The New Genius

Channeling the best minds of our time
Magazine Contributor
15 min read

This story appears in the January 2000 issue of Business Start-Ups magazine. Subscribe »

Sometimes brilliance sheds new light on common experience. Following are six skills you use every day in growing your business: campaigning, energy, intelligence, promotion, vision and determination. We've spotlighted six people who elevate these abilities to new levels. In the process, they aren't simply illustrating these virtues, they're redefining them. What will it take to succeed in the 21st century? All this, and more . . .

After 13 years of interviewing entrepreneurs, Entrepreneur freelancer Gayle Sato Stodder is a great believer in the presence of everyday genius.


The Blair Witch Team: Eduardo Sanchez & Daniel Myrick

You would have laughed. Two years ago, had anyone proposed to you that a no-name movie shot entirely by handheld camera on a $30,000 budget would take Hollywood by storm in the summer of 1999, you would have chuckled in disbelief. Admit it. A conference with the Blair Witch herself couldn't have convinced you otherwise.

Now, needless to say, it's the creative and marketing teams behind The Blair Witch Project that are having the last laugh. Although this movie is remarkable on many levels, the buzz it generated was nothing short of supernatural. Not only did it lay waste to the Hollywood mythology that equates monster budgets with success, it also laid to rest any lingering notions that word-of-mouth happens by accident.

Consider the dilemma. Blair Witch writer-directors Daniel Myrick, 35, and Eduardo Sanchez, 30, not only had to figure out how to scare up an audience for their film, but also had to generate considerable buzz just to get their film released into movie theaters. Marketing began in June 1998--a full year before the film was released--with the launch of a Web site that told the "back story" of Burkittsville, Maryland's fictional witch.

It cast a spell. What began as an e-mail list to a few dozen friends quickly transformed into 1,700 hard-core believers--many of whom didn't realize the mythology wasn't real. Fan pages went up, hypertext links lit up like Christmas lights, and a cult was born. By the time the movie hit the Sundance Film Festival in January 1999, Blair Witch was no longer a no-name player.

"The buzz at Sundance was certainly stronger because of our site," says Sanchez, who built the original Web site. "A lot of people tell us they spend hours exploring the world we've created around the Blair Witch. They get excited not only about the movie, but about the mythology as well."

Artisan Entertainment, the marketing and distribution company that signed The Blair Witch Project at Sundance, picked up where the unbudgeted Sanchez and Myrick left off. It poured money into the Web site, creating regularly staged events, such as the release of outtakes from a "discovered" film reel. The haul: more than 100 million hits and counting. College campuses were plastered with "Missing Persons" posters bemoaning the plight of Blair Witch's ill-fated characters. The movie's first trailer was leaked to selected Web sites (including Ain't-It-Cool-News). And in July, just before the movie's release, cable TV's Sci-Fi Channel aired a "mockumentary" detailing enough of the Blair Witch legend to start up a scare.

And what a scare it was. Gross receipts for Blair Witch topped $139 million, which just might make it the most profitable movie ever, considering its low initial budget. Though its success will be hard to duplicate, the gritty, cutting-edge techniques used to promote this film have themselves become the stuff of legends.

"The public is like a swarm of bees--it's an organic entity that exists apart from the behavior and characteristics of each individual," muses Robert J. Dowling, editor in chief and publisher of the The Hollywood Reporter. "Blair Witch hooked into that organism. People got caught up in it.

"You talk to any waiter in L.A., and they'll tell you it's impossible to break into this business. Well, these guys proved it's possible. I mean, who were they? Who knew them? They made a movie that a lot of people either didn't like or walked out of, and still they had everybody talking." That's not myth. That's reality.

Improving On Perfection

Tiger Woods

He was still in the crib when the sight of his father knocking golf balls into a net fascinated him. At 2, he putted with Bob Hope on the Mike Douglas Show. At 3, he shot a 48 for nine holes. He was not an ordinary kid with an interest in golf. He was a natural, a prodigy.

He was Tiger Woods.

At 23, Tiger Woods is the top-rated golfer in the world, and he leads the PGA in scoring and all-around play. He doesn't always win, but he's invariably the one to watch. With Woods, you always feel there's the possibility of something remarkable happening--a soaring drive, a miraculous save, some brilliant and unexpected stroke that causes you to rethink the laws of physics. Woods plays golf the way Mozart made music: as if on a divine mission.

"I believe Tiger was blessed with a God-given gift," says Golf Digest senior writer Pete McDaniel, who has been covering Woods since 1994 and who co-wrote Training a Tiger: A Father's Guide to Raising a Winner in Both Golf and Life (HarperCollins) with Earl Woods. "I admit to being somewhat biased," McDaniel continues, "but I also happen to think I'm right.

"Tiger's creativity as a golfer is unbelievable," says McDaniel. "He has a mind's eye like no one else. And not only is he able to see how to make a difficult shot, but he also has the ability to pull it off. Time and again, I've seen him extricate himself from a situation that looked simply impossible. He also has enormous faith in his abilities. Tiger will learn a new shot one day and have the courage to attempt it in competition the next."

