April 22, 2015

Doing a Startup? Step 1: Learn to Fly!


If you're thinking of doing your first startup,
and want to know what it's going to be like,
learn how to fly...

I was fascinated with flying at a very early age.
At 23, about 50 years ago,
I finally made it happen, and took a lesson at the local airport.

I had no idea that what I learned that day would apply to my career in starting and building successful businesses.

Without even introducing himself, the flight instructor walked me out to a small airplane (not the one in the photo) and soon we were taxiing toward the runway...

I was completely dumbfounded with the bewildering array of instruments on the dashboard, and the buttons, levers, and lights that were seemingly everywhere. I was impressed with his ability to deal with all those mystical controls while simultaneously talking on the radio and constantly looking around for something, but I had no idea what it was...

All of a sudden the engine roared and we began rolling down the runway, and by god, we were flying! The dream of a lifetime and it was happening all too fast for me to appreciate.

The instructor must have noticed the dazed look on my face and asks if I'm ok, do I feel sick? I hadn't been thinking about that, but no, I didn't feel like I was going to puke, thankfully.

He looks me in the eye and asks: So, you want to learn how to fly, kid?
Yes, Yes! Of course I do...
Ok, then, the lesson begins!

Nothing could have prepared me for what happened next.

His questions spilled out at great speed, each one like a droplet of water in a full-force fire hose:

What's your airspeed?  He points to the indicator.
What's your heading?  He points to the compass.
What's your altitude?  He points to the altimeter.
Look out the window! You see any traffic?
What is the engine speed? He points to the tachometer.
Are your wings level with the horizon?
Which way is the wind blowing?
Are you climbing or descending or flying level?
Are you flying straight or turning?
What's your oil temperature? He points to the gauge.
Oil pressure? Another gauge.
Where's the airport?
Can you make it back if there's a fire?
Fire?  Holy shit! Airplanes burst into flames?
Where would you land if the engine quit?
And then, I swear, he turns off the engine, and the once-spinning propeller is stopped.
The silence is like Death, and now I know I have a madman for an instructor.
Where?  Where would you land?  Look out the window, point to a place you can land.
I point to a place that looks like a field. He says No, too far away.
I point to a highway. He says, again, too far away.
The ground is getting closer all the time, and I'm convinced that this is the day I die...
Then he turns the engine back on and starts to climb to safety.

I'm totally confused. It's overwhelming.
He's a sadist, I'm sure of it. Insane!
Nobody can learn all this, let alone master it.

I thought this was going to be fun, but this is pure pain.
And I haven't even touched the steering wheel, but he doesn't call it that.
Everything has a special name, nothing is familiar.

Maybe this flying stuff isn't for me after all...

Welcome to learning to fly.
Doing a startup is the same.

So much to learn, so many things that can go wrong, so many ways to fail.

I stuck with it, and earned my solo permit after only 8 hours of instruction,
and then I quit flying for the next 28 years, while I focused on business.

I applied those flying lessons to the several businesses I started over the years,
and one of them (TeleMagic) was so successful that I finally bought my own airplane
(the one in the photo, a newly manufactured but 1935 design, Waco YMF-5, built by Waco Classic)
and flew it for the next 7 years, all over the USA and Europe.

Of course,
I did eventually learn about all those buttons and knobs and dials and gauges.
I did learn how to navigate, and communicate on the radio.
About the hazards of weather and how even innocent clouds can kill.
I did learn the federal regulations governing all things in the air.

I even learned how to have Fun while flying.
Aerobatics! Loops and rolls, and spins, and more.
Different airplanes: Open cockpit biplanes, The P-51 Mustang, the Spitfire, floatplanes, gliders, multi-engine airplanes, the B-17 bomber, more...
It was wonderful, better than I could have imagined.

But it took time, lots of time.
And practice.
There were mistakes.

Even the simplest mistake in an airplane can kill you.
As with business, not paying attention can have the most severe consequences.

When you learn to fly, you learn from an instructor who has lots of experience.
And you fly with them until one magical day they certify you to fly solo.
But that is just an illusion, you may be able to fly without your instructor, just not with passengers.
No way are you allowed to risk other lives with your inexperience.

Only after many hours of book learning, and tests to be sure you know the material,
and many more hours of flying with an instructor to check you out on the finer points of flying... only then are you certified to be a pilot in the eyes of god and man.

Even then, it's really just the beginning; a license to learn more.
You'll never stop learning.

And so it is in Business.

The big lesson keeps playing out:
Either you are IN control, or you are OUT OF CONTROL.

As pilot-in-command, and as CEO,
you MUST be in control at all times,
in a constantly changing environment.

You must always be checking your current situation with your flight PLAN, and know what you are going to do if/when things conspire against you, as they most certainly will.

Pay attention. To everything. All the time.
Focus on the most important things.
What is the PLAN?

And, in the middle of all the chaos, you want to have Fun, right?

:)

(more later)