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Blake Scholl is re-inventing air travel by re-inventing himself
A candid interview with the founder and CEO of Boom Supersonic
What possessed Blake Scholl—a high school dropout turned software engineer turned e-commerce entrepreneur turned Groupon employee—to set himself, in 2014, the insane-sounding mission to mainstream supersonic air travel? And how did he build himself into the kind of leader who could actually execute on that mission?
These were some of the questions Blake answered for us in this recently released episode of the Founder’s Mindset podcast (produced by Entrepreneur First and co-hosted by myself and EF co-founder Alice Bentinck):
If you prefer reading over listening, the full interview transcript is below. For those who just want key takeaways, I’ve bolded the parts where I thought Blake’s builder’s mindset was most consummately on display. (Believe it or not, this was me erring on the “conservative” side!)
Blake, it is such an honor and a pleasure to get to interview you for our podcast that's all about The Founder's Mindset. I think if listeners haven't already heard of you and of your company, Boom Supersonic… probably at some point in the foreseeable future, they will have heard of at least the airplane in which they're flying at double speed to get to their destination within the world.
It's just such a cool privilege to get to look behind the scenes at the psychology of the person who's building it all. Thank you so much for being here.
Thank you for having me. I'm excited for the conversation.
Well, let's dive in because there's so much for us to talk about. When you think about your origin story, you think about what brought you to founding Boom and everything that happened leading up to that point…. I'm really curious if you can actually let us in on any key experiences or takeaways from your prior ventures? Particularly, if there were really painful experiences or hard-won learnings that you brought to Boom, that informed your desire to found this particular company or how you've gone about it?
Yeah. Lots of learnings there and Boom is my second real startup. I thought I basically did everything wrong the first time and if only I could invert it, then we'd have a different story. So far, I like how it's going with Boom, but maybe I'll share a little bit more of my story and try to sprinkle some of the lessons through there.
Boom, as I think everyone knows, is building supersonic passenger airplanes. An airplane that I hope ultimately everyone listening, will be able to take advantage of to be able to get around the planet far more easily than we can today. Think across the Atlantic in three and a half, four hours, think across the Pacific in four and a half, Tokyo to Seattle.
Think about being able to get to Australia or New Zealand from the US as easily as we can get to Hawaii today, so that's the big picture. The first question a lot of people ask me is, "Oh, you must be an aerospace engineer," but I'm not. I actually went to school for computer science. I've loved airplanes since I was a kid, but really never thought of having a career in aviation.
In my mid-20s, I set a lifetime goal of breaking the sound barrier and I put a Google alert on supersonic jet, so I could be first to know when I could buy a ticket, but it was crickets. Meanwhile, I was having my first career in tech, worked at Amazon when my family thought it was a bookstore. Couldn't understand why a kid with a computer science degree wanted to work retail.
I had my first company that I started that sold to Groupon. That first company, I'll tell a little bit of the origin story there because in my view, there's a lot of learning in the contrast with Boom. I had been at Amazon, so I thought I knew e-commerce. I had been at this other startup called Pelago that was one of the first mobile app companies.
I thought, "Okay, I know mobile, so what should I work on? I should work on mobile e-commerce." I started this mobile e-commerce company that built basically a barcode scanning game that was intended for people who would shop in stores. Mind you, I'm an e-commerce nut and my least favorite thing in the world is going to a store.
What I found was that it was like any startup that was really hard, except I would get up in the morning and think, "Why in the world did I get into this? I'm working really hard. I'm really worried about failing. I'm worried I'm going to lose all the investors' money and let my friends and employees down, and let myself down and I'm thinking it's not even worth it.”
When we had an opportunity to sell the company in a way that everyone would make a bit of money in a small exit, it was a massive relief to me. I thought, "Great, take the exit. Stop having to worry about failure, live to found another day." I actually look back and I feel really lucky that first company didn't work because if it had in a big way, I would've been stuck working on something that I just didn't love.
Instead, I got to spend two years at Groupon retaining the bank account and reflecting on what I had learned. A joke I often make is there's nothing like working on internet coupons, to make you yearn to work on something you really love.
That's amazing, well said.
But the story also extends to my first company because I was not building something that I was passionate about. One of my first takeaways was that anything I'm going to do, especially as founder, I'm going to work really hard at it. I'm going to run at my personal redline because that's who I am. Being at personal redline is going to feel the same from an effort perspective, regardless of what I'm working on. But what won't feel the same is how motivated I am.
As I left Groupon in early 2014, I was contemplating what startup I wanted to do next. One of the first things I realized was I wanted to optimize for my own personal motivation. And so that, "Okay, let me make a list of everything I might work on in descending order of how happy I personally will be if it works, and forgetting literally everything else. Is it physically possible? Do I have the resume for it? Is it a good idea?"
