Skip The Water

I told this story to an entrepreneur last weekend and she loved it. So I figured I should tell it to everyone here at AVC.

I was a mechanical engineering major (course 2) at MIT. One of the best classes in the mechanical engineering curriculum at MIT is 2.70, Introduction To Design. And the highlight of 2.70 is the contest in which everyone is given a bag of stuff from which they need to design and build a product that will compete in a contest.

My year, the contest went like this. There was a huge water tank with diving boards on both ends and a rope swing in the middle. Two contestants would put their designed product on each diving board, jump into the water, and start moving toward the rope swing. The one whose product got to the rope swing first would move on.

The "bag of stuff" was a brown paper shopping bag with an empty large soda bottle, the spring mechanism for a music box, a bunch of rubber bands, and so on and so forth.

I did what you might imagine, with the help of my friend Jim. We cut the soda bottle in half to create a boat, used the spring mechanism to power a paddle boat style propulsion system, and used the rubber bands to launch the boat from the diving board. It worked and I made it past the first race.

In the second race, I came up against a student who had a different idea. His product simply launched, like a rocket, from the diving board, flew through the air, and grabbed the rope swing in about a nanosecond. He destroyed me and everyone else and won the contest.

The lesson is, of course, is to skip the water.

#VC & Technology

Comments (Archived):

  1. Fernando Gutierrez

    I can’t remember where, but I read something (or watch a video) about a team competition in which they had to create some kind of business and they were given a few assets. I’m sorry I’m not more precise, but I’m afraid I killed the neurons where this was stored.Most teams used those assets and made remarkable things. The team that won simply ignored all they were given and created something from scratch. For the others those assets acted like constraits because they were directed towards a given type of business. The winners, free of constraits, invented their own game and destroyed the competition.

    1. fredwilson

      yupignore the constraints

      1. baba12

        You can’t ignore the constraints but you don’t have to be bound by the constraints.

        1. Sheldon Thomas

          Agree you can’t ignore constraints but you can avoid creating constraints that don’t exist like the winners in Fred’s competition did. I always admire people who can naturally do that, quickly understand the goal and real constraints ignore the rest and produce.

      2. Donna Brewington White

        What constraints?

      1. Magnus Wikegård

        And search for Tina Seelig

        1. Fernando Gutierrez

          Bingo! it’s the first one that appears: Classroom Experiments in Entrepreneurship. I like your neurons more than mine!For those who don’t want to watch the video: Stanford, several teams, two hours and five dollars, the one making the biggest profit wins. The team that won didn’t start a business, they just sold the spot to present to the class to a company that wanted to recruit there.

    2. Dave W Baldwin

      Maybe we need to develop the ‘neuron finder’….promotes privacy over those silly digital diary designs. Then use profits to develop the security firewall for the ‘neuron finder’.

  2. Eric

    Love it. Reminds one of the perfectionist tendencies we all have to overcome in an effort to just get a product into the wild. “Ready — Fire!” No room for “set.”

  3. baba12

    I did EE and I always try and tell people the ability to do more with less has been lost as art form.Understanding that the objective was to get to the rope swing first, how you got there was left to you the individual. Most people feel the need to use everything given to them in arriving at a solution.Training the mind to try and do things with as few as possible items is something that needs more emphasis on. Last night at the A VC meetup someone was stating they were building a social media platform to compete with a Facebook. My advice ( even when not asked for) was that they should focus on getting social media being a function and being on a technology platform needs to address the large number of illiterate folks, who before they ever buy a computer will own a mobile phone and that they should attempt to get them on their platform and use audio/visual as the medium to interact with them not text. How you deliver to that audience is a similar problem set. You have all these various tools in the bag and the swing in the middle is that 3 billion people who can’t read and write fluently.

    1. CJ

      Reminds me of one of Andy’s recent posts on forcing innovation through voluntary restriction.

    2. flouter

      Yes – voice is the next big thing… When the wave comes, people will say, duh, why didnt we see this coming!!!!

