Lesson: Strategically bridge the credibility gap
Fog and night and turbulence were no problem to the mail carrier soaring through the air one dark night in 1926. Man operated flight was still in its infancy, but a few men had forged ahead; some had distinguished themselves through dangerous wartime missions; some through dangerous peacetime ones. The mail carrier was of the latter sort. As he flew his mail route between St. Louis and Chicago, his mind began to wander. He thought of the big challenge left in aviation. All the best pilots in the world were attempting to be the first to do it. There was even a prize: the $25,000 Orteig prize. To win it, required flying from New York to Paris nonstop. In a flash, he had an idea; he would win the Orteig prize. He knew that the other pilots were playing it safe with a 3-engine plane. But these were heavy and mechanically challenging. He would choose a light, simple, cheap plane. He would be the first man to cross the Atlantic nonstop, and he would do it with a single engine plane.
There was only one problem—or three to be precise. He had no plane, no supporters, and no money. He was 24 years old and though he was a great stunt pilot with experience flying long stretches at night, no one knew the name of Charles Lindbergh.
None of that mattered to the man who would one day be dubbed Lucky Lindy. All he had to do was create a strategy to win the allies he needed, in order to approach an aeronautical company he wanted, in order to purchase the plane he didn’t have the money to purchase. First he developed a strategy to win supporters.
His goal was to approach the Wright Aeronautical Corporation and bid on a Bellanca single-engine plane. He was realistic enough to know that with no contacts and with no credibility or famous name he could not simply knock on their door and ask for a plane. He needed men of influence and credibility to back him.
Earl Thompson was a local insurance executive who Lindbergh had been teaching to fly. Lindy was always contemplating the best methods to win people’s support. He instinctively knew not to ask him at his office, so instead he set up a meeting for after dinner Thompson’s home. But, though Thompson was very encouraging of the idea, he could not in good conscience agree to put a man over the Atlantic ocean with a solitary engine.
Undeterred, Lindy kept searching and met Major Lambert, who owned the St. Louis airport. He was a courageous pioneer like Lindbergh, for he had flown with Orville Wright. He told Lindy that if he could find more supporters, he would provide him with $1,000.
That was all he needed to hear. His next meeting was with his boss Bill Robertson. Lindy made sure to open the conversation by telling Robertson of the $1,000 from Major Lambert. Robertson said, “Say, you’re lucky to get Major Lambert interested.” Lindy then won his first corporate sponsor.
From this, he now felt that he had bridged the credibility gap. No longer was he just a mail carrier. Now, he was a representative of a group of businessmen interested in purchasing a Bellanca plane.
He called the Wright Corporation and they immediately set him up to meet with Giuseppe Bellanca himself.
To prepare for the meeting, Lindbergh spent a month’s wages on a tailor-made suit. Meeting these men in a corporate setting, he knew how important first impressions were.
At the meeting, Lindbergh explained the plan. As he listened, Mr. Bellanca became increasingly excited about the possibility of his plane being the first to cross the Atlantic.
Returning home, Lindbergh hit the business circles again. He now had corporate sponsorship and the backing of Mr. Bellanca and Mr. Lambert. His supporters grew from there until he was introduced to Harold Bixby—the head of the St. Louis Chamber of Commerce. Immediately he saw the potential. It was Bixby who would dub the yet to be purchased plane “The Spirit of St. Louis,” because he wanted to promote the city. He also raised $15,000 for the project.
Lindbergh’s money problems were solved. His support problem was settled. All that remained was the plane.
WIth a check for $15,000 in his pocket, he set out to meet with Mr. Bellanca, whose company was recently purchased by the Columbia Aircraft Corporation. Donning his suit once again, he stood before Bellanca and Charlie Levine, the CEO of Columbia. As he was sliding the check across the table, Mr. Levine tossed a hand grenade. There was now a new stipulation. If Lindbergh wanted the plane, he would have to agree to let Levine choose the pilot. The credit would still go to Lindbergh’s organization, but Lucky Lindy would not be in the pilot’s seat.
This again was the credibility monster creeping up. As a pilot, Levine was not convinced the young 24 year old was skilled enough to survive the trip.
Lindbergh snatched the check back, returned it to his pocket and walked away.
Defeated, he informed Bixby what had happened. He would now ask the team to switch goals. Instead of flying over the Atlantic, he tried to convince them to go after the record for longest flight over the Pacific.
Find out what Levine and Lindbergh will do in Part II.