I thought, "Okay, I will work down that list and I'll probably end up on idea number four, number five, after I've crossed off the other stuff." Of course, I'd had this supersonic thing in the back of my head for approaching a decade. I had something in my to-do list called figure out how to start an aerospace company and all I had done is order some books I hadn't read. I was like, "Okay, great. Well, I got to look at this supersonic thing."
"I will probably get two weeks into the research and then I will understand why it's a bad idea, and no one's doing it and I will move on. I'll move to the next far more plausible idea." But instead, what I found was that there was a whole bunch of stale conventional wisdom about why this wasn't possible that didn't stand up to careful analysis, that anybody with a spreadsheet and half a brain could do with data that could be found in Wikipedia.
You don't have to be a rocket scientist to look at it, you just have to look. And so I continued to turn over more cards, and every time I turned over a card it was like, "No, this is plausible. This is plausible." I spent basically a year from when I left Groupon to when I hired my first employee at Boom, really just getting educated, actually reading those books I bought. Took an airplane design class, built a spreadsheet model of the airplane, started to meet people in the industry.
Because on day one, I didn't know a single person in aerospace. I had no network, I had to build all that from scratch. But along the way, there were a lot of insights and maybe I'll lay out a couple of them here that I could talk more about, and Gena and Alice, you could tell me which might be most interesting to double-click on.
But there's one which is the psychology of the decision to go pursue something that was definitionally big. Like either I fail at this or I become famous and change the world, which is a weird thing to wrestle with psychologically, so I've got some stories I can share from that. Another is what it's like to learn a new domain from scratch. One thing I'll say as a headline there, is I think that knowledge and skills are way more variable than passion is, and passion trumps knowledge.
But I could talk about that more, so those are a couple of the big things. Let me just pause and let you react and steer me.
Amazing. Thank you. Alice, I know you probably have your own desired follow-up direction and I, of course, just really want to eat up your bullet point one about the psychological reality of facing a decision, whether to go huge or go home…
Being not on the 20/20 hindsight end of that decision, but on the end that I think a lot of our listeners are familiar with, where they're perhaps contemplating their own version of supersonic air travel.
It sounds crazy and for most of them, it'll turn out to have been crazy. How did you know at the time that maybe this wasn't crazy?
I didn't know that it wasn't crazy.
Maybe you didn't know and that's interesting too.
I remember when I had finally made the decision to go for it, I called up my lawyer, who had incorporated my first company. I said, "Ted, I got another thing I want you to set up, but let me warn you, it's crazy." And I gave him the whole pitch for Boom, and this was the really broken 2014 very early pitch for Boom. He said, "I've got some feedback for you, stop saying it's crazy." But the reality was I didn't know whether I would succeed at it. And I spun for a while worried about that question. [See Vision or delusion? Why ambitious founders need self-trust for more on this dilemma and how to work through it]
Then I realized that the only way to know the answer of whether it's really possible and the other far more vulnerable question of whether I'm capable of it, is to stop worrying about that and just try. I don't think I can know my limits without running at something. I also don't think I can know my limits, without running at something I'm really motivated to go do.
I looked in the mirror on day one and said, "Am I the person to go do this?" From a static perspective, the answer was definitely no. I didn't have any experience in aerospace. This was the company that would require billions of dollars in capital. I had to date, raised less than a million dollars for my first company. I didn't know anybody, and the list of reasons why I couldn't do this was a mile long from a steady point of view. But then I thought, "Okay. What matters more, my passion about what I would like to create here or my insecurities about what I'm capable of?"
I thought, "Okay. Well, I need to have a very dynamic view of myself. There's going to be lots of learning and self-reinvention along the way. I'm going to have to go develop a whole bunch of skills that are things that not only can I not do, I'm actually afraid of. And I don't know how to predict on day zero whether that's going to succeed or not. But I know for sure, if I’m at age 80 on my deathbed, well, hopefully 120, but we'll see, looking backwards, and if I never gave it a try, I know for sure I will regret that."
On the other hand, if I try and fail, then I'll have found my limits. I remember thinking about the people who set out to do big, hairy, ambitious things. I thought of Bill Gates having said that his goal at Microsoft, was to put a personal computer in every home and on every desk. He said that when that was a really absurd idea. Then the truth is they also put them in our pockets, in our cars and a bunch of other places, like massively overachieved that goal.