  4. LIAD

    Brings to mind the story of NASA needing to build a pen for astronauts which worked in zero gravity. They developed one which worked upside down and underwater, on any surface and at temperatures ranging from below freezing to over 300C – all for the bargain price of $400 million.When confronted with the same problem, the Russians gave their astronauts a pencil.It’s not about thinking outside the box. It’s about remembering THERE IS NO BOX.

    1. kagilandam

      American’s did not use a pencil fearing the broken lead (carbon) can fly around and get into the eye in zero gravity 🙂 (not my answer …flicked from an Indian movie).

      1. LIAD

        Giving that the story itself is probably completely made up. Kudos to them taking the time to rationalise it.

      2. djd4rc3

        Three idiots xD

    2. Vasudev Ram

      Fantastic quote: “It’s not about thinking outside the box. It’s about remembering THERE IS NO BOX.”Will remember it and use it.

      1. Vasudev Ram

        I meant, use it as in try to apply it, not just quote it.

  5. Joe Yevoli

    It’s all about being cognizant of the opportunities in front of you. Make your own luck by keeping your eyes open, and be ready to adapt.It makes me think of that Jay-Z line, “I drove by the fork in the road and went straight.”Loved the story. Great post, Fred!

    1. jmm

      Which is likely a reference to Yogi Berra’s famous quote, “when you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

      1. Vasudev Ram

        Great story and comments too :)Not really related to Fred’s post, but is a bit to your (jmm) and JoeYevol’s comments above, so, for fun, mentioning this rhyme I read as a kid:”What’s the way to nowhere? Straight down the crooked lane, and round the square.”- Vasudev

        1. Vasudev Ram

          Sorry, a typo, I meant JoeYevoli, not JoeYevol.

          1. Joe Yevoli

            Haha, yea, sorta like when I ask my uncle for directions and he says, “Just go right to the left.”

      2. Joe Yevoli

        Ha, yea probably! I used to have a Yogi Berra calendar with a different quote for every day. It was amazing!

  6. reece

    While frustrating when you don’t realize you can bend or break the “rules” as a student, I always loved these exercises.Going outside the boundaries of given constraints (in good faith, anyway) is rarely a big issue.So whenever someone says “well, we can’t do that,” my response is usually “says who?”

    1. LIAD

      Agreed. NLP talks a lot about breaking down artificial constraints which we/society place on us and we cower’s not just about “says who?”, it’s also about “but what if i did?”

      1. reece

        Great point.It’s a question one of my cofounders loves to ask “what if…?”When you play with BIG, simple assumptions, you let yourself re-imagine your world and its possibilities… just like the Matrix. 😉

  7. kagilandam

    What would happen if he misses … was he prepared for the water?Why i am asking this question is … I used to get confused as a school boy with following as well …Early bird gets the worm. Good thing comes to one who waits.Then my dad told ‘be early and wait for good’.

    1. DGentry

      I suspect even had the rocket missed, the student would have garnered the same level of attention for the creative solution.

  8. Harry DeMott

    I think this may be my favorite AVC post of all time.Reminds me of an interview I read with Charlie Munger in which he exhorted students to “Always ask why.”Why do we need to build a boat when we can build a rocket ship?Why are we going near the water?Why can’t we use some other materials?If you keep asking why, you usually come up with a better solution.

    1. fredwilson

      I am reading Charlie’s almanacA gift from an AVC reader

      1. sj

        how are you finding it?

        1. fredwilson

          awesomemunger is the man

  9. Peter Fleckenstein

    Outstanding Fred. This is going up on the wall… permanently. As usual – thank you!

  10. Quizotic

    What a fun story! Reminds me of the time we had to make a party-balloon-powered vehicle. Whichever one went the farthest won. Ours used the balloon as a Newtonian propulsion mechanism, with air blowing out the balloon. Most of the time, we’d zip around in circles. The winner wrapped the balloon around an axle and used its elasticity. So in addition to flying above your obstacles, you can win by using things in unintended ways. Maybe the best moral is in the strength of a group, like Fred’s MIT classmates, or the readers here, to generate a large enough set of ideas to contain a winner?