Yet Woods is more than a guy with an uncanny knack. From the beginning, he seems to have understood the weight of his predicament. He's never been just a good golfer--or even a really, really good golfer. He's a standout, a breakaway, an exception to the rule. Not just young, but amazingly young. Not just a talented kid, but a person of color . . . in a traditionally uncolored sport.

Which raises the question, What do you do when the odds are against you, the pressure is on, and all you really want to do is play through? If you're Woods, you go to work. Instead of relying on sheer genius to carry him forward, Woods has been tireless about improving his game. "I'm not saying his [brilliance] is all hard work," says McDaniel. "I could train forever and never even approach his level of ability. But he works very hard to perfect the gifts and talents he's been given. He doesn't take anything for granted."

And Woods accepts that genius is more than a gift or a tool; it's also a responsibility. In 1996, he established the Tiger Woods Foundation to get inner-city kids involved in the game of golf, to support educational and employment opportunities for disadvantaged communities, promote parental involvement in children's lives, and advocate racial harmony and inclusiveness.

This work is obviously important, but perhaps no more important than Woods' continuing determination to play out his own success. Whatever rewards that success brings--celebrity, money, status--maybe none of it matters more than what Woods personifies: Accepting the gifts, life's gifts. And doing everything in your considerable power to honor them.


Daniel DiLorenzo

Daniel DiLorenzo was so busy studying for his MBA, his Ph.D. and his MD that he apparently never got the message that one of these careers would have been enough. Even his father suggested he might choose: Be a hotshot entrepreneur or an MIT-trained engineering Ph.D. or even a Harvard/MIT-educated neurosurgeon. Pick any one, son, because they're all fine.

If only DiLorenzo, 33, had listened. Then MIT might not have singled him out as one of the most promising young inventors in the nation. Last year, DiLorenzo won the $30,000 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize for being an innovator and a role model for young inventors. His work centers on medical electronic devices that help people with neurological problems function more effectively. One project he worked on at MIT, for example, involved implantable microelectrodes that enable artificial limbs to communicate with nerves in the arms of amputees.

Hence the need for the triple-threat education: "Each part of my background has been important to understanding how the pieces intersect," says DiLorenzo. "From the medical side, I'm learning a great deal about everything from patient concerns to surgical issues. From the engineering side, I've learned how to approach and solve problems. And from my business training, I understand the importance of issues such as reimbursability." Without a certain depth of education, DiLorenzo maintains, "there are a lot of failure modes."

As DiLorenzo completes his first year of neurosurgical residency at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, he admits his path hasn't been the shortest route to success. "I have friends who are worth tens of millions of dollars because of entrepreneurial ventures they've already formed," he reports. But if DiLorenzo stays on track, he'll collect dividends as well.

"I believe that if you're addressing a big problem, there's going to be a financial payoff," he says. "And if this work results in viable and efficacious treatments for people with spinal cord injuries and other neurological problems, the personal payoff will be huge."

DiLorenzo's course of study isn't in the cards for most entrepreneurs. But he believes his approach to learning and innovating can be. "By far, persistence is the most important factor to achieving your goals," he says. "One should sense a destiny and relentlessly pursue its realization, despite its perceived impossibility." What seems unlikely may be nothing more than living up to your potential. Hey, it's business, engineering and neurosurgery--not rocket science.

Creating A Buzz

Tina Brown

It's a waste of four letters. Naming Tina Brown's new magazine Talk is an extraneous effort. "Most people I know are simply calling it `Tina Brown's new magazine,' " reports public relations expert Anthony Mora, CEO of Anthony Mora Communications in Los Angeles and author of The Alchemy of Success: Marketing Your Company/Career Through the Power of the Media (Dunhill). "[In the film business,] that's the kind of billing usually reserved for big stars and major directors. Somehow, she's managed to get her name above the title."

In fact, 45-year-old Brown's name belongs above the title. Nowhere else in the kingdom of magazines is an editor's profile as significantly--and profitably--tied to her product. Tina Brown isn't simply a genius at branding. Tina Brown is the brand.

How big an accomplishment is that? Just try naming a half-dozen other magazine editors off the top of your head.

Brown's editorial talent is undeniable. Although she's drawn plenty of fire for being a provocateur (think Demi Moore naked and pregnant on the cover of Vanity Fair--vintage Brown), she never throws a party to which nobody comes. Her four-year stint at Britain's Tatler--begun in 1979 when Brown was only 25 years old--saw a 300 percent rise in circulation. During the eight years she held court at Vanity Fair--from 1983 to 1992--circulation at the magazine quadrupled.

But it was as editor of the New Yorker that Brown found her groove. "Not everyone liked what she did at the New Yorker, but she created a lot of furor," says Mora. "And that translated into a very high profile. She was quite visible as editor of Vanity Fair, but she developed a very clear persona as editor of the New Yorker."

