How a Business is Like an Airplane: originally appeared on Quora: The best answer to any question. Ask a question, get a great answer. Learn from experts and access insider knowledge. You can follow Quora on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+.
I am often asked the question, "What does it feel like to start your own company?" I often answer: "It feels like you're jumping off a cliff and building an airplane on the way down".
Starting a company is not an easy feat. Many people, scared of the potential of failure, will decide not to take the first step -- the proverbial leap of faith. Leaving a steady 9 to 5 job to dive into the unknown is hard. It becomes especially harder when you have a mortgage; car payments; a wife; kids; responsibility. But for those who decide to do it, so begins a journey into the unknown. A journey into a land of endless possibilities but also obstacles that need to be overcome. Some will come out successful (see What has Kevin Systrom's life been like since the Facebook acquisition?) but many (probably the vast majority) will fail and come out with some lessons learned and hopefully some motivation to go at it again with their next venture (see Failure: What was a time when you risked everything and failed?).
So why do people compare building a company to jumping off a cliff and building an airplane? First of all, let's be clear: entrepreneurs do not fall off the cliff -- they leap. It's a decision. They calculate the associated risks of making the jump, and they just do it. They don't hesitate. They see a vision and will do everything in their power to make it happen. After they jump, the journey has only just begun. Over 90 percent of businesses will hit the ground and fail before they are able to get their plane up and running. Why? Because building a sustainable business is hard. A million things need to happen properly and all at once in order for it to really take off.
In the early 1900s, the Wright Brothers decided that if they were able to figure out how to create "flight", the world would be different and better place. The odds were clearly against them. They didn't have the money, fame, or expertise that others had. However, they had perseverance and undying passion unlike anyone else. And because of that, they were able to launch the first human into the air with their make-shift plane.
Like the concept of flight, when you start a business, a million things need to happen in order for it to take off:
Pilots: Pilots are responsible for guiding and controlling the aircraft. In order to be a pilot for a commercial airline, you need at least 1,500 hours of experience. It's no easy feat to fly a plane and takes a lot of skill and precision to do so. Pilots help the plane take off and land safely. When pilots lose control of the plane, the plane will crash. In a business, the pilots are the founders. They see what's ahead and steer the plane to avoid danger. They know everything that's going on with the business and make the right decisions to ensure that it's able to get to where it needs to go. Large planes require multiple pilots to fly the aircraft (i.e. captain, first officer, etc.). In a business, there are often multiple founders to help steer the business, because operating a company can be difficult.
Wings: Wings are fins with a surface that produces lift for flight. In order for an aircraft to take off, it needs wings. The more aerodynamic the wing, the faster and higher a plane can climb. In a business, the wing is represented by your idea. The better your idea, the faster and higher your business will climb. Without a solid idea, your business will not take off. However, can a plane with just wings take off? No. Similarly, can a business with just an idea take off? No. Like an aircraft, your idea needs to work in conjunction with the rest of your business for it to succeed. In other words, even if you have a great idea but poor execution, your business may not succeed.
Fuel: In order for a plane to fly, it needs something to propel it forward - that's the engine. But for an engine to work, it needs fuel. In a business, fuel is cash. As the saying goes, "cash is king". The #1 reason most businesses fail is because it runs out of cash. Businesses can obtain cash from founders, customers, or investors. Cash is crucial to the survival of a business just as fuel is critical for an airplane to fly. If an airplane burns all the fuel before it arrives at its final destination, it will fall out of the sky and crash. A business is no different.
Engine: An engine on an aircraft is part of the propulsion system that provides the plane with mechanical power through the burning of fuel. Without engines, a plane cannot fly. In a business, marketing is the engine. Businesses pump cash into marketing to generate awareness about the business' products and services. Would there be any use for Facebook if no one even knew what it was? One of the common pitfalls of a business is that no one knows about it. Successful businesses know how to leverage effective marketing strategies to get the product or service into the hands of consumers.
Crew: Both the in-flight and ground crews are responsible for the well being of the aircraft and all passengers on board. They need to understand how the plane works and also liaise with the pilot to ensure that the plane can get from point A to point B safely. In a company, the crew is the employees. Many argue that businesses succeed because of the people. Without the right employees, a business may not realize the vision of the founders. Employees work day-in and day-out to ensure that the business makes money and that customers are happy. In an airline, rigorous processes are in place to ensure that the crew is top notch and can cater to the passengers of the aircraft. Businesses should also spend a lot of resources to ensure that they hire the right people for the job.
Fuselage: The fuselage is the main body of a plane that holds it together. It is very sturdy and protects everyone inside from the cold temperatures and unstable air outside. In a business, the culture is the fuselage. It holds the whole company together. If developed correctly, the culture encourages hard work, (calculated) risk taking, determination, and ultimately success. Many companies are known for its culture. In fact, some companies even argue that corporate culture can be a competitive advantage (see Zappos). The culture of a company includes all the "unwritten rules" that drive decision making and corporate norms.
Passengers: Sometimes airplanes carry people and cargo. These are known as commercial airlines. Airlines must ensure that passengers are happy and safe at all times. When you are operating a company, the passengers are your customers. They are flying with you because they choose to. Businesses need to keep their customers happy at all times. If your "passengers" are hungry, feed them. If they don't feel safe, comfort them. If they have questions, answer them.
Are you scared of flying?
Now you're probably thinking in your head: "Wow, so many things need to happen at once in order for a plane to fly". Likewise, "Wow, so many things need to happen in order for a business to succeed". That's the truth.
Many people are scared of flying. It's something to do with the uncertainty. The weird sounds. The lack of control. The scary stories (see Asiana Flight 214 Crash (July 2013)). The fear of heights. To cope with this fear, people try to understand the mechanics of flight. They try to "rationalize" to themselves that flying is actually safer than driving a car.
Relatedly, many people are scared of starting their own business. It's the fear of the unknown. Running out of money. Failure. Lack of confidence. Is everyone born to be an entrepreneur? Probably not. How do you deal with these fears? By dealing with them head on. By telling yourself that life is too short. That you'd rather try and fail than live a life of regret.
If the Wright Brothers never risked their lives 100 years ago, we would still be glued to the ground and none of us would be able to travel and explore the world. So what are you waiting for? Go build your plane. Make it fly damn fast and high.