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Five mistakes to learn fromFive mistakes to learn from

As a CFI, I am happy when student pilots make certain kinds of mistakes and learn from those mistakes. Of course, none of us wants to make mistakes, we avoid them because they will either hurt us, make us look stupid, or feel ashamed, and because we have been brought up to fear mistakes rather than embrace them. The Catch-22 of mistake making is that they can help us learn, but making them can have dire consequences.

Unfortunately not knowing enough to avoid them is often why we make them in the first place. It’s one thing to explain on the white board why ballooning occurs during landing and how to remedy the situation, it’s another thing to actually have enough experience to know when to go around and when to just add a little power and settle softly to the ground.

Thinking back on my business experiences, there are plenty of great mistakes I have made and expect there are more to come. Of the many mistakes I’ve made, five stand out as my best because of what I learned to do or not to do.

1. Don’t do business with a bank or any other businesses that does not walk its talk.

The first commercial bank I started with had plenty of TV ads advertising how they specialized in helping small businesses grow and even acted like they wanted my new business by giving me a good line of credit. Seven years later having faithfully paid my loans on time and looking to get more capital, not one person at that bank knew my name or what my business did, nor did they seem to care. When I finally got in to see a loan officer he was condescending and dismissive (possibly because I was a woman).

The mistake I made was I did not know how important it is to have a relationship with a “real” person at a commercial bank and make sure he or she knows my business and me personally. I learned that I needed to actively build relationships with those people and businesses. In this case, I spent time interviewing other local bankers and then moved my accounts and remaining loans to one that made the effort to visit my business and get to know me. Thirteen years later I can walk into this same bank and be greeted by name. Recently, the loan officer worked with me to fund a new airplane. Trust is one aspect of building business partnerships, the other is avoiding doing business with those who don’t share your own core values and principles.�

2. Always make the mistake of giving charitable donations or your time to a cause you believe in.

Making charitable donations and giving of your time in the service of your community is worthwhile for no other reason than it just feels good. Fundraisers can use flight gift certificates to help local school kids pay for after-school activities. Early on I was hesitant to just give away gift certificates since I wasn’t getting anything substantial back in return except what could be called advertising. What I learned by making the mistake of giving was that while charitable donations never make me a real dollar, someday, when I least expect it, I get a thank you and know I have made the right choice. Case in point, an elected city councilor told me he remembers our company giving money to the local high school for several fundraisers when he was a student there. He told me how much he appreciated it because he was one of the students getting help. That won’t buy his vote but he knows we support the community and that buys a lot more than the money I gave his school.

3. Always make the mistake of putting family and friends first.

Working for yourself can be all consuming, leaving little room for personal time, especially when you are working at something you love to do. When I started my flight training business I was working long hours seven days a week. When not at the office I was catching up on bookkeeping at home at night. In those days if I didn’t come to work the business basically came to a halt. Summers were the hardest time because my spouse missed doing the all the things we had previously made time for, like golfing with friends or camping on weekends. Unless your spouse also works in (and loves) the business too, it’s hard for him or her not to become resentful when you choose to spend more time with the business.

The best mistake I made was learning my business wouldn’t fail if I took time off to be with my family. Once, just after I started my business, my spouse made me take a four-day Memorial Day weekend off to be with the entire extended family for our lake cabin’s annual spring clean-up. The weather was beautiful and to be honest, I was harboring a little resentment at leaving because the business felt so financially fragile. But that weekend goes down in the family history books as one of the best of all-time. Wonder of wonders my business still existed when I returned. Better still, while sitting on the dock drinking a morning cup of coffee with my mother-in law, talking about my new business, I said, “I wished I was flying today but this is so much fun I couldn’t be happier,” which was the honest truth. Seconds later, out of nowhere a float plane appeared overhead, lands on the lake in front of the cabin, taxies over, and my new found pilot-friend and I took off for a little fun flight. I am certain that if I had stayed home and worked that weekend I wouldn’t be able to recall a single lesson and I would have missed and been missed at an important family event. To this day, when we all get together, the family reminds me that the next time I make a wish, I should try for a million dollars.

4. Make the mistake of offering a good value, not the lowest cost.

I worked for many years as a sales representative. The companies I worked for manufactured good quality products in a very competitive marketplace where their products were always higher priced than their competitors. In one aspect most of the products I sold did the same thing as our competitors. But what wasn’t the same was the infrastructure and quality of service. I learned then not to make the mistake of selling on price alone.

When it comes to flight instruction and aircraft rental the best mistake I made was to offer quality, not the lowest price. Our instruction rates and our renal rates have always been higher than those in the surrounding area. My competitors on the field operate literally out of a shack, their aircraft while looking to a layperson as the same on the outside, have shabby interiors and old avionics. The pilots and students who use these aircraft come and go, rarely do I see them stay for long. My business has pilots who have been here for almost as long as I have.

Price buyers are the least loyal and most difficult to work with. They don’t fly consistently and don’t seem to care if the aircraft are well maintained. When they call for information I refer them to the competition.

5.� “That’s how we’ve always done it” mistake.

Surrounding ourselves with people who think the same and look the same is what humans do naturally, but that doesn’t mean it’s good for us. Constructive conflict is a good thing because it allows us to be more creative or ascertain if our methods and ideas are correct. Scientists review each other’s work with great passion and can deliver sometimes scathing rebuttals to published research all in the name of finding the “truth.” The recent Asiana Airline crash may be a recent example of why not having enough constructive conflict on a flight deck is bad. What if, like scientists, we sought out proof that our ways of doing business are wrong? What’s the worst thing that could happen—we could find out they are right!

Redbird’s Skyport flight school is challenging the way my business and others offer flight training. My school uses the a la cart pricing approach; billing for aircraft rental and flight instruction by the hour as it occurs. Why? Because it’s easier for us—that’s why. But is it really? Bundling flight training to non-career, general aviation pilots (who we primarily serve) would open up all kinds of possible problems. Customers would inevitably ask what’s the a la cart cost, we would need to build in some “fudge factors” for fuel increases, and what would the contract say about missed lessons, failure to meet proficiency standards in the allotted time, etc.? Skyport is experimenting with bundling flight training at a fixed price.

The best analogy in the retail world is described by Dale Furtwengler in his blog “To bundle or not to bundle.” Furtwengler contends it is better to bundle. He uses the example of buying new carpet. When you think about it there can be a dizzying number of cost add-ons: moving furniture, adding a pad, repairing the under floor, carpet disposal, and so on. He contends that with a la cart pricing buyers leave because they fear hidden or unknown costs. I have seen the same “deer in the headlights” look when we try to explain the cost of lessons to prospective customers. They come in expecting to know how long it will take (in months not hours) and how much the total cost to learn to fly is. How many customers am I losing by making the mistake of doing it the way we’ve always done it?

I understand what Redbird is trying to do but I haven’t made the transition to bundling—yet. It’s a mistake I may yet make!

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