  11. Mark Essel

    What a lesson rocket man taught the class that semester. I can see why she loved the story. Shall we skip the fund raising and startup legalese, and just work on killer products then?The right stuff that’s required is pulled together without more funding than rubberbands and plastic bottles. Finding capable team members, sellig them on the vision, and then delivering a product worth attention and usage, all come prefunding.

    1. Aaron Klein

      They might come pre-VC funding but a small well-executed and planned seed round can be the difference between building a toy and a scaling, growing product.Rocket Man still needed the atoms to make his idea fly.

  12. CallMeV

    Someone asked me at a job interview to estimate how many basketballs I could put into the interview room. I didn’t hesitate – I asked, straight-faced, “Inflated or deflated?”

    1. Tereza

      That rocks.

    2. TailorMade

      That’s nothin’! I was asked if I was Jewish! I gave the same answer.

      1. Guest


    3. fredwilson

      Well done

  13. RichardF

    Skip the Water – another AVC t-shirt strapline.

    1. kidmercury

      fredwear could be the next bull market

      1. markslater

        here you go Kid -…vote it in and i am sure Fred would donate the money to charity.

    2. markslater

      love it – threadless submission…..along with one i saw in a bar the other day – “how do i unlike you in real life”.

      1. RichardF

        Hey that could be an extra $500 into my bootstrapping fund Mark

  14. Ian

    What happened to the kid who skipped the water? What is he doing now?thx!ian

    1. fredwilson

      Good question. I was thinking the same thing as I wrote the post thismorning

    2. Keenan

      That was the first thing that came to my mind . . . where is this guy?I would love to know what he’s doing. What does a Google search turn up?

  15. andyswan

    “Skip the water”—nothing wrong with taking a shortcut! I love this story Fred. It’s so spot on.I wrote another here:…It’s about how you can CREATE constraints to force innovation. A good mental exercise to avoid doing what everyone else does. I’m sure it would have come in handy as you brainstormed your product.Not trying to spam the comments…just thought it might add to the conversation here. :/

    1. Aaron Klein

      That was a great post, Andy. Thanks for sharing it here.

    2. CJ

      LOL – I just posted a link to this very same post above before I saw yours.

  16. Paul Sullivan

    Got me reminiscing about a book that (in all its simplicity) is still impactful for me today, Roger von Oech’s “A Whack on the Side of the Head”. One of the greatest pieces of advice I’ve used over the years when presented with challenges is – look for the second right answer. More often than not, it’s that second answer that skips the water!Great stuff as always Fred!

    1. fredwilson

      Note to self: add to kindle

  17. jonsteinberg

    Sometimes work hard, sometimes work smart, sometimes work hard and smart. If you work smart it gives you more time to work hard on the tasks that need it.

  18. Sebastian Wain

    It reminds me the Hell Week MacGyver’s episode:… where a trap competition put everyone in danger. The best episode so far.

  19. Linda

    “Skip the water” is a must, especially in sales – it means that you first reach the economic buyers who have the budget and can influence the purchasing decision, and skip / avoid the “See More” type of people who are only obsessive w/ product features!

  20. mikenolan99

    Another great post!During my MBA we had the “Collaboration Cup” – divided into groups and given challenges for each section. One such was a complicated task – something to do with Jenga blocks. The class continuously improved their times – from maybe 2 minutes to 70 seconds. And everyone was pleased.At the next break our instructor told us the record time was 6 seconds.All the groups ended up breaking the record, because we were forced outside of the box.Of all the lessons I learned, this is one that stuck with me. Thanks for reminding me about it!

  21. Dave W Baldwin

    Truly a great post. I’ll go ahead and mention the obvious…the test that Captain Kirk passed no one else had ever accomplished.It is hard to get folks to understand that doing everything in a tier fashion leads to lethargism and doing some reverse engineering to change the game board is needed. That way you have a new set of tiers beneficial to everyone.

    1. Dave Pinsen

      You mean the Kobayashi Maru test. Not quite the same, since the point of that test wasn’t to think outside the box, but to see how an aspiring Star Fleet officer dealt with a no-win situation.

