The Wright brothers: The O.G. startup founders?

So much has changed. Yet so much remains the same.

I just finished reading the book "The Wright Brothers" by David McCullough. It's a fascinating account of Wilbur and Orville Wright, the two brothers who invented the modern airplane. Until the Wright brothers came along, flying was a distant dream of people like Icarus. The Wright brothers made possible some of the greatest wonders of the 20th-century through their insight, their never-say-die attitude, and their focus on innovation.

However, the part that really caught my eye was how similar their story was to a lot of startups that we admire and celebrate. Two young founders built something that nobody could even imagine, and find themselves forever framed in the annals of history. Even though the story was set between 1890-1910 or so, it might very well have been the last decade where software truly started eating the world. Here are some things that stood out:

Non-traditional background: The Wright brothers did not have any formal training and were first-generation entrepreneurs. Their father was a preacher, and unlike many others of their time, they didn't have the money to invest in their research and innovation. They did not have any formal training in aviation, and in fact, didn't have a college degree. All of their knowledge was self-taught! They probably had the outsider's advantage.

Second-time founders: Trying to build airplanes was not their first business. Orville had earlier started a newspaper called the West Side News, of which Wilbur was the editor. It became a reasonable success but not seeing as much long-term growth potential, they decided to shut down and start a cycle manufacturing business which became fairly successful. A classic story of persevering and pivoting until they found their true mission and passion - flying!

Bootstrapped: Building the flying machine was their purpose, their obsession, and their mission. However, they funded all of it thanks to their bicycle business. All the profits were funneled into flying. It was a lot of risk at the time, but hats off to their enterprise and resourcefulness. All the respect is well deserved - bootstrapping is never easy, and bootstrapping the R&D required to build a plane was even harder.

Full-stack tinkerers: The brothers were amazingly talented - and did everything from the mathematics behind flight all the way to sewing the wings to cleaning and cooking of their quarters. It's amazing how similar it sounds to early-stage startups where we value cross-functional expertise and small two-pizza teams can do more damage than armies of mediocre talent.

Agility and experimentation: The brothers were not the first to try to build a flying machine. However, what distinguished their approach was that they focused a lot on "flying", failing and learning. A lot of other scientists and inventors at the time would take the classic waterfall approach - build complex designs and then execute them and trying to make a great public demonstration. Oftentimes, the person doing the experimental flying was not the inventor or founder. The brothers decided early on that they would focus on flying themselves - even though it was very dangerous - and learn and constantly improve their machine.

Minimum Viable Airplane: The first plane was not built in a single phase - what they first built was just enough for gliding, and then they added rudders and controls and finally the motor. Each stage was a Walking Skeleton - which is what a lot of modern product development literature focuses on. Build a basic version, test and learn, and 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.

Ignored by everybody else: For the longest time, while they were building the plane, media and society majorly ignored them, thinking such a product didn't have promise. Nobody paid attention to them, while the media was busy writing about the super-funded Langley's experiments or the impossibility of human flight. They, of course, proved them wrong and Media turned around and became their best friends.

Competition galore: The Wright Brothers operated in a space where there would be new folks who popped up regularly trying to understand the intricacies of flight and take different shots at the problem - not just in the US, but in many parts of the world. Europe, esp. France was particularly active and a lot of heads of state were personally invested in this. In the US, the State Department had invested money behind the wrong competitors and had lost interest in solving this problem thinking its intractable. In some ways, they benefited by studying others' failures with the help of Octave Chanute who sent them reading material but also by the fact that luck dealt a good hand - they didn't die in a crash before solving the problem. As I mentioned earlier, many competitors had much more funding but these indie hackers managed to build a system that tens of thousands of dollars (millions in today's dollars) could not solve. More power to hackers and tinkerers.

Builders at heart: Wilbur and Orville were builders at heart. Their workshop was their happy place. They were not after the limelight - and it was fascinating to read that even on the day that Dayton, OH (their city) organized a massive celebration after their return - and accolades were flying in, they managed to get in 3-4 hours of work in their workshop. On most days, even if Kings or Presidents were waiting for a demonstration, Wilbur would be seen in his overalls with greasy hands and would not just "fly" to oblige them until he was happy. An important lesson for all builders - your work is your baby, don't be under pressure to demonstrate or perform until you are ready!

Everything else's a distraction: After their flight demonstration, when the world had already recognized their genius and the value of their innovation, a lot more of their time got spent in business matters - including protracted patent litigation. This was not fun for the Wright brothers. And in this act, they were not driven by the motive of money, in so much as their need to make sure their contribution got recognized. Ultimately, Orville would make close to $1M in WW-1 dollars, close to $10M in today's money, but nowhere close to what "wealthy" would mean at the time, esp for an invention that literally changed the world. They were driven by the joys of building, more than the commercialization.

Co-founder relationship: This occurred to me while reading the book. Wilbur and Orville had different strengths and had their set of differences, but they stuck together and created something great. Given how many founder relationships go awry, even amongst brothers, it's incredible to read about their dedication to each other.

I will leave you with a quote from the brothers - which epitomizes the indie/hacker spirit that we all need to preserve:

The best dividends on the labor invested have invariably come from seeking more knowledge rather than more power. - Wilbur Wright

So much has changed. Yet so much remains the same.

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