Andreessen:  Well, I’ll give you one more if you want it.

HBR:  Sure.

Andreessen:  It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog.

Barksdale:  That’s very old, and again, not original, but it was useful at some stage. I heard a great speech the other day, the commencement address by this admiral at the University of Texas. He talked about the boat men of the SEAL teams, and how it was not necessarily the biggest guys who could get the boat out and back as quick, but the smaller men who just had more heart.

Andreessen:  Well, if you’ve ever actually spent time in a dog park, you see this all the time, which is, the dominant dog is invariably about 15 pounds soaking wet.

HBR: I want to try one more that’s much more specific than these, about experimenting on the Internet. It goes: “First you try something. Since it’s just software, there’s no need to bend any sheet metal or trouble the guys on the loading docks. Second, you post it on the net. If it works, it’s a product. If it doesn’t, it’s market research.”

Barksdale:  It’s market research, that’s right.

HBR: That’s something that you encountered back at Netscape. It seems to have become very much the ethos of modern digital business, right?

Barksdale:  As an old-line business guy, the most profound thing that hit me when I got to Netscape was that it was so easy to do things on the Internet that were so hard in the hardcore world of transportation or communication.

One of which was market research. Companies used to spend a ton of money testing products with focus groups and market research teams. On the Internet, just put it up. If people hit on it, it’s a product. If they don’t, it’s market research. It didn’t cost you anything, or it didn’t cost you very much.

In other words, you were immediately international. As soon as we brought the Netscape browser up, the beta version, we were worldwide. That was so hard to do in the real world, nobody could even conceive of it. Companies would go 30 years before they’d try their first international businesses. We were immediately international. There were so many things that the Internet brought, and we, being one of the early companies, were able to observe it like it was some new law. It was profound, and it was fascinating, and it was a lot of fun. It also allowed us to move very quickly.

HBR: So, Marc, that ethos of, you just throw something out there and try it, that is sort of becoming this dominant ethos, right?

Andreessen:  This is a really big deal. The changes have continued. Once we were up and running as Netscape, we were able to do new things very fast. But it still took a lot of effort and a lot of money to get Netscape itself, as a company, up and running.

I would say the biggest change is, if you wanted to start a new Internet company 10 years ago, you probably needed to raise $20 million, just to get started. You would spend $5 million on Cisco routers and $5 million on Sun Servers, and $5 million on Oracle software, and then you’d write Yahoo a $5 million check to get distribution. And then you could try all your new ideas.

Today it’s advanced to the point where entire companies can get up and running — to provide global services, in some cases to millions or tens of millions of people — for less than a million dollars. It’s become routine, to a shocking degree. A lot of the Internet startups that we see coming through here raising money are startups that raised a half million dollars, that still have most of it in the bank. It’s four kids and their laptops, and the entire company is run on the cloud, on Amazon Web Services, on, NetSuite, and Gmail. These companies have effectively no capex. It’s literally their laptops and their ramen noodles, and that’s it. And they walk in the door, and sometimes they have five million users in 170 countries. And that’s just a phenomenon that’s never existed before.

HBR: Do you think it’s a potentially temporary phenomenon? Like, it’s this moment when everything’s wide open? Or, do you think conditions are permanently changed?

Andreessen:  I think it’s permanent. I mean, I’m a believer. You’d have to believe the Internet itself fundamentally shuts down or gets much more restricted and controlled, you know, which is why battles around things like net neutrality are so heated. But, as long as the Internet keeps working the way that it fundamentally does, then this is a permanent state of affairs.

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