I thought, "Well, what is it like to be Bill Gates or somebody like that on day zero?" My thought was that, "Look, the people who try to do big things and succeed, history knows their names and we celebrate them. The people who try and don't succeed, we don't know who they are, they're lost to history. They're the dark matter of entrepreneurship, but they know they tried." I thought I would rather try and fail than think I'd never really found my limits.
In a way, it was jump off a cliff and I thought that the first 18 or so months on this, I thought for sure we were guaranteed to fail. It turned out that was oddly liberating. It was like I would get up in the morning, I would feel very free. I would think, "Oh, today's the day that I find the bug in the spreadsheet, because it can't possibly be that I'm the person that found the formula for supersonic flight."
Actually psychologically, about 18, 24 months in, it got way harder because I started to realize that it actually all was doable. If there was a big oopsie, I would've found it by then. At this point now, I've promised my friends and investors in the world I'm going to go do it. Then the pressure went way up.
Yeah. Well, I love the way this mental framework I think is very powerful and very liberating. This idea that if this goes right, how big is it going to be? If it goes wrong, how big is the failure going to be? I'm amazed how often when founders are thinking this through, they're always thinking about downside protection and they're not thinking about how big could the biggest outcome possibly be? Actually, as you're saying, the downside is maybe some reputational risk. Maybe the worst that could happen is you learn a bunch of skills.
But the best that could happen, is a globally important world-changing company that you will have no regrets about having tried to make happen. I'm amazed how hard it is, I think, particularly for people earlier in their career where they feel like there's a huge risk attached to founding a startup, how hard it is for them to lean into this framework. But I do think it's super, super powerful. It feels like you went into this with totally unconstrained ambition. One of our beliefs, at Entrepreneur First, is that there are lots of cultural norms that constrain people's ambition.
The fact that you felt you had to justify that it was a crazy idea and the lots of risk and that it was going to fail, how would you encourage some of our listeners who are thinking about going after ideas that they'll be poo-pooed culturally, that are on the more ambitious side of things? How would you go about encouraging them to build confidence in their idea and ability to do that? Because it sounds like you did that so beautifully for yourself.
I guess my advice would be just go for it, because I'm not aware of a single successful founder, who doesn't have an immense story of personal growth along the way. Maybe if you're on your fifth startup and you just know how to do everything. But I suspect even on the fifth startup, if you're challenging yourself at all, there's going to be a lot of personal growth there. Founders are going to learn as they go. They're going to have to reinvent as they go.
Why not do it against something that's really worth it? I don't believe it is possible to know one's limits without running at it. The best way for those limits to be as high as possible, is to be as motivated as possible. That means going for a big idea, but it doesn't necessarily mean a big idea in other people's eyes. It means in my experience, going after a big idea in my own eyes because that's what gets me up. If you ran a survey of the world and said, "What's the biggest, unsolved problem in the world?"
You'd probably hear climate change or I don't know, you'd hear something really popular, and maybe for any given founder, that's the right thing to work on. But my view is that the personal motivation really matters. Finding an idea that is big for me was the most important thing. I got lucky in that what I found exciting and inspiring, I was able to get other people to find exciting and inspiring. I don't think that's an accident because passion's contagious.
Sorry to jump in, Blake, but I want to just catch hold of this. Is it partly important that people weren't already that excited about it?
This is something you were really excited about that was a blind spot culturally, people weren't even considering this a possibility. Nobody was really working on it or not that many people. It was this ripe fruit for the taking.
Yeah. Part of me thinks like, "I was really lucky to fall in love with an idea that's really sexy." On the other hand, if I look back at what the world thought about supersonic flight in 2014, it is not what the world thinks today. We've been able to change that. Back then it was, "Yeah, Concord was a failure. It was really cool, but it's passe. Maybe if supersonic flight comes back, it'll be in the form of a private jet for the ultra wealthy. If we're lucky, maybe in 50 years there'll be something available for everybody."
It was not regarded as practical. Moreover, I think a perspective that I was able to bring, that Boom has been able to bring, is this idea of it's not about going fast Top Gun style, it's about human connection. It's about what I think the fundamental purpose of travel is, which is not about traveling, it's about the experiences we have on the ground. Connecting with people, being able to fall in love with somebody from anywhere on the planet, being able to connect across culture, being able to do business on any continent.
There are all these untold stories about the importance of the transition from propeller aircraft into the jet age that, for example, Hawaii wasn't a tourist destination without the speed of the jet. It was all these things that when I started to imagine forward, what would it mean when we could go to Sydney as easily as we could go to Honolulu? What would it mean for my kids who've had a grandpa in Hong Kong they basically never got to see, if Hong Kong were nine hours from Denver, not 18? That whole perspective.
