Street Talk Eight Leadership Secrets of the Airborne Rangers

What the U.S. Army’s elite unit taught twentysomething Internet entrepreneur Sunny Vanderbeck about creating and managing a start-up.

SUNNY C. VANDERBECK IS THE 27-YEAR-OLD CEO OF DATA Return, a fast-growing Internet company that he and two partners started two and a half years ago. Baby-faced, with a shock of dark hair over one eyebrow and a dimple in his chin, Vanderbeck looks more like a college student than a CEO worth millions (at least on paper he’s worth millions). But Vanderbeck graduated from high school at 16, dropped out of college at 17, and credits his success in the “controlled chaos” of Internet commerce to the leadership skills he learned as a soldier in the elite Airborne Rangers, the toughest infantry unit of the U.S. Army.

“I learned how to grow up there,” Vanderbeck says. “It gives you the discipline to do what you need to do.”

On the wall of his Las Colinas office is his motto: “Everything is Possible.” “If you can rally people around a common goal and give them the confidence and tools to accomplish it, they can do anything.” he says.

The parallels between running a business that provides web hosting to Fortune 1000 companies and jumping from a C-130 to seize an airfield under combat conditions are not obvious at first. But spend some time with Vanderbeck and the similarities become clear. He leaps up with the same enthusiasm to draw on a dry-erase board as he does to explain the proper stance for landing a parachute jump.

And his success speaks for itself. After an IPO last October, Data Return’s stock emerged as a high-tech favorite, roaring from $16 to $94, giving the company a value of S3 billion, before tech stocks took a spring beating. Thanks to a partnership with Microsoft and an aggressive sales and marketing team. Data Return is signing up customers as fast as they can hire employees. If Vanderbeck achieves his goal- building Data Return into a Fortune 1000 company-men droves of ambitious computer geeks may be signing up to become Airborne Rangers.

Look for a Challenge, Then Up the Ante

WHILE GROWING UP IN A MIDDLE-CLASS HOME IN FORT WORTH, Vanderbeck showed early signs of entrepreneurship, hiring younger kids to mow his customers’ lawns. But high school was so boring to him that he went to summer classes to get enough credits to graduate at 16. Vanderbeck intended to major in computer science at the University of Texas at Arlington, but ennui kicked in again. “I wasn’t on target at all,” he says. So he chose a different path. He decided that the antithesis of college was the physical challenge and regimentation of the military.

Inside the Army recruiting office, the “military occupational specialty” that sounded most interesting to Vanderbeck was counterintelligence, but he had no illusions. “Would you let a 17-year-old be a counterintelligence officer?” he asks. Discouraged, he went back to his apartment. The next morning he woke up and knew – knew-he wanted to be an Airborne Ranger. Trained to do fast, surgical strikes, the black-bereted Rangers are on two-hour pager notice. They must be on a plane, armed with a mission plan, locked and loaded, in nine hours. Their motto: “Rangers lead the way ! ” Vanderbeck wanted to be one of the best or forget it. “For what they do, the Rangers are the best in the world,” he says. “I could make that analogy for Data Return.”

You Can Always Go One More Step

IN SCHOOL. VANDERBECK PLAYED FOOTBALL ONE YEAR, BASEBALL THE next. (See the pattern?) At 5-foot-ll, he wasn’t particularly athletic. Then he put on 15 pounds in college. After basic training and advanced infantry training, he was down to 6 percent body fat.

Vanderbeck got through jump school and the three-week “Ranger Indoctrination Program” at Fort Benning, Ga., in little increments of “one more step.” Jump school was the first time he started to see attrition. Out of 400 who went on to RIP, only 10 percent graduated. Though some were injured, most just gave up. Vanderbeck refused to quit. He set a goal, ran through it, set another, and another, until he’d run through them all.

Vanderbeck remembers one freezing morning on an obstacle course, confronting a dive into water so befouled the stench turned his stomach. He made the plunge. “] learned that whatever limits I had, I set them myself and they were arbitrarily low,” he says. “You’re done when you fall down.”

Be the Calm in the Storm

Once he cot through RIP school and put on that black beret, Vanderbeck thought he”d arrived. “You show up at the Ranger Battalion and it gets worse. If you have to be deployed, they want to make sure you can function under stress.”

After learning to execute missions despite extreme sleep deprivation, lack of food, and physical pain, experienced Rangers are relaxed, never unhinged by circumstances. They conserve motion and energy. “There’s a marked difference between someone who knows how to do something and someone who’s experienced,” Vanderbeck says. “You learn the situation ’ is what it is* and that you can function under it.”

