A few decades ago, I became very interested in electronics. The home computer was just beginning to look like a viable product and it occurred to me that devices that used to be purely mechanical were rapidly transitioning to become computerized. Once gas pumps and grocery store checkout counters stopped clacking and banging in favor of beeping and buzzing, it became clear that a change was underway — a change that I’d be better off getting in front of, rather than lagging behind.
Curious and inquisitive, I went to electronics school where I had an amazing teacher. He was an outstanding technician, able to troubleshoot the most complex problems quickly and accurately. He was a good engineer, designing circuits that could do magical things. Once, while visiting my apartment he talked me through building a circuit that allowed me to turn on the living room lights by simply passing my hand over a photo-resistor located on my workbench. He was something else.
For the purposes of this column, let’s call him Electro-boy.
Eventually, Electro-boy got the idea that he could make a better living on his own than he could as an instructor working for a technical school. With high hopes and a deeply seated passion for all things electronic, he left the steady paycheck and stable work environment of the technical institute and set out to rule the world.
You have to admire that kind of drive.
It wasn’t long before he’d rented a storefront in an up-scale suburban shopping center and prepared to fully immerse himself in the ever-expanding world of electronics. A couple months after opening his doors to the public, Electro-boy invited me and a few fellow classmates to come see his new shop. He was as excited as a kid on Christmas morning. He showed us his workbench with great pride, littered as it was with various projects. They were all different and all incomplete. He showed off the workstation which he’d equipped with a computer he built from parts, a printer, and a modem that allowed the computer to talk to other computers by connecting through the telephone system.
That was all pretty radical stuff at the time.
He had guitar amplifiers torn apart in the back room, which he intended to tweak and improve in a hundred different ways. He showed off his parts bin, filled with thousands of tiny solid-state components, a cabinet full of vacuum tubes, and drawer after drawer of transformers and capacitors and all sorts of interesting bits and pieces. We saw so many things and heard so many plans that day, but what we didn’t see was even more important. We didn’t see a single customer.
So, I asked the obvious question. “What are you selling?”
Electro-boy’s expression was blank, like a deer in my headlights. He had no idea. Apparently the thought of developing a product line or a menu of services had never occurred to him.
Not surprisingly, within a matter of months Electro-boy went broke, his shop closed, and he was forced to take a job he didn’t want in order to cover his bills. His enthusiasm and drive were largely gone.
I share this story because we’re seeing much the same thing in the aviation industry today. With a reported pilot and mechanic shortage on the horizon, plenty of passionate aviators are getting excited about the possibility of earning a small fortune training the next generation of pilots and mechanics. And that’s a good thing. There is opportunity out there for those who know how to seize the day.
But there is misery lurking out there too. For those with a passion but no business plan, and those who have drive but only the most nebulous sense of direction — danger lies just over the horizon.
Whether the industry is electronics, or aviation, or the manufacturing of cookie dough, you have to know what you’re doing to be successful. A business has to have a purpose, and that purpose has to be more specifically planned out than simply saying, “I wanna make a lot of money.”
Ours is a service industry for the most part. Primary flight instruction, aircraft rental, proficiency training, required inspections, and the quest for additional certificates and ratings are all service-oriented offerings. There is no tangible product for many of us.
And so we have to design a method of doing business that appeals to the customer, and satisfies the customer, even after they get back home with nothing more substantial to show for their investment than the memory of a flight or an educational experience.
Electro-boy was smart. He was capable. He had all the drive and enthusiasm in the world, but he failed because he didn’t have a solid plan that he could implement, evaluate, and then tweak as necessary over time. That’s a common mistake for those who want to start a business. The passion is there, but the product or service is not.
Yet, if we plan for business as carefully as we would plan for a cross-country flight or a practical test, our odds of success go up exponentially. You can take that to the bank — both literally and figuratively.