“The critical ingredient is getting off your butt and doing something. It’s as simple as that. A lot of people have ideas, but there are few who decide to do something about them now. Not tomorrow. Not next week. But today. The true entrepreneur is a doer, not a dreamer.”  

~ Nolan Bushnell, Entrepreneur

Startups Then. Startups Now.

I’ve been a fan of David McCullough’s books for a long time.  He’s an historian who knows how to build a highly readable story from solid research.  History is often more vivid than fiction, as you can’t make up some of the funny/crazy/amazing things that people have done through time.

I recently read McCullough’s new book, The Wright Brothers.  While familiar with Wilbur and Orville Wright as inventors of the airplane, I wasn’t familiar with the details of their pathway to legend.  It wouldn’t have been labeled as such in the first years of the 20th century, but the Wright Brothers effectively operated as a startup from 1900 to 1903 when they made their first successful flight with a self-powered machine.

The term ‘startup’ has been used for a while, but certainly has come into prominence in the last twenty years.  Today’s entrepreneurship programs at universities, incubators, accelerators, and entrepreneurial community-building efforts underscore the cultural prestige of startups as a means to innovation, job creation and professional fulfillment.

But is there something completely unique to our era about startups?  A reading of The Wright Brothers indicates to me that the answer to that question is no. Wilbur and Orville Wright may not have termed their research project and later business a startup, but their activities that resulted in the first airplane shared all the characteristics of what we call startups today.

Found a Secret

Peter Thiel says that entrepreneurs are looking to uncover the world’s secrets.  The insight the Wright Brothers developed was based on their opinion that a reliable method of pilot control was the key to successful, safe flight.  At the outset of their experiments about 1900 they regarded control of an aircraft as their key aim. There was promising knowledge and development in wings (lift) and engines (power) but nothing related to control.  Most experiments in human flight up to that point in time resulted in laughable or tragic failures.  The Wright Brothers’ methods of wing warping and a rear rudder were eventually awarded a patent, and provided the template for airplane control that lasts to this day.

Product Development Through Trial and Error

The Wright Brothers gained very little through existing theories or basic research.  Rather, they developed the first powered airplane through years of trial and error.  Their pathway was through flying kites, carefully watching different kinds of birds in flight, building models, building a wind tunnel, and finally traveling for three straight years from their home in Dayton, Ohio to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina to try their planes.  Theirs is another example of theories following invention, not the other way around.  The Wright Brothers used some of the mathematical aerodynamic theories that had been developed with their second prototype, but they were wrong and a tremendous frustration to their efforts.  Articulate theories on why an airplane works the way it does emerged after the invention.

Intensity of Purpose and Hard Work

John T. Daniels (witness of 1903 first flight) – “It wasn’t luck that made them fly, it was hard work and common sense, they put their whole heart and soul and all their energy into an idea and they had the faith. They were the two workingest boys I ever knew.”

It’s Not the Money, It’s the People

The Wright Brothers weren’t the only ones working on airplanes.  The Secretary of the Smithsonian Institute, a very prestigious position at the time and a PhD, Samuel Langley, had been working on a project for a number of years.  The Langley project cost $70,000, the greater part public money, whereas the Wright Brothers expenses for everything from 1900 to 1903 was less than $1,000, paid entirely from the modest profits of their Dayton, Ohio bicycle business.  The Wright Brothers produced a working airplane, Langley did not.

Team Building

The Wright Brothers in the long-term (and with 20/20 hindsight) could have done much better at building an organization to take business advantage of their invention.  However, during their startup period, they did very well at including the right people at the right time.  Charlie Taylor ran their bicycle shop in Dayton while they were working on the airplane, but became an indispensable part of the team when they turned to construction of an engine for the machine.  He developed what may have been the first aluminum block engine ever, this in the very early days of gasoline powered internal combustion engines.  It was vital that it be light, and the bicycle mechanic came through with a solution neither Wright brother would have been likely able to do themselves.

Generate Skeptics and Believers

The Wright Brothers, and the idea of manned flight, generated all kinds of debate at the time.  Prestigious scientists, professors, and even Scientific American published numerous articles denouncing either the general idea of a workable airplane or specifically the Wright Brothers project as word spread.  The press, the U.S. military, even the local Dayton Newspaper (for a time) were openly skeptical.  Key people, some close to the Wrights, others not, were strong believers, however.  Disruptive ideas and projects generate both strong skepticism and belief, then as now.

Wright Brothers First Flight, December 17, 1903. Orville piloting. Wilbur at the wing.

Wright Brothers First Flight, December 17, 1903. Orville piloting. Wilbur at the wing.