Walter O'Brien - Scorpion and ConciergeUp
Walter O'Brien's hacker name was "Scorpion," and part of his life is now a TV program. He founded Scorpion Computer Services when he was 13 years old, eventually hiring a team of experts to work with clients globally and working with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in a "rent-a-brain" capacity. He has now founded ConciergeUp to handle non-engineering assignments and provide intelligence for-and solve-any task that can be handled with computer science or artificial intelligence.
Video and Full Interview Text
Russ: Hi, I'm Russ Capper and this is The BusinessMakers Show. My guest today: Walter O'Brien, the founder of Scorpion and ConciergeUp. Walter, welcome to The BusinessMakers Show.
Walter: Thanks for having me, Russ
Russ: You bet. Let's start with ConciergeUp. Tell us about that.
Walter: Well, ConciergeUp was born out of my first company, Scorpion Computer Services, which has been around for 20 years, solving IT and engineering type problems. And some of our clients came back to us and started asking us to solve non-engineering problems. Initially we resisted, but they viewed us as a rent-a-brain type service, and they could rent IQ by the hour, they asked us to really try. And we approached the problems as if they were engineering problems, and the discipline around engineering actually applies to life in general really, really well, and solve many of those problems. So, that's where ConciergeUp was born out of. Normally, you'd concierge down things that are too simple to do yourself; get dry cleaning, get tickets somewhere. Now you can concierge up things that are too complex or too difficult to do yourself.
Russ: So how long have you been doing ConciergeUp?
Walter: About 4 or 5 years now.
Russ: Ok. I find it real interesting that you apply these sort of engineering tactics and philosophies to regular problems. I, for one, can assume that the level of mathematic ignorance in our country is an all-time high. Do you agree with that assessment?
Walter: I do, and part of it is our own fault. I mean, we perpetuate in the media that being smart is not cool. That on the front cover of a magazine we'll have Kim Kardashian or someone from Jersey Shore, and on page 40 we'll have Elon Musk changing the world. So, it's our own fault that that isn't the other way around.
Russ: Ok, really interesting. So, give me some examples of the kind of problems that have been brought to you that you have solved in ConciergeUp.
Walter: Yeah. We get quite a range. From, my daughter's a journalist student who was covering the troubles in Libya a few years back, got captured as an activist and put in prison. They have a 2 year waiting list for her day in court. We didn't think that was very fair for a 21 year old to spend that time in jail, so we got private military troops to do a forced extraction and brought her home in 48 hours.
Russ: Wow, and that was successful.
Russ: Ok. Was that in the press?
Walter: No. It wasn't in the press at the time because we wanted to keep it private, in terms of who had done it. But we can speak about it now and we don't give away enough details for it to be specific.
Russ: Wow. Well, ok, another example.
Walter: People have asked us to choose winning race horses based on their DNA and other factors that we run through statistical regression on 7 years of winners and 7 years of losers to see what the winners have in common. And that's been very successful. People have asked us to predict, real estate-wise, where is the next Houston, TX, or Austin, TX going to be 10 years from now, based on census bureau and other statistics. People have called us asking us to help their parents retire and shut down their business; deal with their divorce; their daughter has anorexia, find all food that's odorless and tasteless but high in calories and fat; mom has throat cancer, find all, and research all non-FDA approved solutions outside the US; someone wrote a book, they want to get it on the New York Times bestseller list; they have a charity they support, they want to make a documentary around it in order to raise money for it. Literally anything; any funded problem from 5 grand and up that you want to have a discussion on and take the problems in your life that you've had on your to do list for the last 3 years and start discussing them with someone who can break them down into a series of steps that will actually lead to a solution.
Russ: What a diverse set of challenges and problems. You must like what you do.
Walter: I do. It definitely keeps me from being bored. It fascinates the people who work for me, and helping good people with difficult problems is a very nice business to be in. They're genuinely grateful and they immediately come back with the next 3 things they want to work on.
Russ: Cool, cool. So, I mean, I've heard you say this and I've watched you speak before that you have this team of geniuses. I assume they all like it as well. But I've always thought the high IQ people are always pretty low in the EQ category. Are you in charge of handling all the EQ?
Walter: So, no, that's exactly the secret to the business. That we discovered at a very young age that not always, but often what happens is the higher the IQ, the lower the EQ. Emotional intelligence, common sense, social skills, street smarts, whatever you want to call it, they didn't have any, they were too academic. So, we hired people with high EQ and we call them 'super nannies' so they babysit the geniuses and the customers. So, we had the best communicators working with the best thinkers. And as long as you can fuse those two together, it's a pretty powerful team to go ahead and solve the problem but keep the communication flow with the customer so that they are comfortable with what's going on.
