Getting your startup off the ground: lessons from the Wright Brothers

Wilbur and Orville Wright are well known as the pioneering brothers who achieved the first powered, sustained, and controlled airplane flight in 1903, then built and flew the first fully practical airplane two years later. Until the Wright brothers came along, flying was a distant dream of people like Icarus. The Wright brothers made flying possible through their insight, their never-say-die attitude, and their focus on innovation.

Wilbur and Orville were independent thinkers with an unshakable faith in the soundness of their judgment, and a determination to persevere in the face of disappointment and adversity. Those qualities, when combined with their technical gifts, help to explain their success as inventors and are the same needed by startup product founders today. Their story is worth retelling as an example of entrepreneurial endeavour and craftsmanship for today’s innovators.

Their original focus was around developing printing presses that they designed and built, showing their technical ability to solving problems in mechanical design. In 1892 the brothers opened a bicycle shop, and developed their own self-oiling bicycle wheel hub. Profits from these two venture funded their aeronautical experiments. In addition, the experience of designing and building lightweight, precision machines of wood, wire, and metal tubing was ideal preparation for the construction of flying machines.

The Wrights fascination with flight originated from a helicopter toy their father brought home from his travels. Made of cork, bamboo and paper, and powered by a rubber band to twirl its blades, the model was based on a design by the French aeronautical pioneer Alphonse Pénaud. Orville recalled it flew across the room till it struck the ceiling, where it fluttered awhile, and finally sank to the floor. It mesmerised the boys and sparked their passion for aviation

A decade later, they’d read accounts of the work of the German glider pioneer Otto Lilienthal, and it was Lilienthal’s death in a glider crash in 1896 that marked the beginning of their serious interest in flight. In 1900 they wrote to Octave Chanute, a leading civil engineer and an authority on aviation who became their mentor during the years of innovation.

The brothers realised that a successful airplane would require wings to generate lift, a propulsion system to move it through the air, and a system to control the craft in flight. They researched these three aspects relentlessly. Their first experiments with ‘wing warping’ as the system would be called, were made with a small biplane kite in the summer of 1899. Discovering that they could cause the kite to climb, dive, and bank to the right or left at will, the brothers began to design their first full-scale glider using Lilienthal’s data to calculate the amount of wing surface area required to lift the estimated weight of the machine and pilot in a wind of given velocity.

Tested in October 1900, the first Wright glider was a biplane featuring 165 square feet of wing area and a forward elevator for pitch control. The glider developed less lift than expected, however. The Wrights increased the wing area of their next machine. Establishing their camp at the foot of the Kill Devil Hills, south of Kitty Hawk, the brothers completed 100 glides in the summer of 1901, the best of which covered nearly 400 feet. The 1901 aircraft was an improvement over its predecessor, but it still did not perform as well as their calculations had predicted.

Realising that the failure of their gliders to match calculated performance was the result of errors in the experimental data published by their predecessors, the Wrights constructed a small wind tunnel with which to gather their own information on the behaviour in an airstream of model wings of various shapes and sizes. The brilliance of the Wright brothers, their ability to visualise the behaviour of a machine that had yet to be constructed, was seldom more apparent than in the design of their wind-tunnel balances, the instruments mounted inside the tunnel that measured the forces operating on model wings.

During the Autumn and early Winter of 1901, they tested 200 wing designs. With the results of the wind-tunnel tests in hand, the brothers began work on their third full-scale glider. With the aerodynamic and control problems resolved, the brothers pressed forward with the design and construction of their first powered machine – a four-cylinder internal-combustion engine with the assistance of Charles Taylor, a machinist from their bicycle shop. By winter 1903, they were ready to fly.

The brothers tossed a coin to see who would first test the Wright Flyer. Older brother Wilbur won the toss, but his first attempt was unsuccessful and damaged the aircraft. Three days later, with better weather, Orville lay flat on his stomach on the plane’s lower wing and took the controls. At 10.35 a.m. on December 17, 1903, the Wright Flyer moved down the guiding rail with Wilbur running alongside to balance the machine. Orville made the first successful flight, covering 120 feet through the air in 12 seconds.

Wilbur flew 175 feet in 12 seconds on his first attempt, followed by Orville’s second effort of 200 feet in 15 seconds. During the fourth and final flight of the day, Wilbur flew 852 feet over the sand in 59 seconds. For the first time in history, they had demonstrated powered and sustained flight under the complete control of the pilot.

Determined to move from the marginal success of 1903 to a practical airplane, the Wrights built and flew two more aircraft. By October 1905 the brothers could remain aloft for up to 39 minutes, performing controlled manoeuvres. Then, concerned that the essential features of their machine would be copied, the Wrights ceased flying and remained on the ground until their invention was protected by patents and they had negotiated a contract for its sale: in 1908, they signed a contract for the sale of an airplane to the U.S. Army, receiving $25,000 for delivering a machine capable of flying for at least one hour with a pilot and passenger at an average speed of 40 miles per hour.

