A Networking Lesson From Venom’s Backstory

Venom, the latest comic book/Spider-Man movie, reportedly grossed over $125 million on its opening weekend. That’s good business if you can get it. So where did this Venom character actually came from? What do comic-scribing geniuses do to get these ideas? In this case, it all started with soliciting their biggest fans for input. There’s a lesson in here for all of us.

In the 1980s, Marvel ran contests for aspiring writers and artists to basically pitch an idea. As one might imagine, the notion of contributing to the pantheon of superheroes is a dream to many fans. One aspirational young man named Randy Schueller had the idea that Spidey could have a living, black costume that increased his powers in certain ways. A letter, a few phone calls, and several conversations later, they offered him $220 and thanked him for his time. Nearly 30 years later, that character made its feature-length film debut and pulled in $125 million over a weekend. CBR.com and The Ringer both ran pieces on the character and Randy’s contribution that are worth a read if interested. There’s some real magic in the story.

Ideas don’t grow on trees, but they do grow out of passion and inspiration. We can’t force authenticity unless we really care, which is why Marvel would periodically solicit fans for advice. While they likely got hundreds or even thousands of useless submissions, Randy’s story is a testament to how a small initial investment of time and energy had a massive (and loss-offsetting) payoff at the opposite end. It’s also testament to what happens when a really great team gets set off from an explosive starting point. 

Whether it’s asking people for introductions to find new clients or reaching out to subject matter experts in our extended network, we – like Marvel, should always be focused on keeping our doors open to what economists call asymmetric payoffs. Often times it is the sheer aggregation of these intelligently placed, little, low-cost investments that yield the greatest rewards. The key is twofold: 1. by minimizing the costs or downsides of these activities (meaning they can’t run us out of business), we can survive to withstand lots of tiny losses, and 2. We don’t have to know the upside so much as that it’s optionality exists (Neither Randy nor Marvel had to know that a black-suited Spider-Man would inspire comics, video games, and movies, just that little ideas can fundamentally change the business so they needed to keep an open mind to all corners of their networks).

Making the extra call, sending the extra email, and not being afraid of taking regular long-shots are common themes in success stories. As we think about our businesses, networks, and education, we would be smart to keep this simple principle in mind. Maybe, like Randy we’ll just end up with some letters of proof, but there’s also a chance that like Marvel, we’ll find the ingredients for unexpected success.