In her new incarnation, as chair and editor in chief of Talk, the mystique has only intensified. Brown is the center of everything current, stylish, literate and fresh. "It's not just that she goes to the right places," says Mora. "It's that a place becomes the right place because she is there."

If it were possible to deconstruct that magic and to distill that formula, everyone could be prom queen. Until then, entrepreneurs can take a page out of Brown's book. "In the new millennium, the cult of personality will be more important than ever," says Mora. "People who can create a buzz for themselves--in addition to their products or practices--will have two areas they can promote," with potentially potent results. Talk's premier issue sold out of its initial 1 million copies and had to return to press for an additional run of 300,000--evidence that "Tina Brown's new magazine" really is more than just Talk, Talk, Talk.


George Lucas

It's not just that George Lucas is the imaginative force behind an entire galaxy of fantastic characters, planets and adventures. Nor is it that these worlds seem to spring forth from Lucas' imagination fully formed, like Athena from the head of Zeus. It is that Lucas' vision is so pure, so intense, that it defies the absurdities of the movie business, the technical limits of filmmaking, indeed the very boundaries of reality.

As a writer, director, producer and movie-industry entrepreneur, Lucas has lent his particular brand of magic to a variety of films--ranging from the Indiana Jones trilogy to American Graffiti. But his defining work, clearly, is Star Wars. Here is a universe entirely of Lucas' creation--a statement easily made but not at all easily realized.

Consider the creativity required to dream up brave new worlds of larger-than-life humans, fanciful aliens, robots with personality, other-planetary landscapes and intergalactic vehicles. Formidable, right?

Now consider the challenges involved in translating those images onto film, from the grand questions of plot and setting to the millions of details that go into each frame: What should Princess Leia's opening line be? What sound should a ship's engines make? Lucas' sense of what his universe should look and sound like was so intense that he deviated very little in production from his original storyboards and script.

Still not impressed? Then look a little deeper. Ultimately, the technology Lucas needed--and therefore developed--to make Star Wars and its various sequels and prequels' ever-improving phenomena has simultaneously given rise to an empire of enterprises: Industrial Light & Magic, the premier maker of visual effects worldwide; Skywalker Sound, which provides cutting-edge post-production sound; THX, delivering high-quality sound systems to both movie and home theaters; interactive software maker Lucas Learning Ltd.; video game producer LucasArts Entertainment Co.; Lucasfilm Ltd. and Lucas Licensing Ltd. While most mortals would be happy just to count the dollars these various companies have made, Lucas has used a sizeable portion of his profits to fund his projects and secure his creative independence.

At every turn, what would have been an ordinary person's life's work was only one piece of the larger puzzle for Lucas. In retrospect, it's difficult to know which was the greater accomplishment: summoning the dream itself or sustaining that vision with perfect clarity while constructing it brick by innovative brick. Yet, Lucas' epic tale is at root no different from any entrepreneur's. He had a dream. And he made it come true.

Or, in the words of Lucas' friend and colleague Steven Spielberg, "The only explanation I can offer [for Lucas' genius] is this: One day, in a brilliant flash of white light, he saw the future, and he has spent the past 20 years showing it to us."


Lance Armstrong

Lance Armstrong didn't get it. Metastatic cancer. If ever there was an excuse to throw in the towel on the incredible rigors of competitive cycling, he had it. But this guy was not suggestible.

Armstrong, then 25, announced his diagnosis--testicular cancer, which had spread to his lungs and brain--in October 1996. Doctors gave him just a 50/50 chance for recovery. Treatment was aggressive--the removal of a testicle, six hours of brain surgery, three months of toxic chemotherapy. It was enough to lay anyone low.

So why was Armstrong back in the saddle five months after his diagnosis?

Call it denial, call it force of habit, but there was something stubborn about Armstrong's decision to return to cycling. Surely, he knew the odds and felt the sheer impossibility of it. But here was a guy who had devoted his entire life to riding a bicycle--who won his first triathlon at 13, became a professional triathlete at 16, cycled in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics and went on to become one of the world's top riders. For Armstrong, getting back on the bike was more than a recuperative gesture. It was an act of will.

And then it was serious. In May 1998, Armstrong put himself back on the competitive map by winning the Sprint 56K Criterium. Soon after, he landed a place on the U.S. Postal Service team--the only team that would take him. The world seemed skeptical about his ability to reclaim his position as cycling's golden boy. Sponsorship offers and endorsement deals weren't exactly streaming in; still, Armstrong remained dogged.

"I guess I can react one of two ways," he told Bicycling magazine in 1998. "I can say `Hey, listen, I've raced bikes for five or six years; I've been successful' and just move on. Or I can say `I'm pissed, and I'm gonna find a ride somewhere and make everybody look like fools.' "

By now, you know which route he took--the one that led to his 1999 victory in the Tour de France. That he also beat his bout with cancer makes his success even sweeter. He made fools of his detractors, but, more important, he made believers of us all. Fate can throw some nasty twists into your life, but the outcome--as far as Armstrong is concerned--isn't simply a question of which course you take. It's more in the strength of your ride.

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