Most of the year, Silicon Valley and Boston vie for the title of “entrepreneurial capital of America.” (Silicon Valley wins hands down, I think, but Boston, more and more, at least gives the valley a run for its money.) But for one week a year, I’d submit that the Midwest city of Oshkosh, Wisconsin rivals both the coasts for the amount of innovation and entrepreneurial passion on display.
The cause of that Midwest surge, of course, is the Experimental Aircraft Association convention that’s held in Oshkosh at the end of July every year. I just got back from a week at the show (hence the radio silence on this site … ), and once again, I was impressed, amazed, and even a little bit bemused at just how much inventor’s passion still exists in the world.
The most impressive example of that, this year, was the re-emergence of former Cirrus Design CEO Alan Klapmeier as a partner and CEO of a new aircraft company called Kestrel. I wrote a piece for The Atlantic this week about Klapmeier’s new venture, and what this development says about his passion and endurance (“The Second Act of Alan Klapmeier”). I was tempted to reprint the entire piece here, because I believe Alan’s story is every bit as compelling as that of Steve Jobs, if perhaps lesser known, because not as many people own airplanes as personal computers. But the story’s just a click away on the Atlantic site.
What makes Klapmeier so remarkable, among many other things, is that he is Exhibit A of resurrection after devastating defeat. What happens when you devote 22 years to making a dream come true, and then, after it actually does, it’s all taken away from you in a messy coup d’etat that also destroys your relationship with your co-founder/brother? The levels and feelings of defeat, betrayal, pain and loss that come with that have to be nothing short of staggering. Literally.
I often wonder how humans get back up off the mat, after devastating loss or defeat. Not all do, of course. But regardless of what happens with the Kestrel company, Alan Klapmeier is an example of someone who has. With impressive style. As I noted in the Atlantic piece, I think at least part of the reason he has managed to do that is the passion he has for his vision of transforming aviation and making it a better, safer mode of personal transport. As I’ve often said, passion for what you do in life isn’t a luxury. It’s the thing that allows you the endurance to sustain hits–even really big hits–and prevail in the end. Or at least survive to wage another worthy fight, another day.
But at the Oshkosh show, the energy of passionate inventors, innovators, and entrepreneurs is everywhere you look. A missionary in South America has designed a flying dune buggy to combat washed out roadways in the Amazon. Several companies are working hard at cracking the code on more robust batteries, to make electric airplanes a reality. A group of MIT engineers are marketing a high-tech flying car with foldable wings. Even in this rough economy, several companies were displaying new airplane kits or production models. And in four gianormous exhibit buildings, booth after booth was exhibiting its newer, latest, and/or greatest ideas and products.
Most entrepreneurial efforts fail. And many of the companies who were so eagerly and enthusiastically displaying their latest inventions and innovations at Oshkosh are struggling, financially. It has been a rough year or two in the aviation industry.
So what, I found myself asking as I walked through the aisles and past all the displays, gives all these people the guts, the energy, and the belief to keep putting new ideas and products out there? Especially after setbacks, or in rough economic time? Maybe some of them are naïve, but many of them know full well the challenges they’re up against. And yet, they persist.
I didn’t come up with an answer to that question while I was there, but I found myself encouraged, just by being in the company of such resilient dreamers, inventors, innovators and passionate innovators. Because somewhere in the midst of flying cars and dune buggies, electronic gizmos and self-folding ladder extensions lies a seemingly inextinguishable drive that I suspect has something to do with the human race’s survival, all these millennia.
It also makes the scenery a whole lot more interesting along the way.