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Build the Plane Before Adding the Engine

Wright brothers first successful flight Kill Devil Hills North Carolina December 1903

"It’s 1903, and Wilbur and Orville Wright are preparing to fly the worlds’ first piloted aircraft. But meanwhile, Samuel Pierpoint Langley is readying an aircraft of his own. With a small army of staff, and funding from the US government, his prospects look good.

Langley’s basic theory is: build the most powerful engine possible and the plane will stay up. He’s focused on creating an engine so powerful it would thrust a plane into the sky.

On October 7th 1903, he Langley flew his aircraft for the first time with a mighty – but heavy – 50 horsepower engine. It crashed immediately. Two months later, a second attempt. According to a reporter it dropped “like a handful of mortar”.

Langley gave up. He was ridiculed by the press and took heat from members of Congress for wasting taxpayers dollars. (As you can imagine, most people thought flying was impossible.)

Meanwhile, the Wright brothers had taken the opposite approach. Instead of raw power, they’d focused everything on getting the balance and the steering perfect.

They’d built a glider – not a plane – that would glide down from a hilltop with no engine at all. Only after the glider worked by itself did they plan to try and power it.

It took three years, but eventually the glider flew. They commissioned a bicycle shop engineer to build them the smallest, lightest engine possible – a tiny aluminium device with 12 horsepower weighing just 69Kg.

Fixing the engine on the glider, the Wright brothers had a plane. And on December 17th 1903, they made history at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

Today, the Wright brothers are taught in schools while few have heard of Mr Langley."

Source: Glide, Don’t Fly – A Lesson from the Wright Brothers - ICWorld.

There's a strong lesson here for startups.

Think of the plane as the product and the engine as marketing.

So many startups start spending money on acquiring customers through marketing before they have a robust product. They have a product that only just works and focus on "traction" quickly because "traction" is what's needed to get the attention of investors.

They spend money to get traction. Without good unit economics, high conversion rates and repeat business this is like putting a heavy engine in a plane hoping it will take off. If however, like the Wright brother you build a great product that flies, adding marketing will help it fly faster, quicker, further.

This lesson was one that Nilan Peiris explained very clearly yesterday. He was our guest speaker at the Forward Partners Liven #FPlive) Event. Nilan explained that before investing hard in marketing, a startup team need to take care that they have a great product. To do this he recommends in the early days of a startup to look at every single customer on a one by one basis and working out what needs to improve to wow them with the product.

It's only when you've got the product right that you should add the marketing engine.

The story of the Wright brothers is a great reminder of this. Ian Harris (a previous speaker) at #FPlive wrote the story that I quoted at the top of the page and I thought the analogy was so good that I asked him if I could reproduce it here.


Nilan's slides;

5 principles for product driven growth from Nilan Peiris

Future #FPlive events

Find out more about #FPlive events here

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