There is perhaps no better epitaph for the Wright brothers than the words crafted for the plaque on the 1903 Wright airplane on display at the Smithsonian Museum: By original scientific research, the Wright brothers discovered the principles of human flight. As inventors, builders and flyers, they further developed the aeroplane, taught man to fly, and opened the era of aviation.

So, what can we take from their entrepreneurial exploits and remarkable innovation for today’s founders’ endeavours?

1. They demonstrated diligent, persistent, hard work John Daniels watched that first controlled flight in December 1903, and took the famed photo of the event, reported, It wasn’t luck that made them fly; it was hard work. They put their heart and soul and all their energy into an idea.

It took four years before that day at Kitty Hawk, years of failures, delays, accidents and disappointments, constantly making improvements, just to fly a few feet on a sandy beach. The same can be said today in a world so different from 1903. Entrepreneurs still need the qualities of persistence, diligence, hard work and conviction.

They studied the flight of birds for years and took their time with experiment after experiment labouring on, reminding me of Edison’s statement I have not failed, I have just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.

2. They were ever curious about overcoming failures and taking calculated risks Young children are unceasing askers, the ‘whys?’ are never ending. Everything is new and unknown and they’re on a mission of discovery to figure things out. That inquisitiveness is why we have high shelves and childproof bottles.

The Wright Brothers were the same, relentlessly asking Why is this happening?, How might we?. For any problem-solving challenge, simply pause and ask why conditions or assumptions are so until you arrive at the root of the problem. Why is this solution better? Why not that one? Better results come from embracing uncertainty. Curiosity is the engine of creativity.

Equally, if you want to do great things, you can’t be afraid to fail. Call it failing fast or failing forward, just don’t be afraid to make mistakes and learn from them. It wasn’t luck that made them fly, they had faith in their ability to get to where they wanted.

3. Take a dragonfly-eye view Dragonfly-eye perception is common to great problem solvers. Dragonflies have large, compound eyes, with thousands of lenses and photoreceptors sensitive to different wavelengths of light.

Think of this as widening the aperture on a problem or viewing it through multiple lenses. The object is to see beyond the familiar scope into which our pattern-recognising brains want to assemble perceptions. By widening the aperture, we can identify threats or opportunities beyond the periphery of vision.

The secret to developing a dragonfly-eye view is to anchor outside a problem, rather than inside. The Wright Brothers did just this, looking at the challenge from different perspectives – and look at the results.

4. Be open minded – take help from others Every startup founder needs a friend now and again, and for the Wrights one such ally was mentor Octave Chanute. Another came about in an unlikely way. He was a beekeeping entrepreneur.

The first accurate eyewitness article describing the Wright airplane in flight was published in an unlikely publication called Gleanings in Bee Culture in January 1905. Amos Ives Root, the magazine’s creator, publisher and editor, wrote it.  Root was not just a casual observer, rather he was invited by the Wrights to witness, keep detailed notes and write about an important event in the history of aviation. Root produced the only accurate eyewitness account of the Wright brothers’ flights, logging key details for the brothers to study.

5. Agility and experimentation: Minimum viable airplane The brothers were not the first to try to build a flying machine. However, what distinguished their approach was that they focused on flying, failing and learning. Other inventors at the time were taking the classic waterfall approach – build complex designs, execute them and make a great public demonstration.

The first plane was not built in a single phase. What they first built was just enough for gliding, and then they added rudders, controls and finally the motor. Each stage was a skeleton – what we’d call a prototype today: build a basic version, test and learn, iterate and keep adding additional functionality. At every stage, the flying machine was fully usable and they conducted their experiments, found roadblocks, challenges and focused on them.

Wilbur and Orville were builders at heart. Their workshop was their happy place. On most days, Wilbur would be seen in his overalls with greasy hands. An important lesson for all startup founders: your work is your baby, don’t be under pressure to demonstrate or perform until you are ready.

6. Test, test, test The Wright brothers didn’t sit in an office and dream. They didn’t create a PowerPoint and pitch an unformed idea. They went out into the field (literally) and tested their prototypes, risking their lives in the process. Success came because they built something of value that the world needed, even if the world didn’t recognise it yet.

That they were relentless in their experimentation and testing is a key takeaway. Test your ideas. Prove your theories. Their tests continued to advance. Instead of flying, say, 1000 feet, the duration of their test flights rose to 11, 12 and then 15 miles.

In recognition of the Wrights, when another aeronautical pioneer from Ohio, Neil Armstrong, became the first man to step foot on the moon in 1969, in his spacesuit pocket was a piece of muslin fabric from the left wing of the original 1903 Wright Flyer, along with a piece of wood from the airplane’s left propeller.

The best dividends on the labour invested have invariably come from seeking more knowledge rather than more power – Wilbur Wright. So much has changed in innovation, yet so much remains the same.

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