Idealog: So what are you working on at the moment?
Glenn Martin: Good question. Public speaking on innovation and entrepreneurship, which I really enjoy. I’m helping the Innovation Council with their tour and I’m doing some school talks and things like that, so I’m keen on promoting innovation and technology in New Zealand. I’m doing a little bit of consultancy work, I’ve been approached by a number of companies who want to use my skill set to help rev up their R&D and then I’m working on a few other projects.
Do you ever get sick of talking about jet packs?
No! I never get sick of talking them, and it’s not all about jet packs obviously. Before I started the jet pack project, I did a lot of research, not only on aerodynamics and stuff, but I did a lot of research on where inventors went right and where they went wrong. I realised where most of them went wrong a lot was in their business and strategy methods. I researched the Wright brothers’ diaries and tried to figure out what went right and what went wrong, so it’s not really about the jet packs, it’s more about innovation and technology.
Image: Glenn Martin
So what did you learn from that?
There were really six things.
The first is having a vision, but you’ve got to refine what a vision is. It isn’t necessarily you wanting to have a $30m house on the North Shore with a boat. That’s ego. So the vision has to be around what’s exciting to the market and what’s exciting to people. People understand what a jet pack is for: You save the world and get the girl.
It’s all very well having a vision, but lots of people end up in mental institutions for having ‘a vision’, so you’ve got to check whether your vision breaks the rules of science, engineering or physics. I’m going to be doing a talk about this soon called ‘Don’t Believe in Yourself’, because belief without scientific fact to back it up is called ‘religion’ and engineering isn’t religion.
The third thing is commitment. If you’re going to do something and it’s going to be innovative, don’t believe that you’re the only in the person in the world that’s had that idea. And just because you’ve had an idea, don’t expect someone to throw a billion dollars at you and call you Mark Zuckerberg. Chances are, the idea you’ve come up with has been thought of before. The difference is commitment. You have to have commitment to doing what is necessary and sometimes that isn’t pleasant.
The forth one is leverage. New Zealand is probably the worst at leverage. We like to invent everything. Now I understand that – I was brought up in the sixties and my father made the bricks for our house. He could’ve bought bricks, but he didn’t, he made them. When you’re doing something innovative, if there’s something out there that can do part of the job, you should leverage that. You don’t have to invent it all. Take the jet pack for example. We’re using a control unit which is from V8 supercars. We use flight control computers from the Predator UAV. We use all sorts of things from other places, so we didn’t have to invent those. Leverage is the great multiplier.
The fifth one is focus. Probably the best focus story that I’ve ever heard is Peter Blake. He won the America’s Cup 5–0, 5–0. When Peter Blake didn’t run it, we lost it. One of the things he did at the engineering base in Auckland where there were dozens of engineers working on the boat, he would go around and sit with each engineer once a month and he would talk to them for an hour or so. He would ask them “Well, what are you doing?” and at the end of it he would say “Great. Now does that make the boat go faster?” And if it didn’t, he’d say “Well why the fuck are you doing it?”. We’ve all been in businesses where we’ve walked out of a meeting and thought, “Well that’s an hour of my life I’ll never get back and nothing we did today is going to make the company more profitable, the employees happier or make a better product for our customers”.
The last one if humility. Isaac Newton said that “If we knew what we were doing, it wouldn’t be called research”. So if Isaac Newton can stand up and say he doesn’t know what he’s doing, who the hell are you to think you know everything? That place is reserved for right wing politicians and religious zealots. So be humble and understand that you won’t know everything and you won’t have all the answers, but don’t let that stop you.
So when you started on this journey did you have a bigger purpose in mind? Were you looking to make a ‘dent in the universe’ à la Steve Jobs? Or where you just doing something you thought was cool and it snowballed as you went along?
It was more the second one. I did have that long-term daydream that I would actually do something people would like, but I never envisaged that we would end up with a company worth hundreds of millions of dollars with sixty staff. I never went there. And during the process – many Kiwis have an old car in the garage they’re working on or an old boat, or they’re doing some project – and I considered it my project. This was my project in my garage. And sometimes you have to put it in that mental space to get through it. If you say you’ve believed in something for 34 years without any hint of self-doubt, that’s rubbish and the people who are like that, I’d say should be locked up, because they’re nutters.
So you had those moments where you thought ‘this is isn’t working; I should just give up’?
Oh yes. Probably 365 days of the year.
So where does that faith come from?
Well it’s not faith. Faith is religion. Don’t believe in yourself. I never believed in myself. I still don’t believe in myself. What’s two plus two?
You don’t believe that two plus two is four. You don’t have faith in it. We know that two plus two equals four. Mathematics is not about faith. I knew from three years in, by about 1984, that the jet pack was going to work. I didn’t ‘believe’ it, I didn’t have ‘faith’, I knew it because the mathematics told me so. There wasn’t doubt that the jet pack would work. There was doubt about whether I could find the financial resources and the people to do it, but there was never any doubt that the jet pack would work.
Looking back, what do you think are the biggest challenges you’ve faced?
It’s always the same two things: Money and people. The hardest thing has always been getting twenty people in room and keeping them all on task, every day. That’s difficult. People aren’t very good at that.
People complain about the disadvantages of innovating in New Zealand, but are there advantages too?
Oh, we have a lot of advantages. We have a good culture, despite my complaints. In some cultures, you can’t disagree with the boss because he might lose face. We have a culture where people are cheeky enough to tell the truth, and that’s a good thing. We have a modern, Western-style education system and the engineers that come out of our universities are second to none in the world. And we have the advantage of speaking English. That sounds like a dumb thing to say, but if you go back in the history of engineering, for many years the main language was Greek, then it was Latin and then it was German. It happens to be that at the moment the language of engineering is English, so we’ve got a huge advantage. And we’ve got a huge advantage that we don’t scare people. When a Kiwi business goes overseas and tries to talk to a company, people tend to open the door and talk to us. They’re not scared of us. They don’t; think that our new president Donald Trump is going to nuke them for talking to us. Kiwis are seen as innocent and honest. New Zealand is a great place to do business, a great place to do innovation.
What advice do you have for aspiring innovators?
Other than ‘don’t do it’? As my father said, go and get a nice government job – you’ll never get laid off.
Seriously, I think you’ve just got to do it. You’ve also got to try and work with people who will be honest – not the negative people who will tell you you’re useless and you shouldn’t do this. You’ve got to surround yourself with people who are positive. I had some friends who told me ‘Oh no, you should go and get a real job’ and in the end I decided, well, they just shouldn’t be my friends anymore and I moved on from them. Surround yourself with people who believe in entrepreneurship and believe in innovation and believe in doing stuff. Don’t surround yourself with people who are luddites. But you’ve also got to have people who you trust and will give you an honest answer.
Talk to people. There’s a lot of paranoia around the idea that someone’s going to rip off your idea. It’s not going to happen. There’s more benefit in talking to people – choose the people you talk to obviously – but just go out there and try it.
Entrepreneurship and starting up new companies and doing innovation is no different to sport. We understand that when you go off to do rugby, you’re not going to win every game. You’ll make mistakes, you’ll lose games, and you’ll probably go broke, maybe three or four times, but that’s not a bad thing. Unfortunately, in New Zealand – the one downside – is that if a business goes broke, they get tarred forever and nobody every wants to have anything to do with them. Whereas Richie McCaw loses a game and everyone goes “Oh well, he’ll learn from that and get better”. We understand that in sport, but not in business. Business is just as hard as any rugby game you’ll play. You’ll win some and lose some, but if you lose some, don’t be disheartened. Pick yourself up and do it all over again.
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