What the heck was that? The first and last essay ever to be written
about "Plane Crazy"
by Robert X. Cringely
Many PBS shows get their own Web sites, but "Plane Crazy" -- my
aviation series -- isn't one of those. This column will be its only
online monument. But since the normal subject matter here is high
technology, not aviation, I feel it would be a good idea to look at
the airplane show for lessons that can be applied to many different
types of endeavors, including high-tech startups and the building of
tactical nuclear weapons.
Last week I made cryptic reference to the show, but now it's been on,
and those who saw it know exactly why I am a bit embarrassed by the
whole thing. There is a whole lot of me on that screen, and not all of
it is admirable. I made almost every possible mistake in the venture
short of being shot down. That comes later.
Here, with reference back to the show, are some of the lessons I learned.
I obviously didn't think the project through before I started. The
task itself -- to design, build and fly an airplane in 30 days -- was
pretty near impossible, but I guaranteed that it was impossible by
doing no pre-planning whatsoever. I took the task too lightly because
I had built planes before, and just expected to make it work. I have a
legendary ability to go without sleep, but even I can't go for 30
days. This fits with what I've seen in many startups where -- like me
-- the founder was used to succeeding and thought he knew what he was
doing. I was an idiot and probably still am.
Once underway, I didn't listen to any advice. In the first hour, it is
amazing how almost everyone tells me what I am facing is an impossible
task, yet I ignore them. I simply would not allow for the possibility
of failure. Sometimes this is good when there is enough energy to just
push through and get the job done, but in this case, it was lunacy.
The project was just too big. The advice I did listen to -- from
Martin, the aeronautical engineer -- wasn't any better than what I
came up with on my own. Note that the only person who was nonchalant
about the whole thing was the most famous engineer of the bunch, Burt
Rutan. Burt not only wasn't impressed by my effort, he said he could
do it in a week! But having decided it was possible, Burt wisely found
no need to follow through. Sure.
Like Napoleon and Hitler, I learned the folly of fighting a war on
more than one front. I was trying to design an airplane, build it
using untested techniques, and power it with an untested engine. To
perform one of these feats would have been enough. Startups that try
to do so many things -- push the technology in several ways, maybe
find a new method of marketing, and create a product classification
nobody has ever heard of -- nearly always fail. Do one thing at a
time. When I finally succeeded, it was with a design that was finished
before I started building, and with an engine that had worked in an
One of my biggest mistakes of all wasn't particularly obvious: My goal
was completely different from the goals of the other people around me.
Most of the other people had the goal of making a television show,
which I saw as a petty distraction. Most of the intrigue that took
place toward the end of the second hour when I self-destructed had
more to do with the director wanting to make good television than with
any real worry he had about the plane. I thought they were rightly
complaining about my failure to finish the plane on time, but they
were just trying to make me mad to create some drama. It sure worked.
In retrospect it was probably a good thing for the show, then, that I
was so dense.
But not everything went wrong. I did learn a few of the positive
lessons that one can also learn in a good startup. The most basic
lesson of all is to be willing to give up the original product concept
in favor of something that works. This happens in nearly every
startup. I thought I was giving up the dream when I accepted Martin's
design rather than mine, but the truth was I didn't give in really
until we moved the show to Ohio in the third hour. I also learned,
pretty much for the first time in my life, to accept help. Thank you,