Running A Business And Being A Test Pilot, Same Thing

Here is a great business guest post by Mark Jones, Jr. After 12 years in the Air Force and five years of Baby Steps, Mark is a debt-free entrepreneur and experimental test pilot. Mark has just published You Can Be a Test Pilot, a book that shows you how to chart a course to your dreams. Find out more at MultiplyLeadership.com.

There is a distinct difference between running a business and doing things the EntreLeadership way. It takes a special kind of person to do the latter—a maverick of sorts, someone with “the right stuff.”  There are several similarities, it turns out, between running a business and being an experimental test pilot.

Entrepreneurs take risks. That’s a given. But how risky are they really? Test pilots also take risks, pushing their airplanes to the edge of the envelope and beyond.  The secret to success in both cases is knowing when and how to take big risks.  If you want to take your business to new heights, take note of these three strategies that test pilots use when facing risk.

Start Small
You probably don’t know this, but a test pilot starts by playing it relatively safe. There are months of ground tests before an experimental airplane ever flies for the first time.  Once it takes off, the pilot proceeds with small steps, carefully using a very scientific build-up approach to get closer to the edge of the envelope.

The same should be true for your business. Starting small also means that you are measuring your progress.  You must establish metrics to evaluate your success. You cannot ignore the numbers, and you must have a goal.

Expect the Unexpected
Engineers and test pilots make very calculated risks with detailed procedures, and they script out contingency plans for countless scenarios. They play through these “unexpected” outcomes in their minds, on paper and in flight simulators.  Not only do they know what to do if things go wrong, but they also establish criteria to evaluate these contingencies. They know precisely what the warning signs will look like.

You know what success looks like for your business, but what about the first signs of failure? If things don’t go exactly as planned, how will you notice the red flags? What precisely will you measure to get the first hint of danger? Additionally, you need to consider the most likely outcome if you miss your target.  What will you do if your idea is a flop? What will happen if the market doesn’t respond the way you planned?

Prioritize and Allocate Resources
Airspeed is a pilot’s best friend. Airplanes can’t stand still like helicopters. Altitude is also very important on flight test missions. If something goes wrong, it might take several thousand feet—diving straight towards the ground—to get it fixed and pull out of the dive.  These are both very valuable resources that the pilot must manage intentionally.

But fuel is the one resource that is truly limited.  During takeoff, a large airplane or fighter jet can burn over 50,000 lbs of fuel per hour. That’s almost 150 gallons per minute.  You cannot borrow your way out of fuel starvation. No fuel means that you’ve just become a glider pilot.

Business needs to operate on the same principles. Borrowing or even just operating without a budget is dangerous.

Adopt these three strategies and develop a plan to take risks the right way, and soon you’ll be flying high.

Question: What “safe” risks have you taken with your business? 

 

Resources:

Zig Ziglar’s wheel of life

Key Results Area

DISC

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75 thoughts on “Running A Business And Being A Test Pilot, Same Thing”

          1. I appreciate you Matt. I’m now 27, soon to be 28 and I now feel like I’m much more successful in life after a glimpse of you at 28 😉

    1. Idk enough about planes to recommend. But I say one that’ll make him scream like a grade school girl, cuz THAT video would be priceless!

  1. Love this Mark. To answer your question, I started my marketing coaching business as you prescribe and I did it while having a great, full-time job with…..wait for it……..the Air Force! I’m at the Pentagon now still doing Public Affairs.

  2. Great post Mark – love your points, especially to expect the unexpected. It is so important in business (and in personal life) to look at your options, and have backup plans – need to revisit that in my own world. thanks for the reminder!

      1. I work at a nonprofit, so most of what I do needs to be planned with backup plans for backup plans. We did a mobile food pantry today with a semi, 40 volunteers and 200 families receiving food in our back parking lot, and in the middle of all that, our computer server went down. Yikes! It all worked out in the end, but better planning for the food pantry would have made it less critical that I got pulled off for the server. Life is never boring!

  3. Man, Mark, great post! I love this concept of safe or calculated risks! It’s easy to think that taking risks means just doing something willy-nilly. But that shouldnt be. We should, like a test pilot have already thought of, measured, and weighed the risk and created a contingency in case things go wrong.
    A risk I took lately was meeting with my boss and telling him I was looking for another job. It was a risk b/c of the chance of being fired or treated poorly after (not so much by him, but by the general manager that runs his business).
    I knew the risk and I weighed the risks with the benefits (doing the right thing, new job) and then accepted this calculated risk.

    Thanks for the post Mark! It’s a great reminder to be successful ive gotta take risks, but that doesn’t mean completely losing control either.

    1. Congrats on meeting with your boss. I can be scary to talk to your boss/supervisor about things like that, but I’ve learned a couple of things personally.

      First, if you’re a good, reliable worker, you’ll have much better success. Your boss will want to keep you (again, if you’re doing a good job), and they wouldn’t want to just fire you (at least not any time soon). They would have to consider the ramifications of replacing you.

      Secondly, if you have a good boss, he’ll want to help you. He may be able to help get you into a “different seat on the bus,” if that is desired.

      I’ve talked to my bosses, and they are understanding. I am a great worker, so they don’t want to lose me; but they also realize that I won’t be happy staying where I am – thus becoming a worse worker.

      1. He did offer me another position. I don’t like this industry and REALLY don’t like the General Manager, so I politely declined 🙂
        But he has been great and willing to be a reference etc for me

    2. Good for you Mark!

      I did the same thing once (oh so I did take a calculated, safe risk once). He was shocked and hurt, but asked me to name my last day. He said if I wanted to leave in two weeks, that was OK, but he asked me to stay at least a month and told me if I wanted to stay longer I could.