Now, I think we've had enough success in sharing that vision of supersonic flight, that a lot of people get excited. But in 2014, some people thought that would be great if it worked, but I think you're crazy. But I think the actual impact of it is still probably underappreciated.
The vision piece is so inspiring, particularly this connection of you're not just focusing on the functional output of what the product can do and see, it's the emotional piece.
One of the things that I definitely see founders struggle with is when you have a very big, compelling vision, how do you balance that with what you're doing day-to-day, which is probably reasonably detailed and sometimes doesn't always feel like it rolls up to the big vision?
How have you balanced that as a founder and particularly bringing your team on the journey as well, that myopia of the day-to-day of being a founder with this extremely big and inspiring vision?
I don't think there's only one valid answer to that question. But with a business like Boom where there is a very big, long-term vision, what I've found is that the easiest way to do it is to get really clear on what the end state looks like and then work backwards. That end state ends up providing a lot of clarity about what's going to matter in the short term.
So, to make that a bit more concrete, when I was wrestling with whether to start Boom, one of the exercises I did was say, Okay. Let me get my own ego and insecurity out of this. Let's imagine the year is 2050 and I'm sitting on the beach, sipping Mai Tais, and reading about aviation history. First off, do I still think we're flying around at 80% of the speed of sound, or do I think we've gotten to supersonic? I sure as hope we're going supersonic now. Okay, great. How did that happen? How do I think that history reads? Do I think after 150 years of not doing it, Boeing did it? Yeah, probably not. History doesn't go like that. It was probably a new entrant.
Okay, what would that new entrant look like? Well, they'd probably be from outside the industry because everybody who grew up in the industry, would've learned all the lessons about why it can't be done, so it's going to be an outsider. Okay, great. What would the outside effort have to look like? Well, it's really hard so they're going to have to have a dream team. Ability to put together world-class talent is going to really matter, being a great judge of great talent is going to matter.
It’s going to be a long journey, so perseverance is going to matter. And what enables perseverance? It’s going to be belief in a mission. So having a really clear mission and having a team that is both strong and really bought into the mission is going to matter.
I could keep going, but my point is I was able to take myself out of it. Imagine what a success story would have to be like. Then it's like, "Okay, turn that around, go become that." What I've found is that working backwards, reverse historical reasoning has provided an ever-present view of what are the things that are going to really matter.
Like, culture is going to matter, hiring will matter, building a culture of resilience and perseverance is going to matter. Being able to be really persuasive, being able to talk about what we're doing in a way that will cause a lot of people to want to be part of it, both as individuals who are going to vote with their careers, investors who are going to vote with their money, suppliers, customers. All these people that we need to throw in with us years before this becomes a reality.
The ability to tell that narrative and get them excited about it and want to lean in, and be part of it and believe in it. The notion that that was going to be important was really clear from day one. But to bring it back to me personally, I did not have the capability to be that person on day one. I had to learn it.
You mentioned all the things that you knew you needed to learn and you mentioned some of them you were afraid of learning, or you were afraid whether you could learn them.
I'm really curious retrospectively, have any of those fears come true? Have any of the really scary things happened? If so, how did you deal with that?
All of them and then some. To give you a concrete example, networking for example, building a network from scratch, being able to go to events, meet people, win their support. On day zero, the most terrifying thing in the world to me was a networking event. I've gotten to the point where I can do them and I actually enjoy them. That's been important.
If I think about what has been psychologically the most difficult, it's the areas where I had a lot of growth to do but I didn't even realize it. Going along thinking I'm successful at something, thinking I'm doing it right, and then discovering that actually there's a massive weakness or a massive shortcoming. I've been making big mistakes I didn't realize I was making, and I need to go perform a self-system upgrade.
Can you give us an example?
Yeah. Some of them have been around how other people experience my leadership. Here I'll share one that's relatively recent. I was having some frustration with getting people to take up and take responsibility for areas and drive them. This has probably been an ongoing thing for the last forever in the company of how do I hire big leaders and get them to own and drive big areas? Something I realized relatively recently, was I was doing some things that were unconsciously disempowering my leaders.
There would be something that would come up, I would get very curious about it. I would jump into the middle of it, thinking that I was doing a good thing of being a leader who's connected to the details. In reality, what I was doing was not creating space where my leaders felt empowered and responsible for driving their areas. Actually, what I needed to do was very much the opposite of what I thought my impulse was. For example, I'd come to a status meeting and deliberately sit in the corner, and make sure the team was speaking to the executives accountable, not speaking to me.
