Questions for Building Terrafugia

Alex Min's QuestionsForLiving interview of June 30, 2014 focuses on Alex's questions as co-founder of Terrafugia. Alex shares his questions based on his experiences as a United States Marine Corps pilot, MIT Sloan MBA student and co-founder of Terrafugia to the continued development and success of Terrafugia and it's vehicles: the Transition® and the TF-X and the flying car industry.

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QuestionsForLiving: Are there general life-questions that you asked throughout your life that influenced your path from joining the Marines, to business school, and then to co-founding Terrafugia? If so, what were some of these questions.


Alex Min:  I'm not one of those people that always knew what they wanted to do from an early age.  As a matter of fact, I still don't know what I want to do.  In that sense, perhaps the questions I asked myself were:  "What do I want to do?"; "What can I do?"; and What would I enjoy doing?


The reason I joined the United States Marine Corps initially was quite honestly I wanted a way to pay for school.  I was accepted to a private college that was expensive.  ROTC looked good so I applied and was accepted.  I didn't think about what I wanted to do in the Marine Corps until close to my senior year... I'm about to graduate and I needed to serve in the Marine Corps. At that point I asked "What do I want to do?"  I wasn't one of those people who always knew that they wanted to be a pilot.  I explored the different possibilities and flying seemed pretty cool, so I applied and somehow fortunately got in. That's how I became a pilot. 


I flew the AH-1W, also known as the Super Cobra, which is an attack helicopter. Once I started flying, it was amazing. I loved it!  But I loved being a Marine Corps Officer more than the actual flying itself.  If you know military aviators, for a lot of these Officers, flying is the core thing that they want to do.  In my case, I loved the flying, but it was really the aspect of being a leader, and manager, and getting people to buy-in on the mission that I loved best about serving in the Marines.  If you take care of your team they will move mountains for you. It's that aspect of Marine Corps leadership that was really appealing to me.


I was commissioned in 1991 and was active duty through 2000. Then I got out of active duty service to focus on my family and have a somewhat normal life, but I stayed in the Reserves when I left active duty.


QFL:  Were there questions that attracted you specifically to the founding and creation of Terrafugia?  What questions were you asking that led to your participation or interest in this project?


Min:  That's a good question in itself.  Because I knew myself, I knew I was a jack of all trades and master of none.  When I went to business school, I knew I didn't know what I wanted to do afterwards.  Some people attend business school knowing they want to go into consulting or investment banking.  I was not one of those people.


I knew that I didn't know what I wanted to do. So the questions I asked myself from the very first day of school at the MIT Sloan School of Management was "What do I enjoy doing?"; "What do I want to do?"; and Who do I want to do it with?  I met with my other classmates as my best resources were my fellow peer students.  I would grab them and have coffee or lunch and ask "Tell me about investment banking, tell me about consulting, tell me about running a startup." 


So I kind of went the reverse process.  I went through the process of eliminating the things I didn't want to do and kept asking myself "What do I want to do... What do I want to do?" 


I realized I'm not an idea guy, but I think Im fairly decent at executing, better than average at people skills, and good at working with people.


The follow on question became "What idea could I be passionate about and get behind and work on?"  And related to that, "What people that I've been meeting would I like to work with?"  It was by the grace of God, coincidence, or whatever you want to call it that I met Carl, Anna, Sam, and Arun the other co-founders of Terrafugia.  Carl, Anna, and Sam were grad students in the Aero/Astro Department at MIT.  Arun and I were the business guys. 



QFL:  What were the questions that influenced the design of the vehicles, the Transition® and the TF-X? If so, what were some of the questions that drove the current design? 


Min:  I think Carl would be the best person to answer these questions, but I can also answer with some certainly and confidence as well because in the beginning, we all kind of worked together on everything.  However, I can't take any credit for the actual vehicle design work. 