      I knew the risk was there was a 5% chance he would tell me to wrap things up fast and I would go about 3 weeks with no income, but he needed to know and I needed to do the right thing and make sure I had the chance to leave the right way.

      Then I ended up working two jobs for three weeks…that sucked.

      1. All that’s happens is what I described. I’m looking for new employment and suffering through my days at my job 🙂

        1. That sounds familiar. Incidentally, I quit my job in 2011 before I read Quitter. LaterI wrote a review of Quitter (see my friend’s blog takepermission.com for more on that story)–I saw myself in every page and wished I had read Quitter before I quit: I was not listening in meetings, impatient, dreading Monday.

          You have before you an opportunity to grow in character–diligence, endurance, etc.–the kind of character you will need in the next stage of your life. You have before you “acres of diamonds” (you should read that story too), even in your present place. Use it wisely!

          (And you have a paycheck still.)

          In the book You Can be a Test Pilot, I talk about how to plan for the future…even when there’s uncertainty and risk. Will you let me send you a Kindle copy of the book?

  4. The other side of “Airspeed is a pilot’s best friend” is that you can’t steer a plane that isn’t moving. Too many of us sit around spending all our time doing the prep work and never getting around to strapping our butts into the seat and pulling back the yoke.

    At some point you’ve got to get moving or you’re just going to sit there on the ground watching the little control surfaces on the plane go up and down with absolutely no effect on the plane whatsoever.

    Great thoughts for a Friday!

  5. I am not a business owner (maybe in the future!), but this is great stuff for me to file away in my “highly organized” mind (“highly organized” is subject to definition). These principles can also be applied in many areas of life. Take risks, but calculated, intentional risks.

  6. Good scientists know you don’t work with more material than you can handle in case of explosion, implosion,combustion,fusion or fission… know your safety parameters, use your guidelines, but once in awhile you have to light the match to see what a new combination will yield. You don’t want a business with a short half life. You want to stay on exponential growth curve, so need to have protocol and alternate hypothesis ready to go. Sometimes you don’t get the results you started for, but sometimes the results take you in a new path that enables you to operate in outerspace!

  7. Great post Mark! I very well understand the analogy. My husband is a mechanical engineer who worked in aviation for a few years. He is also a pilot and on one of our first dates he signed me up for flying lessons. In aviation, in business and in life you have to take all your possible scenarios into consideration. You have to know how to read your instruments to gauge if you’re going in the right direction. In many cases “Oooops, I missed” is not an option. Thanks for the great insight.

    And yes, we need a video of CLo spinning around.

  8. Ah…this reminds me of the time I was a stunt pilot.

    I just made that up.

    I honestly cannot think of a safe risk I ever took. Stupid ones abound. Safe ones not so much. I tended to jump back and forth between the two extremes…insane risk that fails followed by months of playing it close to the vest. Brilliant.

    And Mark, GREAT post!

  9. “Safe” risks in my business? ~ It’s like driving my bicycle with side stands on. It is not going to take me anywhere.

    I think the human tendency is to avoid the risk. Success lies in balancing things and taking sensible and calculated risk.

  10. Great post…love the metaphor and comparison here! I have noticed that times I’ve been able to make the best changes are the times where I’ve had a “backup” plan just in case 😀

    I also just heard something awesome.

    It’s E + R = O

    Events + Response = Outcome. Meaning that events will happen to us and it’s our response to them them that affects the outcome of the situation. I feel that fits right in with what you’re talking about. You can thank Kent Julian for that little equation!

  11. Expecting the unexpected is similar to my approach when making a hard decision – I always ask “What is the worst thing that could happen?” Then, I think about ways to handle the worst outcome. If I have a plan that I can live with, then things don’t seem so risky.

      1. Deciding between 2 good options, spending a chunk of money on something for my business, responding to a request to do something that will cost me a lot of time, and once, what sort of anesthesia to choose for a foot surgery! So far my life hasn’t contained any horrific do-or-die decisions.

  12. I really appreciate this post. I think safe risks we have taken have been to carefully step into a different line of business – firing a bullet before a cannon ball, if you want to borrow imagery from previous Entreleadership lessons.

    Our core business is offering English courses for company executives. One of our clients has their head office in Paris, France. Just a few months ago they asked us if we could expand our services to also offer French courses.

    Gulp. In some cases, the system of working is the same no matter what language we could offer. But in others, we’re talking about a completely different animal. (Course design, materials, evaluation exams, teachers, interviewing (In French) – would all be different than what we’re used to.)

    Instead of diving head first into a big mess, we first asked our client for some time to get organized. In that time, we started recruiting like crazy for the right person to spearhead the course.

    It took us a few weeks, but we managed to get the right person, and presto…three months later, we had a functioning French program on our hands.

    This was a ‘safe’ risk because of a few factors:
    1. We have a great relationship already established with our client. (Meaning we could ask for time to practice a bit before the real deal.)

    2. We didn’t dive in with a full load of courses. It was just one person, 2 times a week. (Now, 3 months later, we have the possibility of expanding to 3 groups.)

    3. We built a process to help us recruit, interview and hire French teachers. (None of our current admin staff speak French, so we had to build up from scratch!)

    A great learning experience for me….and still learning. 🙂

  13. I’m learning the importance of starting small and measuring my progress. My personal blog has been on a slow rise, but it’s still progress.

    I believe that as long as I prioritize what I think is important then I know it will become successful. But at the same time have to be aware of any “red flags” if I see something isn’t working. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

    Aloha!

  14. I’m learning the importance of starting small and measuring my progress. My personal blog has been on a slow rise, but it’s still progress.

    I believe that as long as I prioritize what I think is important then I know it will become successful. But at the same time have to be aware of any “red flags” if I see something isn’t working. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

    Aloha!

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