Once I started to see that, I was like, "Wow, actually I'm not just doing that in one area of the company, I'm doing it in every area of the company or approximately every area of the company." It was like, "Okay. There's a whole set of typical ways of operating, my default mental software, that needs to be retooled." The worst versions of this are the ones where something is actually a really healthy behavior in one context or at one stage, and then the company grows and develops.
What used to be the exact right thing to do, turns out to be the pathological thing to do. For example, when the team is really small, I believe founder CEOs need to be incredibly hands on in driving. But when more leaders come in, that starts to shift. Another example of that, this is in the early days of the company, I was really proud of our very low turnover and very low attrition. A, I made the mistake of being proud of that when it's really not something to be proud of.
B, I talked to the team about it, and then what actually happened was we built up all this attrition debt, and got to a point where we actually had a bunch of people that weren't fit or they had been a fit in an earlier stage, and were no longer a fit at a later stage. All of that built up and it was time to make a whole bunch of changes. In an ordinary course of business that's fine, because some people who fit at one stage don't fit at another stage. That's okay.
But I had told everybody that it wasn't. I told everybody that we could really be proud of low attrition. Then so it's like, "Oh, some people are leaving." It became this far more painful journey for the entire company than it needed to be. Anyhow, some of the most painful, difficult lessons are the ones that are surprising. If I think about the ways I've needed to grow and develop that are the ways I anticipated, it's been hard, but it hasn't been, I don't know, gut-wrenching.
It's the surprises are the most gut-wrenching. But nonetheless, the thing that I always go back to is no matter how difficult it is, I still know what keeps me going, which is I don't get up in the morning and think, "Why did I get myself into this? Is it worth it?" I know the answer is yes, it's worth it.
I loved what you said earlier about you had to have a dynamic view of yourself. I suppose what you're saying here as well is it's not just a dynamic view of yourself. You are having to be incredibly dynamic and agile in terms of how you behave at different stages of the company. We do see a bunch of founders getting tripped up on this, where as a founder you do have to constantly invest in scaling yourself as much as scaling the company.
You have obviously got a pretty rapacious approach to learning, as in you took on learning about an industry you knew nothing about. You've obviously spent a lot of time thinking about how to improve and upskill as CEO and founder as well. What's your secret here? Do you have any tips and tricks about this? It seems like this is something that you are particularly good at.
I think people underestimate ability to learn because we tend to get taught, "Oh, we go to school and we learn a field, and then we become an expert, and then we become a more narrow expert and more narrow expert, and more specialized and da, da, da." Then the notion of making a rapid jump into something else, especially a little bit later in life it's not socially accepted or it's regarded as difficult or whatever. But I think actually the opposite is true.
I think my ability to go learn things has only gotten better with time and there are a couple key ingredients to that. One is having a good internal sense of what understanding versus confusion looks like. Knowing in any given topic, "Am I clear on that or am I really confused about it?" It's okay to be confused. I'm confused all the time, but I'd like to believe I know when I am. And if it's something that matters, then I'm going to focus on it and I'm going to stay on that until I get clear.
That's one important one. In the first year of this, when I was still in the very big leaps of jumping into a new domain, I kept a confusion list, meaning when I felt confused about something I'd write it down. I had a goal of taking one thing off the confusion list every week. I think I had in my head initially the idea that that list would one day become empty, but no, it actually it only gets clear every week. But what it did have for me is self-awareness about what I was and was not clear on. That turned out to be super valuable.
Confusion versus clarity and not accepting confusion if it's something really important, that would be lesson one. [See Intellectual humility is a cop-out for more on this point.] Lesson two is about thinking in terms of first principles. [See The builder’s real superpower for more on this one.] I think again, we tend to get taught that if we're really smart then we handle complex things and subtle things. I think the opposite is really true. I think the real wisdom is in very simple, basic understanding. One of the advantages in coming to a new domain into my career, I didn't have four years to go get a four-year degree in aerospace.
I had to understand things in simpler, more basic principles. But the result of that was I could get to really important truths I think more easily than people who have been steeped in knowing too much detail. I found that that's not just true technically. It's true in everything I've come across so far. I now bucket the world and there are things that are simple and there are things that I don't understand yet. Being willing to ask what seems like the really basic question, I found is really important and powerful in every domain.
Yet even to this day, I've been doing this for eight years and I know it's part of my success, but I still get nervous every time I ask a question because I think it's dumb. I just have that anyway.
Thank you for sharing that. That doesn't go away. Yeah.
Yeah. Some things go away, but that one still, I'll still be in a group of people who I know are far more domain experts than I am. I'll still have this question and I'll feel like I should know the answer already, and maybe sometimes I should, I don't know. But regardless, I think I need to know the answer so I'll just ask the question.
