"Unless you have courage, a courage that keeps you going, always going, no matter what happens, there is no certainty of success. It is really an endurance race."
― Henry Ford
Here’s to some of the most courageous people I know: those that believed in Terrafugia when no one else did, who were part of those early days which were so full of excitement and challenges and so excruciatingly underfunded. Here’s to that first Terrafugia Oshkosh in 2006 and to those that were there!
We loaded up a rented Budget van (we had to rent it through MIT because not enough of us were old enough to drive it if we got it on our own) with a homemade plywood roof box for our wind tunnel model, some coolers and posters, a flat screen TV, and a group of friends and family for which I will always be grateful. We left Boston during Tropcial Storm Beryl (I had to look that up by the date). It was pouring sheets of rain. Sheets. We had a blue tarp over the roof box held on with bungee cords. We had to stop at a rest stop off the Mass Pike because it was raining so hard you could only see the other cars on the road when their flashers would blink. And because the tarp was coming off. Some combination of youthful foolishness and determination got us back on the road. Eventually we drove out of the storm.
We kept driving. All night. See, we couldn’t afford a hotel for everyone at this point since we were self-funding with Carl’s Lemelson-MIT Student Prize for Innovation (yup, he’s a rock star) and the $10k we won as runners up in the MIT $100k Business Plan competition. So we took turns sleeping and driving and finally we made it to Wisconsin. At some point just after dawn the driver of the car in the lane next to us fell asleep and swerved into the door of the van. I woke up when a precariously balanced (empty) cooler landed on my sleeping head. Fortunately, everyone was fine and the van was only slightly the worse for wear; we exchanged information and pressed on. Just north of Chicago we stopped at a Cracker Barrel for breakfast. We ended up listening to Johnny Cash in the van while we all napped a bit before the final push to Oshkosh. (“I fell into a burning ring of fire, I went down, down, down and the flames went higher and it burns, burns, burns, the ring of fire, the ring of fire.”)
Just getting to the sorority housing duplex we were renting from a local college felt like an accomplishment. My grandfather, an aerospace engineer and my inspiration for becoming an engineer myself, drove up from St. Louis to meet us and man the booth. He helped raise the average age a bit, but only on paper. He was so happy and proud he was a younger man that week.
While the team sorted themselves out and rested a bit I headed to the grocery store. We had a kitchen and a budget of $4 per person per meal for the week. That shopping list was the most organized shopping list I have ever made. I also had made schedules for who was going to sous-chef for me each night and who was going to do the dishes. It wasn’t fancy, but those evenings crammed around the living room of that little house with paper plates and homemade beans and rice and a cold beer were the best team building experience money could buy.
That first night I handed out Terrafugia logo polo shirts and ball caps and exhibitor pass wrist bands, briefed the team one last time, and we all gratefully crashed in the rather uncomfortable, squeaky, plastic-wrapped-mattress bunkbeds. Tomorrow was set-up day. All we had was the wind tunnel model out of that box (my mom made us an oversized custom table cloth to cover the plywood so we could use the box as a stand), a preliminary folding wing mechanism, an animation and some vinyl posters with CG of the Transition® to play on what seemed like a crazy expensive flat screen TV (it wasn’t; it was from Walmart). All we had was that stuff and an irrational certainty that yes, this was indeed possible.
By any reasonable measure, the show that week was a huge success for Terrafugia. We got six deposits for aircraft. We met the people that would become our first angel investors. We were told we were doing it all wrong by some of the aviation industry’s luminaries. We were hot, muddy, sweaty, exhausted. But we said “Hello world!” and the world said “Hello. Show us what you’ve got. We’re watching.” Challenge accepted. Courage unlocked.