Flying Solo — For CEOs Only, CEO Shoptalk

Flying solo, Big Red Car? Where did that come from?

Big Red Car here on a cool and gray ATX day. Only getting to 88F today, downright cool. Hot tub tonight for the BRC? Hell, yes!

OK, so there are a number of analogies between flying airplanes and startups — takeoff, reaching cruise, landing. Startup, scale, exit?

One of the most apt analogies is the idea of FLYING SOLO.

Me, the Big Red Car, and the Bonanza with the cross country tip tanks hanging talking aviation v startup mojo. Yeah, I’m looking pretty damn RED.

In life, one doesn’t receive power, one TAKES power. Think about that for a second. Flying solo is about taking power.

Flying solo

When you learn to fly, you are taught by an instructor who has the requisite ratings and experience. A good instructor — a tough instructor — is essential to becoming a competent pilot. You want to be a competent pilot, because it has an impact on the longevity of your existence and who doesn’t want to live forever?

First, there is ground school wherein you learn the science of flight, the rules of the road, the capabilities of the airplane you will be receiving instruction in, and the Air Traffic Control system. There is a lot of stuff to learn including weather. You have to understand weather to be a safe pilot.

“It was a dark and stormy night. We were returning from the East Coast and going into Lubbock after a thunderstorm. The storm had cleared the airport, but ATC had us coming in from the east right through the thunderstorm. We told ATC, ‘No bueno, ATC.'” Let me get back to you with the rest of that story. Happy ending. ATC sends us south and then vectors us to the east side of the airport and all ends well.

There will be a test on this stuff and you can’t be a pilot unless you pass that test. Flying is serious business and if you don’t know what you are doing there can be disastrous consequences. So, you pay attention, study hard, and pass the test.,

Moving on, Big Red Car

Then, you begin your skill training. You will learn how to taxi, takeoff, cruise, land, and communicate. You will learn all about checklists because there is a checklist for everything.

In the midst of this training, one hot day when you are shooting endless touch and goes, the instructor looks at you and says, “Taxi up to the FBO.”

When you do, he says to you, “Time for you to solo. You’ve done this hundreds of times. Take it around the pattern five times and return here to the FBO. Good luck.”

He hops out and leaves you all alone with the plane, the runway, the pattern, and your fledgling skills. You watch him as he walks away. You think, Holy shit! 

Your flight instructor, who has taught hundreds of people to fly, says the instructor prayer: “Dear God, get this one back safely to me. Please.”

You taxi out to the end of the runway, let the Unicom (local radio when there is no tower) know of your intentions, run your pre-flight checklist, rub your eyes, take the deepest breath you have ever taken, take your feet off the brakes, jam that throttle forward, let the airspeed build, hold the runway centerline with rudder, and then you do ………………………… nothing.

The plane reaches rotate speed and with no help from you begins to fly. You ease back on the yoke with your fingertips — you’ve been taught to smooth the plane into the air, to let it fly itself off the runway, not to jerk it airborne. And, you remember your instruction, your training. The training takes over and you are flying. YOU ARE FLYING SOLO!

You watch your air speed indicator and your vertical speed indicator. You climb in that nose up attitude which puts the prop right on the horizon, with both numbers pleasing you. You reach pattern altitude, level off, retard the throttle, settle in at 120 knots, turn crosswind, then downwind, then base, and line up for final. You go through the landing checklist and you get ready to land ALL BY YOURSELF.

Let’s be honest, shall we? In the past, if you screwed up, the instructor would say — in his best Chuck Yeager voice — “I’ve got the flight controls.” He would then extricate y’all from whatever shit hole you’d managed to get yourself, him, and the airplane into. You had a safety net. Today, no safety net.

You watch your airspeed — low airspeed on final approach kills people. You stop flying and you fall out of the sky and you die. You watch your airspeed. If it begins to decline, you push the nose down to build speed. It is a “feel” thing and you are feeling hard for that feeling. Eyeballs go from the gauges to the runway back to the gauges back to the runway.

You get that sight picture in your eyeballs, the one where the runway numbers begin to grow as you descend at slightly less than 500 FPM. You stay on that runway centerline. You put in a bit of rudder because there is the slightest crosswind and rudder trumps crosswind. You dip the upwind wing just slightly and fly a little crooked, but straight. You look at the empty right seat and then you focus on the runway.

Gauges, runway, gauges, runway. Pitch the nose down to build airspeed. Low airspeed kills people. Planes stop flying. You can’t remember the exact stall speed of that airplane, but you know you are close because a landing is just a controlled stall, isn’t it?

Once you fly over the runway numbers, you rotate, you flare, you retard the throttle — and the same way you let the airplane fly itself off the runway, you bleed off the energy and let the plane decide when it’s had enough. When it has, the tires touch the runway, you kill the throttle, and you keep that runway centerline on the nose at all times. You tap the brakes and look for the taxiway turnoff.