We knew early on some of the questions that we needed to ask. We knew that we wanted a vehicle that was going to fly and drive. Because of the category of aircraft we were targeting a Light Sport Aircraft or otherwise known as an LSA we wanted the vehicle to be a plane that is very easy to fly.  However, we also knew we wanted it to fit into a standard American garage.  So based on these design constraints one question was: "How can we create a plane that flies very easily and that can fit into a standard household garage?"


Also, based on previous attempts of others that have tried to make a flying car, we knew we would need to make some challenging decisions.  Many naysayers say you cant have both a good plane and a good car.  This drove us to ask "What design choices do we make so our vehicle is both a decent plane and a decent car?


Our idea to make a Light Sport Aircraft transform into a street legal vehicle that could also fit into a standard garage was to fold the wings, but to do that the way we envisioned would require the bottom of the wings to be more or less flat.  Well most wings on planes are at least somewhat rounded on both the bottom and top of the wing.  So that automatically became a design criteria and a follow up question became, "Where about in the wings do you put the folds?"


We found out the height of a standard American garage and took off some inches to give us a little margin and that became the maximum height requirement design constraint for the vehicle. 



QFL:  Terrafugia has received significant coverage in terms of marketing and public relations. The company has been covered at least twice on and has over four million hits on YouTube. What are some of the questions you that have been asked over time to get the word out there? What questions have you, and others at Terrafugia, asked to really bring the attention to the company and this concept?


Min:  That's a really interesting question.  We're trying to do as much as possible with as little investment money as possible.  Another way to put it is that weve been very frugal with our Investors funding.  So the question we would always ask ourselves is "What can we do for the minimal amount of money, or no money, and yet advance our purpose?"


We have not spent much money at all on advertising or marketing.  If you're familiar with the terms SEO (Search Engine Optimization) or SEM (Search Engine Marketing), we have done practically none of that, other than putting together our website.  That's the neatest thing. When you type in the words flying car in Google or Yahoo, we're one of the first companies that shows up.  We didn't spend money on that.  On the other hand, if CNN calls us and wants to do an interview, of course we're going to say "Yes" to that.  What has been challenging is when people ask us to be an exhibitor at certain shows, even though we know the exposure might be great, due to the costs associated with doing that, weve often said "No".  We're just very frugal with the investment dollars weve received.  We have to be frugal to get to, to have gotten to, where we are today and continue going to where we want to go.



QFL:  I believe that Terrafugia has 100 investors at this point. Is that part of the marketing program? 


Min:  We don't formally distinguish investment activities with marketing activities as they are inextricably linked.



QFL:  I believe that the next model, the TF-X is coming to market in the next 8+ years. In terms of building a business model that looks out 15 to 20 years, what questions are you asking yourself to create a business model that operates based on the design timeline and then sustains for a longer period, scaling up production for the retail market? 


Min:  When it comes to our long range plans, the question we ask ourselves is "What can enable this?" The bottom line is we're creating a flying car industry and that industry does not exist today.  So we ask ourselves "What kinds of things can we do technically, regulatory-wise, business-wise, marketing, etc. that will enable a flying car industry?"


We also ask ourselves "What are the obstacles out there to creating a flying car industry, and what can we do to overcome them?"  


In summary, "How is this industry going to be created?"



QFL:  Given that you have been involved in this project since the inception, are there questions that you and Carl, Anna and Sam, and the rest of the team ask to intentionally fuel your fire and stay motivated?  What questions do you ask to stay enthusiastic about the project to maintain the level of intensity that's required to bring us into being? Are there questions that you ask to maintain that level of enthusiasm?  Does it just stay there?  How do you think about that?


Min:  I don't want to speak for Carl, Anna, and Sam.  When we first started the company, I was the only one with a family.  When we got our degree and left grad school, I made the decision to no longer be involved with the venture on a day to day basis.  I went to work for a company called Textron. Sam, Anna and Carl continued to work full time at Terrafugia.  Relatively recently Sam left the company due to needing to relocate.  I came back to Terrafugia fulltime just a few months ago.


