By Scott Meacham
It is sometimes remarkable the lessons about entrepreneurship that we can learn from reading about the life of just one person. Wiley Post is such a man. Wiley Post offers lessons.
Wiley Post was a man of curiosity and adventure born into a working family of cotton farmers who bounced around Texas and Oklahoma, finally settling near Maysville, OK.
How many times do you hear this about inventors — Wiley Post did not like school. He did favor mechanical things. According to accounts he saved up to buy one of the first bicycles in the county, he studied “newly arrived sewing machines,” and he disassembled and reassembled farming machinery in the field.
A Love of Technology
Before he was in his teens, Post went to work as a traveling repair man. He saw his first airplane in flight, a Curtiss biplane (often called a Curtiss Pusher as its engine and propeller were behind the pilot’s seat), at a county fair. He was smitten.
Lines from Post’s autobiography, Around the World in Eight Days sum up his feelings: “I have never seen a bit of machinery for land, sea, or sky that has taken my breath away as did that old pusher.”
Although it took a few more years working in construction and oil, a stint behind bars, and the loss of an eye in an oil rig accident, the course of Wiley Post’s life was set. Post covered his injured eye with a white patch and used the insurance settlement to buy his first plane. As a private pilot for an Oklahoma oil man, he won accolades for record breaking flights—including his solo around-the-world record of seven days, eighteen hours, and forty-nine minutes.
Wiley Post was all about technology. He loved machines — especially airplanes — for how they work and what they could do. From the contests he won and the records he set, Post understood first-hand that a plane could go faster the higher it flew. He saw the market opportunity in moving people and freight greater distances faster. He experimented with altitude. With the assistance of R.S. Colley and B. F. Goodrich Company, Post invented the first practical pressure suit (made of rubber on Colley’s wife’s sewing machine) to supplement oxygen to make high-altitude flight possible for human beings.
Entrepreneurial Super Star
If Wiley Post were an entrepreneur in i2E’s e3 program today, he would be a super star. E3 helps entrepreneurs explore the product/market fit of a new business concept by addressing the critical factors for startup success. A critical step is market validation, and that is where Wiley Post excelled.
He evinced a clear-eyed, practical focus on solving the challenges of flying people and freight faster — especially over international routes. He made smart strategic moves, like his connections with industry leaders like B.F. Goodrich and locally with oilman F. C. Hall, who owned and later sold Post the original Winnie Mae. He envisioned space travel, and then came back down to earth, inventing the pressure suit and experimented with modifications in airplane design and fuel.
There are more Wiley Posts in Oklahoma — boys and girls who play with Legos and take their bicycles apart. High school students who lose track of the clock in their chemistry labs. Risk-takers who go all in to commercialize a new technology.
Wiley Post offers valuable lessons for today’s entrepreneurs. Every Oklahoman can encourage our modern-day Wiley Posts. We can make that a priority.
Scott Meacham is president and CEO of i2E Inc., a nonprofit corporation that mentors many of the state’s technology-based startup companies. i2E receives state support from the Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science and Technology and is an integral part of Oklahoma’s Innovation Model. Contact Meacham at [email protected].