      1. Dave W Baldwin

        I stand corrected.

  22. andrewparker

    At Stanford, they had a similar class (taught by IDEO pros in Palo Alto) called ME 101. Similar competitions, where similar out of the box ideas always won. I remember building a grappling hook/zipline out of trash bags and PVC piping.I absolutely loved the class (and invented a product exactly like the Colgate Wisp as my final project), but the next quarter I took my first Computer Science class and my career in ME/Product-Design was finished.I like bits better than atoms. But, the out of the box thinking that ME 101 inspired was very influential.

    1. fredwilson

      Interesting point on bits and atoms AndrewI wonder if studying the art and science of designing atoms helps whendesigning in the digital realm

  23. DGentry

    The Aerospace engineering program at the University of Michigan had a similar competition, to make a paper airplane fly the farthest. Students were provided the paper and prohibited from using any additional materials. They analyzed airflow, designed paper canards, etc.The winner: wadding the paper up into a ball, with help from a vacuum chamber. It bounced off the far wall.

    1. fredwilson


    2. davidgeller

      Despite it illustrating a point, I’m not convinced their wadded up paper ball is a good model for an airplane, despite it closely matching the room and comfort levels we all experience flying these days. 🙂

      1. DGentry

        As we apparently will all soon be flying anesthetized and naked, it will open up considerably more flexibility in the appearance of airplanes in not having to meet passenger expectations.

    3. andyidsinga

      That’s awesome – I guess a real life version would be something like the bungee catapults rides (… you see at carnivals …except that its lets go and needs parasail and landing gear?Can you imagine waking up in the morning and seeing these little balls being catapulted through the sky – taking people to work – HA!

  24. Judi Huck

    An engineer, a physicist, and a mathematician were given some wrapping paper and asked to form a shape that can hold the most matter.-The engineer formed a box and explained, “It’s simple and efficient.”-The physicist formed a sphere and noted, “Notice the high surface to volume ratio.”-The mathematician grabbed the wrapping paper, completely encased himself inside it and said, “I am the outside.”

    1. David Semeria

      Nice. Reminds me of Wonko the Sane’s house in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

  25. Charlie Crystle

    “think outside the box”what box?

  26. kirklove

    But if you “Skip the Water” how will Fonzi “Jump the Shark”?

  27. Somak

    Great post Fred. 2.70 was perhaps the most incredible class I ever took at MIT. It completely changed the way I look at problem solving and design. I also was beat by a student who had a more elegant solution than mine that was truly “out of the box”(my year we had to do remote controlled ice hockey). Thanks for sharing this with us.

  28. ShanaC

    For whatever the reason, this reminds me of the very famous draw the mystery object through feeling it in a dark paper bag. it is suppose to teach you how looking at the object is a very deceptive and helpful way of learning to draw the object (the brain does things to fill in the spaces of an object and makes you distrust what you see on paper.) Oftentimes what you think you see isn’t so when you want to get to the point. using your other senses will probably get you where you want to go more efficiently.Avoid the water indeed. and start practicing other ways of seeing.

  29. David Semeria

    Apologies for the nerdiness of this example, but it fits in perfectly with spirit of the post.I’ve just spent most of the day trying to make a TCP/IP server respond to a stop request.It’s easy to interrupt a running process, but the interrupt has no effect if a process is waiting on IO (which is basically the definition of a server).After trying an increasingly unlikely series of solutions – which culminated in trying to make the server send a request to itself 🙂 – I hit on the idea of simply closing the IO stream.The server then had nothing to wait for.8 hours of head banging resolved in 30 seconds.Skip the water…

    1. andyidsinga

      as I was reading your comment I was thinking of three of four options to suggest to you …then I got to your solution 😉 – ofcourse.

