What a supersonic jet, an animation studio, and Steve Jobs tell us about building great teams

Blackbird. Pixar. iPhone.

This post originally appeared on my blog, where I write on startups, software, community, and life a couple times every week.

The Blackbird

The Blackbird earned its name because of the jet-black paint that covers the entire titanium exterior of the aircraft — a purely utilitarian choice to most effectively dissipate the immense heat generated by sprinting through the air three times faster than sound. It set speed records when it flew from Los Angeles to Washington D.C. in a few minutes over an hour. The same flight takes around five hours in a typical commercial jet airliner. To date, it’s the fastest jet ever flown.

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SR-71 Blackbird in a hangar


When the lightning struck, Pixar — like its then majority owner Jobs — was on an apparent decline. Pixar had been building computer workstations and software designed for creating rich computer graphics, but the business was shrinking, and the company was being shopped around for sale, eventually resulting in Steve Jobs wholly owning Pixar. They were then only a computer company with a fascination for graphics and storytelling.


Project Purple began on a single floor in a building in Cupertino, locked and gated by key cards and codes even tighter than the usual levels of security at Apple. They were doing a phone. But nobody outside of those locked office perimeters would know that for a few years — even the cleaning crew were banned from the floor. To the rest of Apple’s unsuspecting staff, a few noted engineers simply disappeared over time, pulled into a mystery project.

Just enough of only the best

I find these stories of era-defining teams so fascinating because it goes against the conventional wisdom that larger teams create larger impact. It emanates a refreshingly different message: small teams of very smart people, working tightly together in a trusted group, create the best inventions.

Thinking about community building, tool-making, and venture ecosystems. Fan of small teams doing big things. These days I write mainly at thesephist.com.

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