The application to his business is direct: creating a start-up involves long hours of work, often little sleep, stressful situations, and rapidly changing environments. In web hosting, the stakes are people’s businesses.

“When you lead a group of people and it’s extremely chaotic, you can’t be running around freaked oui and screaming at people,” Vanderbeck says. “It doesn’t inspire confidence. I don’t think I’ve gone off on anybody, except maybe once.”

Never Forget that Everyone is a Volunteer

ALL RANGERS VOLUNTEER FOR THE JOB. At any time during a training mission, when it’s rained solidly for three days and he has to sleep standing up. a Ranger can raise his hand and say, “I’ve had enough.” He is taken out of the field, fed. and quietly ushered to another assignment. No condemnation.

Vanderbeck feels the same about hiring. Not many people make it through his interview. If they are ambivalent about being there, they’re not hired. The machines don’t sleep and everybody must be willing to do what it takes to get the job done.

“Everything we do is mission critical.” says Vanderbeck. “The culture around here tends to attract people who really care. It pushes people out the door who don’t love their jobs.”

Never Surrender


During a training mission, Vanderbeck was assigned to lead a medical platoon in a jump onto an airfield, but his landing injured his right foot. As he grabbed his rucksack and began pulling his chute off the landing strip, the pain was excruciating. But he had to gel to the meeting point a kilometer away and lead the medical team to its destination. In a combat situation, they couldn’t call the whole thing off.

“Who’s going to come get me?” he says. “1 had a mission to finish.” He did. Then he got medical treatment and a big dose of painkiller-and learned the foot was broken.

In business, Vanderbeck asks himself: “How far can you really go?” At one point, that meant he and his partners shared janitorial duties and were sweating through a Texas summer, unwilling to spend even $200 for an office air-conditioner.

“If you have something you are trying to accomplish, if the people here are willing to commit, then so am I,” Vanderbeck says.

Don’t Get Too Attached to the Outcome

Rangers learn “it is what it is.” When things go wrong, accept and adapt.

In 1996, Vanderbeck was working at Microsoft as a consultant. When Bill Gates realized that business computing was moving to the Internet, he took Microsoft hard left, turning it in two weeks. Vanderbeck saw his chance.

“Where Microsoft meets a market, there’s always an opportunity,” Vanderbeck says.

He was 23; he had left the Army at 21 at the end of his four-year commitment. Vanderbeck and partners Michelle Chambers and Jason Lochhead wanted to start their own company, but they had only a name and no clients. In the fall of 1996, they almost snared a big contract with AT&T Wireless. But the deal fell through.

“It turned out to be for the best,” Vanderbeck says. They bootstrapped their operation with venture capital (known as Visa and MasterCard), moved into an old house, and began honing their business plan. When they got their first Fortune 500 client, they were ready. They leased a 5,000-square-foot facility in Arlington and hired their fifth full-time employee. They now have 350.

Be Willing to Make the Sacrifices You Ask Others to Make

THE RANGERS TAUGHT HIM THAT HE COULD have almost anything he wanted, as long as he was willing to sacrifice to reach that goal.

Vanderbeck’s company has come a long way, but what he has forfeited is irreplaceable, “I sacrificed my 20s,” he says. “I get up, work, and go to sleep. I don’t see my family or fiancee that much. I don’t see my brother much, and he works just down the hall.” Vanderbeck used to go rock climbing-no more. He’s out of shape and has no time to work out.

“It’s just what I have to do.” Vanderbeck says. “There’s somebody somewhere always willing to work a bit harder.”

But he is learning balance. “1 think I’m more effective if I don’t work 14-16-20 hours at a stretch. I”m learning to delegate more, to hire more.” And Vanderbeck is getting married next March. “I don’t know if 1 could be here without her. She’s been a good safety valve-a reality check.”

Have a Clearly Defined Mission

“Set huge goals, but don’t be random about how you gel there.” Vanderbeck says. He and his two partners set out, with zero revenue and a good idea, to build a $1 billion company. They are there in market capital, but not in revenue. “But in my head. we’re a Fortune 1000 company.” he says. “Now, it’s just go do it.”

Don’t worry that you don’t have all the answers. “If you truly understood the enormity of the task, you’d get defeated.” Vanderbeck says. “If we knew what faced us, we might not have done it.”

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