Flying Lessons

Flying Lessons

Angus Davis, founder and CEO of Swipely, on the lessons he learned from flying that now apply to entrepreneurism.

About 10 years ago, after joining Netscape as its youngest employee, Angus Davis learned how to fly airplanes. Along the way, he grew the company he co-founded—voice recognition startup Tellme—into an $800 million business bought by Microsoft, and became the founder and CEO of payment company Swipely.

Recently, he sent an email to his company recounting some of his most important and relevant lessons from flying to help guide them in their approach to the business and their careers. After reading it, we thought it should be shared with even more people in the startup community. Davis generously agreed to adapt and re-publish it here.

I remember how it felt to take off for the first time, alone and in command of a small airplane. It was both thrilling and terrifying. Upon landing, I was drenched in sweat and grinning from ear to ear. For my entrepreneur friends reading this, I imagine this may be somewhat similar to the feelings you have on the flight deck of your own business.

While I don't fly regularly today, I often use my pilot training in business. I thought I would share four flight lessons that have been particularly helpful to me in the pilot’s seat:

  • The Emergency Checklist; Remaining Calm
  • The "Four C's"
  • Bad Instruments
  • Takeoffs & Landings

1. The Emergency Checklist; Remaining Calm

A common flight training scenario is the "stall," which is not the result of the engine stopping, but rather, the airplane's wings being at an angle and speed that no longer generates enough lift to keep the plane aloft.

Flying a small, 4-seat piston engine airplane is always a little nerve-wracking, but a stall really gets your attention. You start losing altitude. Fast. A "stall warning horn" sounds an alarm that literally hurts your ears. And the corrective action is counter-intuitive: Push the yoke forward, dive nose down, increase speed and regain lift. It's scary.

Sometimes my instructor would practice a different type of emergency: "Engine out." To simulate this, he would cut the fuel-air mixture, literally turning off the engine. "Ok, your engine is out," he would say, as if the excruciating silence of the aircraft wasn't enough to get the message across. My goal: Point the airplane toward any safe flat place to land. Work the problem. Communicate.

During instrument training, I practiced "unusual attitudes." When flying in clouds, you have no reference to the ground or horizon. An inexperienced pilot may think he’s flying straight and level, but really he’s in a banking climb or at another unusual attitudes, precariously on the verge of a stall. For maximum fun, my instructor would simulate a stall at unusual attitudes while I wore goggles so I could only see the instruments in front of me. He would follow this immediately or combine it with an engine out. Trifecta! Scarier. But, again, the key to surviving is to remain calm and work the emergency checklist.

I learned emergency training has two objectives: First, to learn how to resolve emergency situations; but second, and more importantly, to learn the true value of remaining calm when you’re facing the worst.

Only by remaining calm and working your checklist will you survive.

In March 2012, I put this training to use. Months earlier, Swipely had signed a partnership with a company to help enable our payment system. It was a Friday night, and I had just returned to the office from an unsuccessful fundraising meeting with an investor. The figurative stall warning horn was going off — we had only a few months of runway in the bank — and my first child was about to be born in a few weeks.

Then it got worse. My CFO and VP of Business Development sat me down to tell me the partner was reneging on our deal. I remember the look in their eyes, anticipating my inevitable freakout. Sometimes, I let my emotions get the better of me, like any human. But this time was different. This was an “engine out” emergency.

I leaned back in my chair, gathered my wits, and remembered my pilot training. Worst case we were going out of business. Where is the safe patch of ground to land the plane? Ok, now, what can we do to work this problem? What does the checklist look like? What steps can we take to keep flying?

That night, we left the room with an action plan. In the coming weeks, we signed a much better deal with a much stronger partner. A few months later, we launched our payments offering, and since then we've been growing annual recurring revenue by over 50% every quarter.

Don't panic. Stay calm. Work the checklist.

2. The Four C's

I'll never forget my first "cross country" solo flight. In this scenario, you fly a long distance (more than 150 miles), land, and return home safely. The key skill here is navigation.

No matter what you’re doing, there’s always some chance you’ll get lost. Pilots learn a variety of tactics to reorient themselves, and with the advent of modern GPS technology, it's a rare occurrence. But it still happens. As a pilot, my instructor taught me that if I get lost and all else fails, follow "the four C's":

  • Climb: Gain some altitude. Buy time. You may get a better view of your location. Your radio will reach further.
  • Communicate: Get on the radio with Air Traffic Control as soon as you can.
  • Confess: Swallow your ego. Admit you need help and tell ATC you’re lost.
  • Comply: Without abdicating your responsibility as pilot in command, follow the direction you’re given.

One time, I was coming in to land at Palo Alto Airport, and the tower told me I was fourth in line to land behind several other planes. I waited, but before long, I realized there was a problem. I could only seetwo planes in front of me, which meant I might be dangerously close to the third and not even know it.

When your life is on the line, there’s no shame in asking for help. I called the tower and admitted I wasn’t where I should be. Thankfully, they had all planes in sight, and a controller guided me out of harm's way. Within 30 seconds, I was back in line and all of the planes landed safely.