I push through that little bit of discomfort and I basically never regret it. [See Don’t fake it ‘till you make it: Instead, remember what you know for more guidance on how to do this.] I'm often surprised at how often the response in the room is, "That's a really important question and none of us understand it." Then all of a sudden, the whole conversation goes to a far more productive place.
Yeah. Can I just respond to the I think magical synthesis of the two pointers you just gave? The knowing when you're confused, knowing the difference between confusion and understanding and naming it to yourself, and thinking in first principles. Because I think people want to think in first principles, they want to be able to name and then proselytize the simple insight. They settle for a woozy and underspecified understanding of that insight.
They're proclaiming something that they don't really actually understand and all of on the ground, but where have I really gotten this from and what would it mean? Or they take that first model of intelligence you shared as lore, and they get really, really technical and jargony and they get lost in the details. But it's that synthesis, it's—do I actually understand? Have I identified a simple truth that I actually understand and could reduce back to all of the particulars I've observed and seen underneath, to be able to integrate it?
Yeah, I think that's right. I think those two do go powerfully together. A thing I try to do is tag in my own mind, bits of knowledge with how confident am I in it and how much do I understand it for myself? There's just too much that I have to deal with and too much that all of us have to deal with, to get every single thing to this perfect state of I could go back and rediscover it all from reality directly.
But knowing which things I know with what degree of confidence and where I have firsthand knowledge and where I'm more operating on rules of thumb, allows me to shift my cognitive focus and go get more clear on the right things at the right times when I need to. [See Worrying on schedule for a tool that might help with this.]
Let me make this more concrete because I think another thing is, I don't know if everyone knows how to know when we've got a first principle. To give an example, in the technology world there are a bunch of rules of thumb in engineering about what's possible or not. So long as we're not trying to do something new, rules of thumb tend to work, that's where they came from. But the fundamental stuff in physical world engineering, is physics, and it's Newtonian mechanics. To this day when we're having debates about what's physically possible, oftentimes I will say, "Please explain that limitation to me in terms of Newtonian mechanics." If I don't understand… basically all of aerodynamics is just Newtonian mechanics applied to air.
Literally, high school physics explains the vast majority of what goes on with airplanes and engines, and understanding it through that lens is incredibly powerful. Yet you can go look at aerodynamics, you get lost in calculus. Reducing back to F=ma in the context of physical world engineering is I found really, really valuable.
The same kind of thing applies in finance every bit as much as it does in engineering. In that case, it's things like cashflows and margins and what are fundamental cost inputs. Knowing the difference between a cost and a price, for example, is a big one there.
That's awesome. Just for the record, I don't think most people actually understand F=ma. That's step one is make sure you actually understand these principles.
I think I maybe approached understanding briefly at some point in college when I took a Newton's Principia course, and even then there were some woozy spots.
It might not matter for what you're doing now.
Sure, I'm not complaining about it, but the point is someone in your position really needs to understand it and then so much follows.
That's right. I think there's a psychological point in here which is important, which is for me, setting aside I should understand that, recognizing that I don't, and going and doing what feels like remedial work is really important. In that first year on Boom, I took Khan Academy remedial physics because I didn't think I actually understood it.
Same thing, calculus. I hadn't had a calculus class since high school, and I wasn't sure I actually had ever understood it. It felt wrong to have to do those things. It felt like I should have known them, but the truth is I didn't. Going and getting really clear on that stuff really mattered.
That's such a difference maker when I think about how little we really come to understand fully in school. How little of a model we even have for what it means to fully understand something.
Just that willingness to do the remedial work, and to own your confusion and to ask the "stupid questions", just powerful.
As we have this conversation, I find myself thinking we probably need a better word for it than remedial, because it's got such negative judgment around it. Maybe we should call it something like second pass mastery, I don't know.
Going back, covering material that we've already been exposed to, but getting to the point of deep understanding and mastery, which is powerful for then being able to apply it.
This was such an important conversation for somebody who is in a significant leadership position to have. I think even the idea that when you're asking a question that you think might be dumb, the fact that you feel nervous. I think nervous is not a word that we often associate with leaders and leadership, but what are we missing out on because leaders aren't leaning into the fact that they should put themselves in positions where they feel nervous?
They should admit when they are the dumbest person in the room or the least educated, I don't know what the right phrase is, person in the room. It's just such a powerful view of what an exceptional leader looks like. Somebody who isn't afraid to learn, isn't afraid to ask questions, that might undermine how they perceive themselves. I think there's a huge amount for our listeners to take away from this.