You pull off the runway, go through you post-landing checklist. Smile. The biggest smile you have ever smiled.

Then, you do it four more times. The fifth time feels a lot easier than the first time, but your blood is still racing, your heart is still pounding, you are sweating, your lips need constant licking, and you rub your eyes.

The fifth time, you meet your instructor at the FBO. He shakes your hand and welcomes you into the fraternity of men and women who have done what you just did. Flying solo.

At the FBO and afterward

When you get out of the airplane, the guy who exits is different. He has defied gravity by his own hand. You will never, ever be the same. And, that is the way it is supposed to be. You have done something difficult. Well.

Your instructor asks for your tee shirt, which is sweaty. He cuts out a panel and writes the date, the plane tail number, your name, his name, the airport’s identifier. He gives it back to you.

You have to decide what to do with it. You can put it up in your hangar or you can take it home and stuff it into a drawer.

It goes in a drawer. From time to time, you take it out. You can’t resist smelling it because it smells like fear.

You get your license, your get your instrument ticket. You fly Bonanzas for 3,000 hours. You develop some common sense and don’t tempt weather, ice, hail, or storms. A few times you put your fate in the hands of ATC and they vector you around trouble. You fly an instrument approach into places like Charleston where they send you way out over the ocean before they bring you home to safety through the low hanging clouds and you dodge thunderstorms coming back from Denver. You never fly in the mountains after noon.

Still, every so often you take that panel of that tee shirt out, look at the date, smell it. You can smell the fear, but it no longer paralyzes you. You’re cautious, but you own that fear. Your threshold for fear is a lot higher because you’ve been flying solo for a long time now.

You have learned to fly solo. You have paid attention and your dues and flying solo no longer scares you. Still, you remember what fear smells like.


Just like you learned to fly solo, you are a CEO of a startup. At first, you can smell the fear, feel the discomfort, the uneasiness. But, soon, you learn you can do some things. You go back and look at the list of the tough things that CEOs have to learn how to do and you have done a few of them.

CEOs — Doing Tough Things Shoptalk

Turns out you have been flying solo in the CEO business. Maybe you were smart and got a CEO coach or had a mentor or found a wise man on your board. Maybe you just toughed it out. Doesn’t matter how you did it. You did it and you’re flying solo.

And, that, dear CEO, is how the cow ate the cabbage as it pertains to flying solo. If you need a hand, give me a call. You can do this. Get out of here.

But, hey, what the Hell do I really know anyway? I’m just a Big Red Car.



2 thoughts on “Flying Solo — For CEOs Only, CEO Shoptalk

  1. It’s tough not to notice the high fraction of all the issues having to do with co-founders and/or BoD members.

    Hmm …. And, in my town, there are a lot of businesses that look like they are sole proprietorships, 100% owned by solo founders, no co-founders, no BoD. Maybe they are a Subchapter S, maybe an LLC, but definitely not a Delaware C-corporation. Sure, maybe these are not big businesses. Still my guess from what I’ve seen is that just the more successful such businesses are the source of funds for most of the families that pay full room, board, and tuition for their children at Ivy League universities. Why? Darned few employees make that much money. The number of co-founders of Delaware C-corporations is too small in comparison with the more successful 100% owner, solo founders.

    Lesson: For the struggles with co-founders, BoD members, presto, bingo, a 100% owner solves those problems.

    So, yes, a problem for a solo founder, 100% owner can be finding the needed capital and/or labor to start the business, thus, go for co-founders, outside equity investors, and a BoD and Delaware C-corporation.

    So, how to solve this problem? Sure, do a startup where the solo founder, 100% owner has all the capital needed and can do all the labor needed to get to at least a nice lifestyle business and, in case the business can grow quickly, with enough free cash for rapid organic growth.

    Example? Okay: Now with Moore’s law and the Internet, can have a computer from parts for less than $1500 and use that as the server for a Web site. For system and infrastructure software, a lot of that, likely all that is needed, is inexpensive or free. From ad networks, run ads on the site. Then from some standard data about ad rates, e.g., as in the good annual reports from Mary Meeker at the venture firm KPCB, if can get enough users of the Web site to keep the server, say, on average half busy 24 x 7, then can get monthly revenue of $100,000 to $300,000. So, presto, bingo, the founder has a lifestyle business, money enough to pay full cost of room, board, and tuition at an Ivy League college, and enough free cash for rapid organic growth. And the business took less capital to start than a pizza shop, Chinese carryout, red sauce family Italian restaurant, white tablecloth French bistro restaurant, auto repair shop, auto body shop, dentists office, veterinarian’s office, etc. For the labor, sure, have to have a good idea for a Web site and learn how to write the software, write it, get it running, and make it look good to users.

    With some irony, at

    is an article about a single engineer starting a business worth $1 B.

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