In business, like in flight, we sometimes find ourselves in a pickle not knowing which way to go.

About a year ago, I was in a situation where I hadn’t set the right expectations with a key member of my team. I’ll spare the details, but I felt exactly like I did hovering over Palo Alto Airport, worrying a mid-air collision could happen any second. So I followed the 4 C’s: I gained altitude by taking a step back from the challenge and asking my colleague for a bit of time to think about how to solve our problem. I called a trusted board member and confessed my problem. We talked it over, and I agreed with his reasoning on what needed to be done. Not long after, the problem was resolved.

As your organization grows, you will almost certainly find yourself in a similar kind of jam. It still happens to me, and it will happen to you. Try to remember the 4 C's as a tool to help in tough situations:

  • Climb: Buy time, up-level the conversation, engage a manager.
  • Communicate: Loop in your manager, an advisor, a board member, or someone else who can help.
  • Confess: Directly and honestly admit the problem, even if you’re at fault. It's OK.
  • Comply: Follow instructions you’re given by objective parties to solve the problem.

3. Bad Instruments

I grew up with a cat named Curdle. We fed her "9 Lives" canned food, providing half a can in the morning, half at night. The half-used can went in the fridge with a plastic cover that fit perfectly over the can.

Later as a pilot, I used a similar plastic cover for a different purpose. When flying by instruments alone, you can’t see the ground or the horizon. You’re dependent on a "six pack" of dials indicating airspeed, vertical speed, rate of turn, artificial horizon, altimeter, heading indicator.

The airspeed indicator connects to a little tube outside the airplane, which can easily get clogged with ice or debris. Imagine your airspeed indicator drops, and instead of flying at 120 knots, you’re suddenly slowing down, dangerously close to stall speed. You put your nose down. The airspeed indicator doesn't change while your altimeter begins to drop, your vertical speed indicator shows a descent of 500 feet per minute. What’s actually happening?

Your airspeed indicator is broken, and looking at it any longer is going to kill you.

That's why pilots carry rubber covers, just like the one I used on cat food as a child: to hide broken instruments. There's no sense looking at something that’s only going to lure you, like a siren song, into a crash landing.

We also have indicators in business, and sometimes looking at them causes us to make bad calls. For example, imagine a salesperson closes a huge deal. Wow, great! But is that a positive indicator of success we should celebrate? At Swipely, a salesperson should close several deals per month. If she achieves her goal solely by winning a single "elephant" opportunity rather than the anticipated number of "deer" opportunities, is she really on track for sustainable success? Maybe not.

Here’s another example. One time I received an email from a colleague pointing out that two people on our team had dramatically underperformed at converting qualified leads into sales opportunities. I looked at the Salesforce report and lo and behold, their conversion rate was much worse than our average.

But upon closer inspection, I realized there was a simple explanation—these two people were fielding a disproportionate number of leads from the “live chat” feature on our website. Leads from that source are not very good. The problem wasn’t with the two people in question; it was with the lead source, and without that context, the indicator was wrong.

Learn how to look at all the instruments in the cluster. If the primary instruments disagree, one of them is probably giving you a faulty reading. Cover it up. Don't let a broken instrument determine your fate.

4. Takeoffs and Landings

As a pilot, we learned various mnemonics, like "IMSAFE" (illness, medication, stress, alcohol, fatigue, eating), as a sort of personal checklist before taking off on any flight. Simple rules like "eight hours from bottle to throttle" prevent flying while under the influence. Of course, checking the weather is an essential part of any pre-flight plan, and is the most common reason to postpone or even cancel a planned flight.

With this in mind, my instructor taught me:

Takeoffs are optional, but landings are mandatory.

Some decisions we make set in motion an irreversible series of events. While it's easy to delay a takeoff due to bad weather, once you’re off the ground, your only two options are to land the plane or die.

In the startup business, we’re often faced with high-stakes binary decisions. For instance, hiring someone onto our team is optional. And if we compromise our principles, values or quality bar to hire someone who is not up to snuff, it's no different than making an ill-advised takeoff into a storm while tired. Your likelihood of a safe landing is doomed.

Delaying or canceling a flight is annoying at best, and often painful, with real negative repercussions for your goals. But it’s always, without exception, better to delay a takeoff than to fail a landing.

In our culture of innovation, a willingness to fail is key to success. Trying new features, trying new marketing ideas, what have you. These are relatively low-cost activities where fast failure is acceptable. But some decisions — hiring being chief among them — have a very high cost of failure. In these cases, remember: Takeoffs are optional, but landings are mandatory.

Closing Thoughts

This is the last full week in the quarter. Whether you’re winning a new customer, shipping an important feature, or getting lunch to show up at the office on time, you are helping to build something. And most of you reading this are building that something at a phenomenal pace. Every day you face tough challenges and difficult decisions.

I hope that these lessons from my pilot training can help you learn to fly too.

Many thanks to my flight instructor, Joshua Smith, for teaching me these lessons that I've carried long past the runway.