Yeah. I think it's important to have confidence and ego in the right place. It's easy to have ego in very concrete places like I don't know, I know how to swing dance, tango's scary, as an example. As contrasted with I can learn new skills, I'm confident in that, even if at first I'm not natural at them.
I think the more I've been able to take my confident versus not confident off of concrete things and bring it to more basic things, then the better my ability to push through the scary moments of thinking I should be good at something I'm not yet good at.
Having trust or sometimes it feels like faith because I'm still figuring it out, that if I stay on it I'll ultimately come to understand it.
One thing that I've noticed working with founders is that their company comes to resemble them in ways that they realize, in ways that they don't.
That's part of the reason that I think it's so important to consciously attend to our own psychologies, to our own personal growth as we grow a company.
I'm really curious, you're a really self-reflective guy, so I suspect you have something interesting to just notice about this. How does Boom reflect your personality?
First off, I think it's really true what you said, that companies can easily reflect the strengths and weaknesses of the founder. This is one of the reasons why it's really important to hire for people who have complementary strengths. Maybe I'll give a little aside on that because that could be useful. At Boom, we hired a president of the company who is very, very different from me in terms of what she's strong at.
For a while, I really struggled with that because I would think, "Oh, Kathy is doing X, but if I were a good CEO I would be doing it." Eventually, I got over that and I realized, "Hallelujah, I've got somebody who's better at that than I am. I should be happy about that and I should go focus on the stuff that I'm naturally good at." But that was much easier said than done.
I think if we hadn't ultimately done that, Boom would suffer from my weaknesses a lot more than it really does. For example, one of my strengths is to be able to imagine a future a ways out, and then talk about that and the big opportunities and ambitious things in a way that gets other people excited. On the flip side, I'm not a great organizer of execution.
It's important I have people around me who are really great organizers of execution or else this company, it would be at risk of chasing big, shiny, ambitious things versus getting really good at day in and day out, moving through the work of turning a very complex vision into reality. The positive side of it, a thing that is, I think, a part of me and a part of Boom, is we're willing to go do things that the world said were impossible.
We are open to the idea that what everyone believed about a topic turns out just to be wrong and that we can find our own way through it.
You have talked before about this ability to learn to see problems that others don't see. It's a very inspirational statement and I can imagine lots of people reading that and saying like, "Yes, but how do I actually do that?" It sounds like you have done an amazing job of that.
Can you articulate the process that you've been through? Because it sounds like here it was a mixture of passion meets a potential opportunity. Are you able to put any more structure around that idea of how do you learn to see problems that other people don't see?
Yeah, I have a couple of things. I believe it's learnable. I don't think I was born with it. When I took my first job out of school at Amazon working on software for automated merchandising, I was very nervous going to that job. That it was very different from anything I'd done before, and that I would have no intuition and no ideas. I spent a lot of time thinking about how to generate ideas, practicing that, practicing brainstorming. I think that probably made a difference.
Sometimes that was things like having an idea, then trying to generalize it by one level. What are all the things that are in that family of idea, and then try to find the best one out of that family as an example. That was one technique that I self-taught myself in my early 20s. But going back to the thing, Alice, you asked about very specifically about learning to see problems other people don't see. I try to be tuned into my own discomfort in the world and try to notice it, and not assume that it's inherent.
To give an example, let's take traffic as an example. Literally, virtually all of us suffer from the scourge that is traffic that sucks up tens of minutes to sometimes hours per day. Added up over our life, it literally sucks up years of our lives. As best I can tell, there is no serious, credible effort to do anything about it. For a while, I gave myself the mission, whenever I'm stuck in traffic, think about how to make it better. It turns out I think it's actually very solvable, just no one's working on it.
I hope someone's listening. Go on.
If anybody wants to start a traffic company, email me. I would love for you to do it. I'd love to help. I've got a bunch of ideas. I think it could be a really big company, but to bring it back to the principles here a little bit. There's that notion of noticing the discomfort. By the way, tuned into my own personal discomfort ties back to the thing where we're talking about the start of the conversation, in terms of connecting to one's own personal motivation.
The things that make me annoyed, are going to be much more powerful motivators for my startup and somebody else might not be bothered by them at all. For example, people who really love travel don't mind that flights are long. If I actually really, really loved travel, I wouldn't be working on supersonic because I'd be willing to put up with the long flight. I have to travel the right amount such that I want to go more, but I'm not willing to because I'm too annoyed by the flight.
I think that was probably important in my ability to go choose that problem. Yeah, so notice things that are little bits of annoyance. Then there's another piece, which is overcoming the bystander effect. If people don't know that phrase, the bystander effect is this concept out of social psychology, which basically says the more obvious a problem, the more likely it is that everyone assumes that somebody else is working on it.