  30. Wills Hapworth

    Daniel Pink (in his book “Drive”) refers to inabilities to see the best solution as “functional fixedness”, illustrated by the Candle Problem (http://creativity2-point-0…..Control studies show that when you offer people rewards for speedy solutions like this one (allusion to the work environment), it actually takes them longer to find the solution that it does for control groups not offered a reward (and just solving out of their own intrinsic interest); on average 3.5 minutes longer for the Candle Problem.Rewards narrow focus, which is fine if the only goal is to go forward and race faster, but todays problems are increasingly complex and require “i-didn’t-see-that-coming” thinking.Great post, thank you Fred

  31. Tereza

    Hey I posted a response to RichardF. Is Disqus down or was it deleted?You can be honest. Want to know if I should bother reposting.

  32. kenberger

    For some tech startups, VC is the water.(I assume that’s a sub-point here)

    1. fredwilson

      wasn’t an intended sub-point but it is so true

  33. RJ Johnston

    LOL, priceless.

  34. Dan

    Read your blog regularly, thanks for the insights. This is my first comment though, and just wanted to give a shout out from another mechanical engineer working in NYC tech. This story resonated on many level. Thanks.

  35. paramendra

    Hilarious! Loved the story.

  36. Charlie Crystle

    The CEO of McDonald’s Sweden took walks for years with a leading sustainability consultant, who is also his friend.McDonald’s business naturally has an effect on the environment, especially from its beef demand.One day he volunteered, “do we really need to sell hamburgers?”What is McDonald’s, really? –a food distribution system–a collection of retail stores–a property management company–a place to get fast food affordablySo what could McDonald’s be without hamburgers?

    1. Dave Pinsen

      I replied to this comment twice posting a link to McDonald’s India, noting that that’s a McDonald’s region where they don’t serve hamburgers. Disqus ate both comments. Testing to see what happens without the link.

  37. Dave Pinsen

    This reminds me of a training exercise at Ft. Benning years ago, I think at an Army Infantry School complex. There was a large tank of water, with, if memory serves, two rows of posts sticking out of the water every 10 or 20 feet or so. The goal was to transport a light horse carriage or rickshaw across the tank, and we were given some wood planks with which to do it.Everyone tried the same method to get the carriage across the tank: lay down a pair of planks, one for each wheel of the carriage, and then roll it across to the next pair of posts. No one finished it in the time allotted. It turned out that the solution was to lay down one line of planks instead of two, and have two men carry the carriage across.

    1. JLM

      Deep in the last century, I was in the Combat Engineers which fight as Infantry in an Infantry Division, so we had to train on all the infantry stuff and then we got to blow things up and build bridges and cross rivers. It was great fun.When we went to the “What Now Lieutenant Course” at Benning you are referring to, I was in a team with two VMI Lts, two West Point Lts and two Tx A & M Lts — all from my unit. All great guys.The VMI guys did all the thinking, the WP guys did all the complaining and the TAM guys did all the work.We solved two “problems” which had never been solved in the history of the Infantry School and which were supposed to be unsolvable. Both were solved by using people like building materials and our belts. Belts were always the wild card.That was a million years ago but thanks for making me think of it again.

      1. Dave Pinsen

        When we did the course, there was another wrinkle I forgot to mention: while one team was trying to solve the problem, another team was in the water, splashing water and hurling insults at them.

  38. Viviane

    Fred! I feel very lucky to have been the “entrepreneur” who heard that story straight from your mouth. If it hadn’t been for Albert’s project with his kids, you might have not shared it… It is a very powerful story and one that is worth remembering when struggling to find solutions to problems or to figure out how to take your company to the next step (which is were I am right now). “Skip the Water” is definitely my new motto! Thank you for sharing that story… I’m sorry of course that you lost that contest!Viviane

    1. Vasudev Ram

      I like Fred’s sharing the story even though he lost the contest. Not many people would.

      1. susequinn

        Yep, you don’t learn much (if anything) when you win all the time. Failing is the best teaching. My partners and I are testing our new social video platform and fail each test in different ways we did not predict, and I absolutely love it because of what we learn each time. If all the tests went well, we would not have an opportunity to innovate anything at all. My team was perplexed with my delight at the first several failures until they decided I was right to be really happy to discover each fail, and now we all get excited about what cool failure we will have next so we can create better and better ways of building our thing. That is incredibly fun and the most satisfying part of a startup!