I think the question we've always asked ourselves during this whole time is, "Are we doing the right things?"  That covers the business aspects, technical aspects, and people aspects.  We now have 20+ employees, who we're responsible for and whose livelihoods depend on the company. They count on us.  "Are we doing the right things?" is a question we constantly ask ourselves. 



QFL:  We talked about the business plan... Are there other questions that you're asking in terms of bringing Terrafugia's TF-X to market?  You've sold 100 vehicles already.  Are there other questions that you're asking to actually sell the vehicles now? 


Min:  Just to be clear, the 100 or so advance order depositors we currently have are in line for our first vehicle which is the Transition®.  The TF-X is our next generation vehicle which is in its infancy.  Regardless, I think one question we ask ourselves is, "What can we do to make this product better?"  "How can we keep improving on the design?"  


You have to make design choices when you're trying to make a vehicle that both flies and drives.  We're always asking ourselves, "What design choices are optimal?"; when optimal is challenging, "What decisions are acceptable?"  We know the Transition® is an initial product and there are improvements we can make on it, "What are those improvements that we want to make for future blocks of the vehicle that we can start thinking about even as we get the first block to production?"



QFL:  In terms of the customers who are buying Terrafugia's Transition® or TF-X, are they part of the development process?  To what extent are they involved in the design and the roll out of the vehicles?


Min:  I think you hit on a very good point.  We have many constituents.  We highly value our customers who have placed a deposit and are waiting for their vehicle and of course we highly value our loyal investors.  We do listen to what I call VOC (Voice Of the Customer) and appreciate it.  Whether its at a show like Oshkosh ( that we attend as an exhibitor every year or some other venue, when potential investors and customers talk to us and give us feedback, we take it very seriously.  We're always collecting information from our customers, from investors and for that matter, the public at large.



QFL:  Aside from Terrafugia, generally speaking, what questions do you feel people could or should ask themselves to make the world a happier and healthier place?


Min:  There are three things that come to mind immediately.  This has nothing to do with Terrafugia necessarily and its more general in nature.


One is I always ask myself:  "Do you know what's going on at least two levels up from you, two levels down, and two levels to the side?".  This was a question that my father implanted to me in high school, but I didn't fully understand its meaning until I left college and started my career in the Marine Corps. It is one of the best questions, or pieces of advice, that I have received.  My father always said you of course have to do your job well.  Thats a given.  However, in any organization, do you really understand and know what's going at least two levels up. Two levels down, and two levels to the side?"  Whatever organization I have been a part of, Ive strived to understand:

- What is my boss and my boss's boss thinking and feeling?  Whats driving them?

- What are my direct reports and my direct reports direct reports thinking, feeling, and driving them?

- What are my peers to my side and their peers to their sides thinking, feeling, and driving them?

- What is going through all these peoples minds? 

- What's important to them?


These questions have helped me become a better team player and have a better perspective in doing my job in any organization. 


Two, is I feel the world would be a much better place if people just had a little more empathy.  Its the golden rule treat others the way you would want to be treated. The question I think that all of us could ask more often is, "Is what I'm about to do or say, something I would want someone else to do or say to me?"  The world would be such a better place. 


The third has to do with work.  We all spend an inordinate amount of time at work.  "Is what I'm doing making me happy?"  I think this is a question that we should all ask ourselves.  I know it sounds simple, but when you ask that question you can really answer it in many different ways.  This question can apply to: what you're doing, the company youre with, the people you work with, and the purpose or mission of the organization.  There are obviously many, many aspects or factors to answering that question.  I think if you're happy at what you're doing, for all those reasons and more, you help make the world a better place.  You wake up wanting to go into work.  You make your fellow colleagues happy.  It becomes a virtuous cycle and it requires being honest with yourself.


For additional information regarding Alex Min and Terrafugia, please click here: 


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