Small business lessons from the Wright brothers

Business lessons from the Wright brothers

This weekend marked a milestone: Sunday was the 114th anniversary of the Wright brothers’ first successful flight in a heavier-than-air, powered aircraft. And it marked the beginning of a whole new world of travel.

“Within two generations we had taken to the air for routine travel, seen an aircraft break the sound barrier, and watched a man walk on the moon,” writes the National Park Service.

To celebrate one of the greatest achievements of the 20th century, we’re offering five business lessons from the Wright brothers.

1. Don’t fear failure

Both of the Wright brothers experienced more than a few flight crashes – Orville in particular survived eight major ones between 1902 and 1911, not to mention a bad train crash in 1909. Did that stop them? No. Did they learn from the events? Undoubtedly yes. Most notably, the first crash in 1902 paved the way for them to develop the plane that would cement their place in history the following year.

Entrepreneurs and business owners say this time and time again: if you want to do great things, you can’t be afraid to fail. Call it “failing fast,” call it “failing forward” – call it what you will, just don’t be afraid to make mistakes and learn from them.

2. …but take calculated risks

Taking risks can be nerve-racking in any new venture, but when it comes to inventing the first airplane, the risk can quickly become deadly. This challenge was something that the Wrights addressed head-on.

“Wilbur recognized early on one of the key dilemmas facing early flight enthusiasts,” writes John Reeves in Time magazine. “One needed a lot of experience in order to master the various difficulties involved, yet each ‘experiment’ could possibly result in death or serious injury.”

To reduce the risk where possible, the Wrights used a sandy beach in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, and Huffman Prairie in Ohio (which was said to have ground as soft as a lumpy mattress). They also kept their test flights low to the ground, and never flew together so that in the event of a fatal crash, they wouldn’t both die.

“Like a lot of great investors, they were prudent, but not overly cautious, in their approach to risk-taking,” writes Reeves.

Lessons from the Wright brothers: Wright brothers 1906 patent
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3. Lawyer up

The Wrights had a long and drawn-out patent war, and it was a huge strain on both men. Eventually, they hired a patent lawyer, Harry A. Toulmin, to do it for them. “Toulmin tied up the patent so tightly that nobody was able to break it during the life of the patent despite 30 lawsuits of others claiming to be the inventor of the airplane,” explains Wright Stories. The main reason? Toulmin had the patent cover the three-axis system of controls on the glider, not the plane itself.

Of course, this was only a small component of a much longer story (which some point to as the first instance of “patent trolling”), but the lesson is still valid: get a lawyer. Hire a professional. Don’t assume you have enough legal expertise to read over contracts, hire a team, and grow your business. The consequences can be devastating.

4. Always be learning

Neither of the Wright brothers has a high school diploma (though they’d later get a number of honourary degrees) – in fact, the only Wright sibling to graduate from college was the sister, Katharine Wright.

As self-taught engineers, the Wright brothers were constantly expanding their skill-sets. Case in point: in 1901, when the Wrights were testing the lift on a 17-foot glider, they were using Lilienthal data that never seemed to produce the predicted results (at the time they thought the data was false, but experts have since decided they actually were misinterpreting the data). But the important thing is that instead of giving up, they figured out how to build their own wind tunnel and produce their own data.

We talk a lot about employee development, but it’s important that employers continue to learn and grow too – stay up-to-date on trends and changing industry norms, and learn new skills and tools that you can pass along to your team.

Lessons from the Wright brothers: Gleanings in Bee Culture Cover
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5. Make unlikely allies

Everyone needs a friend now and again. And for the Wrights, one such associate came about in an unlikely way. The Wrights were notoriously publicity shy, and didn’t alert the press to many of their notable flights – and so a lot of the sketchy coverage that did come out was riddled with inaccuracies.

Meanwhile, a beekeeping entrepreneur with a penchant for human flight kept reaching out to the Wright brothers, asking to witness some of their tests. They eventually acquiesced, and as a result, Amos Root of Ohio was on hand to witness their first circular flight – and wrote an eyewitness account.

“Root also sent his article to the Scientific American magazine for publication,” says Wright Stories, “but the Scientific American didn’t believe the story was worthy of publication and therefore rejected it.”

Instead, Root published the account in his company’s trade journal, Gleanings in Bee Culture, on January 1, 1905. Not quite as illustrious as Scientific American. But amid the inaccurate press the Wrights were getting, Root produced the only accurate eyewitness account of the Wright brothers’ flights.

See also:
Management lessons from NASA’s James Webb
7 micronations (and what small business owners can learn from them)


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