  39. Jonathan Cohen

    Cool story. Thanks Fred!

  40. brlewis

    I think this advice will be counterproductive for most web entrepreneurs, as I detail here:…Summary: In the 2.70 contest, everyone was watching and agreed what the goal was. On the web, the people you want to reach might not be watching, and might rely on authorities who have a different idea of what the goal is. Your outside-the-box solution may make it harder for people to see that you’ve solved their problem better.

    1. Donna Brewington White

      Reminds me of Geoffrey Moore’s “chasm.”

      1. brlewis

        Exactly, Donna. I thought I could “skip the chasm” by making something more directly appealing to the mainstream. But it seems the early-adopter phase is not optional.

  41. Donna Brewington White

    I love this story!And the types of comments it inspires.There are just some people that see through a different lens — or think through them. I think about how some people look out on the horizon and see the possibilities, while some see the obstacles.In spite of my cavalier “What constraints?” in response to a comment earlier, I do recognize that it is sometimes important — even necessary — to understand or at least acknowledge limitations. I think that the problem is when that is the starting point.Limitations and obstacles, real or imagined, tend to look larger when they are the focus. An imagined limitation can be just as restricting as a real one. The good thing about acting as though there are no constraints or obstacles is that then only the real ones will have any true impact.One of the things that draws me to venture and entrepreneurs is that you are constantly having to build bridges between the present and future, the real and the imagined, the pragmatic realities and the visionary possibilities. It is exciting terrain.Most of what I have accomplished in life has been because it never occurred to me that I couldn’t. It’s not that my accomplishments are that spectacular — I wish they were — but that they have defied the circumstances.

  42. William Mougayar

    Creativity wins.I was waiting at the end of the post to read the VC/Startup correlation you would make.What was the context that made you tell that story to the entrepreneur?

  43. Talltodd

    Two way to foster innovation:1) Remove a constraint2) Add a constraint

  44. sachxn

    same as Apple skipped the water and made iPhone (smartphone) instead of starting from dumbphone and testing the waters……yours is a nice inspirational thought…

  45. kgutteridge

    My favourite of these was from a UK programme called car sharks where two teams were given £500 and 7 days to spruce up a car of the same age and model. Everyone always tried to customise the car, valet it etc etc. One Australian team, when it took place at the beach with a large estate car, simply took the £500 on the first day and brought 365 bottles of beer, organised a private party at a local bar, printed of some raffle tickets that also acted as invites to the organised party and sat back for 5 days. On the last day they went on the beach and sold raffle tickets to “win a car and beer for a year”, if you didn’t win you still got to come to the party.Needless to say I think they did about the best any team ever did on the show as they actually made a substantial profit!

  46. Dan Spinosa

    “Skip the water” is a great and pithy way to say “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them;” one of my favorite Einstein quotes.This is an excellent idea Fred, and like all ideas, the value is in the execution. I’m curious how this community goes about implementing it. How do you frame – or unframe – your thinking such that you skip the water?

  47. Adrian Meli

    Fred, great story…I would not have come up with either ideas but I definitely agree with the point- it is always better to skip the water. No need to make life more difficult than it has to be! – Adrian Meli

  48. Farhan Lalji

    I started telling story to my wife, half way through she said why wouldn’t you just jump from the diving board… I finished the story and she said “that’s how kids think”. Got me thinking about how as we get older we start to put rules in when we don’t need them.

    1. fredwilson

      Smart woman

  49. harryh

    Exact same thing happened in a Mech-E class I took at CMU. Contest was slightly different but basically everyone built cars (instead of boats) except this one team that built a mini launching thing just like you describe.And the crazy thing is that their mechanism, in addition to being faster, was actually way way simpler. There’s a good lesson there too.

    1. fredwilson

      yupthe “rocket” was drop dead simple

  50. Balduzzi

    Sounds like a great book title! Just imagine all the innovations that exist today because someone somewhere opened their mind enough to develop an idea that essentially skipped the water.

  51. flouter

    Meaning and genuis emerge from negotiating constraint…. The genuis of Twitter is that is created its own constraints and piggy backed on them…