Like the quintessential examples, there's someone dying in the street and if there's only one person around, they'll run over and help. But if it's crowded and there's a zillion people there, everyone assumes that someone else has already called 911, and it's all taken care of and they go about their business. Then the result is when everyone thinks that, then turns out nobody does anything, literally nobody. I think supersonic flight was an example of this.
Everyone's like, "Well, that would be great. No one's doing it. It must be impossible. Or traffic is obviously awful. No one's working on that. I'm sure either somebody good is or it's actually not solvable." But I think there's a paradox there. The more obvious and the more big the problem, the more likely it is that everyone assumes somebody else is doing it. What if the most obvious, maybe not even hard solutions to the most obvious, big problems actually have nobody pursuing them?
I've seen a lot of evidence across fields this could actually be true, but if it's true, how awesome is that for founders? What it means is there's low-hanging fruit all over the world, really big, important problems that are completely wide open with nobody working on them. I only want to work on something if I think it might not happen otherwise. One could take that as a very big ego thing to say, but I don't intend it that way.
What I intend is things in the world that are very crowded, that are full of lots of good people working on them like crypto, lots of good people working on crypto. Web3 AI, lots of great people working on that. I don't think I can have anything to add to that. But a problem I see that doesn't have a lot of people on it, that I'm interested in because that's an opportunity to make a contribution.
I love that. I love that. I think just this whole concept of being very intentional about how you are coming up with ideas, and also that you can practice it. As in this idea that you practice generating ideas and you generalize them into different problem sets. Then you aren't talking about evaluating and analyzing and cutting ideas. You're just looking for the best idea within that certain pool.
I think it's so easy for people to assume that developing ideas is an intrinsic that one has. It's not a muscle that one has to learn and develop. Then when people do generate ideas, they're often trying to fail them. All ideas in the early stages are bad. They all have massive flaws. It's much more saying like, "Okay. Well, what's the best of this bunch? Then how can I run with that?"
Particularly, your point around running towards the green space, the open space where no one else is heading. Maybe there's a little bit of ego there, but ultimately if we want to make major changes in the world, that's pretty much the only way to do it.
I don't know if it's the only way to do it, but some people run into crowded spaces and win, otherwise, they wouldn't be crowded, but the blue ocean thing works for me.
I'd love to end with a more future-facing question, Blake, if possible. You're at a point with Boom where I imagine that you can almost see the runway, so to speak. You can see a future now, it's tangible and you're not the only one who can see it, where commercial supersonic air travel is available to everyone because of your efforts.
How do you work with that? I can imagine the analogy of the kids in the backseat on the road trip saying, "Well, are we there yet? Are we there yet? Or how much longer?" There're probably lots of challenges in giving an exact projected date, although I don't know how exactly you've got it mapped out. How do you think about that?
The overall path has probably been clear for a long time, but what we've been trying to do is systematically take risk off the table. Think of it as from the early days, what are all the reasons people might pass on an investment because they see risk? Like, "Oh, is the technology going to work? Can I build a supersonic jet? Is there really going to be a market? Is anyone going to buy it? Do passengers really want this?"
Do airlines want it in the specific form that you're building it? Is there going to be ample funding involved? What we tried to do is take all the things that could really be seen as risks, and then try to reduce those risks and generate tangible progress against de-risking every major threat to the company. That's what we've been doing really for eight years now.
Why do we have pre-orders for airlines? Because we wanted to demonstrate to the world, to suppliers, to investors that people don't just want supersonic flight, they want Overture, the 64 seat, all business class, very specific first product we're building. We do a lot of passenger research surveys because we want to demonstrate, for example, to airlines that passengers want this and they're willing to pay for it.
In fact, they're willing to switch airlines to get it, which is a really powerful thing that's even more true than I ever thought it would be. How does a startup build a supersonic jet? Eight years ago, I could give a theoretical argument for why a startup should be able to do that. But now you can walk into my hangar, I can point at our first airplane and say, "There it is."
As I think about what's left, we have to execute really well and we need to continue to keep the company funded through a very capital intensive development program. But the technology is there, the market is there, the supply chain is there, the customers are there, the regulations are there. But we need to go execute what is one of the most complex safety critical developments ever done. We need to do it in a capital efficient way with an obtainable amount of money.
There's a lot of execution left. If I stop here and think about all the challenges that are still ahead of us, it can look really daunting. Something I keep telling the team is, "Next time you feel nervous because we've set out to do something impossible, look in the rearview mirror. Notice all the things that we've already done that people said were impossible." Just keep doing the "impossible", because the "impossible" is not actually impossible.
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