Russ: But you seem like you have high EQ
Walter: I seem like it. According to my Myers-Briggs test I have none, but I'm using my IQ to simulate EQ in real time. Over time, whether that's grown to come naturally to me or not is an arguable point.
Russ: Ok, so I've heard this story about how you actually recruited and started ConciergeUp, and it came somewhat from Scorpion, is that right?
Walter: Yeah. No, I mean, Scorpion had been around for 20 years and solving difficult IT problems that are mission critical; life and death. So, we, our process for how we break down a problem; how we approach it, how we project manage it, how we track it, has very, very much got a military or NASA level discipline. So now, taking that and applying that to planning your wedding or your divorce actually works quite well, because it will force you to see, and think, and look at the situation as a project and each area as a task, and you're managing it in a way you'd never, you'd manage it much more loosely if you were doing it normally.
Russ: Wow. But I heard also that Scorpion was a way, a vehicle that you used that you came up with to recruit geniuses for ConciergeUp. Is that accurate?
Walter: You're talking about the TV show?
Russ: Yes, yes.
Walter: So, yes, we ran into a problem where we had more problems coming in than we had geniuses to serve them, so I went to the geniuses and said; now I have a funded problem. How do I find more geniuses? And, when they analyzed it they said, well if you write a book, the millennials probably won't read it. If you made a movie, they'll forget your name in 6 months, but, if you become the number one show on the air on tv for the next 10 years, the geniuses will come find you, and the 12 year olds watching the show will grow up studying computer science and come join you. You'll build your own army.
Russ: And that's what's happened.
Walter: So, we're now approved for season 3 of one of the number one shows on the air.
Russ: Congratulations. So, now I've got it right. So, Scorpion, focused on IT, was first. Then, ConciergeUp, and then Scorpion tv.
Russ: Ok, really impressive. So, tell us how you envision ConciergeUp developing over the years. I mean, are you still going to be doing this 5 years from now, 10 years from now?
Walter: Well, right now we have a project minimum of about 5 grand just to engage. And, we're kind of like a law firm. It's really a deposit. If you don't use it or you quit at any time, you can get your money back for any hours you didn't use. And, because you don't know how big your problem is and we don't know how big your problem is until we spend some hours looking into it and defining it. So, in the future I'd hope we get to a point where there's so many problems that we've seen multiple times, and we have the mechanisms and softwares and databases to fix it quickly; like finding a lost family member, or an adopted person wanting to figure out their medical history; that some of those things we can now do for a couple hundred bucks. So, I hope to both lower the price point on the lower end and be able to help everybody out. Maybe have a charitable arm to that to, to be able to help people with unfunded wishes although we can't do that today. And on the higher end, yeah, we'd like to be the super butler to everyone.
Russ: Have you seen any competitors surface, trying to do this same thing?
Walter: Not really. There's obviously companies out there that do high end consulting on problems, but they tend to write you a white paper on the problem. They don't actually solve it. And there's companies out there that'll solve problems, but you have to tell them every inch of the way what to do. I don't know a company you can just throw over your shoulder and say, hey, my CTO quit the business in a big fight today. I want you to hack into my company, change all the passwords, lock him out, hire a new one, train him up, and make the whole thing like it never happened. And, by the way, we need to move our factory to a 20,000 square foot facility by next Friday, and I want you to do it over the weekend where nobody in the factory loses any productivity. And there's nowhere else you can do that with one phone call.
Russ: That's right, definitely. Ok, so before I let you go, back to Scorpion IT; cybersecurity. Is there anybody that knows how to handle and keep out the bad guys?
Walter: Yeah. We're barely scratching the surface now in terms of what we should be doing, as both in the business and on the government side for cyber. We are completely unprepared, and the answers are there, and the systems are there, and the discipline is there, but it's not going to be done in a comfortable way. People are going to have to change their habits, and change their methodologies, and upgrade their systems, and spend money on fixing things because there is no easy answer. The answer is there, they just don't want to do it.
Russ: Well, and the problem isn't it the bad guys are always getting smarter too, at the same time?
Walter: Well, that's part of the problem but they're not all getting smarter. So, out of 100,000 hackers, there's probably 20 really good ones. The rest are just following scripts and using tools. And those ones could all be stopped with a little bit of discipline on our side.
Russ: Ok, well Walter I really appreciate you sharing your perspective with us today.
Walter: Thanks for having me.
Russ: You bet. And that wraps up my discussion with Walter O'Brien. And this is The BusinessMakers Show.