Wade Eyerly - Co-Founder and CEO of Surf Air

[quote style=”boxed”]Every day from 5:00-7:30 p.m. I have my “immovable appointment.” That’s when I make the three-block walk from my office to my apartment, and see my wife and son. We have dinner and I help put Ammon (my two-year-old) to bed. Then I come back to work. The evenings can be my most productive time. There are relatively few demands on my time, and no one seems to be clamoring for a 9:30 p.m. meeting with me, so I get a few minutes to think, engage with my team, etc.[/quote]

Prior to founding Surf Air, Wade worked in national defense, filling various roles for an intelligence agency. He served as a senior business consultant leading Lean Six Sigma process improvement activities for the National Security Agency, and spent four years as an intelligence officer with the Department of Defense. Before leaving politics to work for the government, Wade worked on two Presidential campaigns, spending time as a press advance representative for Vice President Dick Cheney. Additionally, Wade served in Iraq from 2009-2010 where he built quantitative models that were used to predict conflict and help keep soldiers safe. Wade received the Secretary of Defense’s medal for the Global War on Terror, and the Civilian Joint Service Commendation for his work there.

In 2011, Wade and his brother David created a new type of private air travel, a members-only service that provided travel between top United States cities. Surf Air was created to build a business service that would introduce the luxury service of private flying to passengers who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford it.

Wade earned a B.A. in international economic policy and cross-cultural relations from Central Missouri State University and a master’s in public policy and international development management from Brigham Young University where he also earned a Global Management Certificate. In 2005, Wade received the Outstanding Recent Alumni Award from Central Missouri State.

What are you working on right now?

Acquiring aircrafts, getting regulatory approvals and building a sustainable culture.

Where did the idea for Surfair come from?

I was the press advance representative for VP Cheney. That meant that I was flying up to 27 days per month–last minute, one-way, etc., and going through TSA’s “random” screening on every flight. I could walk up and talk to the Vice President of the U.S., but I couldn’t get on a plane without two screenings. It didn’t make any sense. At the same time, my brother was starting out his career as a commercial pilot. He was worried that there weren’t enough good jobs for pilots. He called me up and said, “I love flying, but there are no jobs. Should I do something else?’ I asked what it would take to keep him in the air. Sarcastically, he responded, “I dunno. Buy a plane. Start an airline.” I took him a bit more seriously than he thought and said, “I’ll look into it.” Six or seven years later… here we are.

What does your typical day look like?

I call it “deployment hours.” I work the way I did when I was in Iraq. I get up, shower, turn on Thomas the Train or Cars 2 for my son, and go to work. I come home when my body needs to sleep, and then I get up and do it again. Most days are loaded full of meetings. I’m the public facing guy, so I take every press interview. I also talk with credit card processors, banks, investors, advisors, Fixed Base operators, aircraft sales and leasing folks, etc.

Every day from 5:00-7:30 p.m. I have my “immovable appointment.” That’s when I make the three-block walk from my office to my apartment, and see my wife and son. We have dinner and I help put Ammon (my two-year-old) to bed. Then I come back to work. The evenings can be my most productive time. There are relatively few demands on my time, and no one seems to be clamoring for a 9:30 p.m. meeting with me, so I get a few minutes to think, engage with my team, etc.

The long and short of it is that I spend most of my day talking, and a precious little amount of time is spent free thinking. The evenings give me that opportunity.

How do you bring ideas to life?

I don’t – my team does. I am really blessed to have an amazing team. I can dream up an idea and hand it off to the team to execute. A recent example is when we chartered a celebrity flight from San Francisco down to Las Vegas. A month before the event, we had a little pow-wow about it in terms of what our goals were, etc. The next time I heard about it was the night before, when our social media maven needed a ride to the airport. I had complete faith in my team, so it didn’t need to clutter my efforts day-in and day-out. And they knocked it out of the park. They always do. What’s the greatest startup mistake I know of? Thinking you are the one that makes it happen.

What’s one trend that really excites you?

As we draw down military action in Iraq and Afghanistan, American businesses are seeing a return of an awful lot of leadership talent to the U.S.–men and women who are literally battle tested, who know how to lead a team, and who can execute a task perfectly. There’s an old story (possibly apocryphal) that Silicon Valley came about because NASA laid off a bunch of engineers who spent the next few years finding ways to survive, building businesses, innovating, and pursuing ideas that had languished while they were in government jobs. I think this return of tested leadership to the nation’s workforce is going to help propel us in the next 25 years. We need great leaders to build great businesses. I think this return of leadership to our shores is overlooked, and will help drive a number of successful businesses. We hope to be one.

What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?

The worst job you can have is one you don’t enjoy. I was a temp at a drill bit manufacturer, and spent my time cleaning nasty crud out of diamond drill bits and monotonously counting bits. For a kid with ADD, sitting in a poorly lit room and doing a repetitive task was pretty bad. That said, I’ve been pretty lucky. I’ve sought out work that was interesting to me. If the work is interesting, it doesn’t matter how gross or labor-intensive the job is. In a time when a lot of people don’t have jobs, it feels weird to talk about jobs that are less desirable. I’m grateful for every job I’ve ever had. I’m especially grateful that I have one now. I’ve never been more professionally satisfied.

If you were to start again, what would you do differently?

I wouldn’t give out titles when I started the business; I’d give areas of responsibility. Saying, “This is Chad, and he does marketing for us,” is just as effective as saying, “This is Chad, he’s our VP of marketing.” The goal is to communicate why people should be talking to Chad. Titles just help people to know where they fit within a hierarchical order, which doesn’t suit startups. Everyone’s a VP or director or chief of something. It’s silly.

I also would have started my own business sooner and wasted less time working for someone else in a field I wasn’t passionate about any longer.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

I sit down one-on-one with my team members and just ask, “How are things going?” This does a number of things for me. 1) I get a good pulse-check on their workload, 2) I get insights into challenges they see and 3) I get a feel for their emotional state and how close they are to burning out.

My team is very passionate about what it does and everyone works their tails off. Part of my job is making sure that they can keep doing that. Sometimes that means getting everyone headphones to drown out the noise of the office. Other times that means buying an intern (who is really working hard for you) a flight home to see his wife in the middle of the summer. Businesses are all about the people. Take care of the people, and the people will take care of the work.

What is one problem you encountered as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

Balancing the work and life demands. I’m married and I have a two-year-old. That means it’s hard for me to dedicate 20 hours a day to a business, while maintaining a strong relationship with my family making sure that my son still knows who I am. When we first started my wife said, “Give it your all. I’ll join you in a few weeks.” She then spent some time visiting her folks while I dove full-tilt into the business. Then when she got here, we had to set a repeatable pattern.

I have a scheduled appointment with her every day from 5:00-7:30. I’ve also completely blocked out Monday nights for her, as well as six hours on Saturday mornings. I don’t work, answer work emails, take calls, or anything of the sort on Sundays. What this means is that both my wife and I know what to expect as far as family time and can plan around that. Our family has developed a reliable routine. Startups are chaos, so having some portion of my life be consistent has been really helpful for me.

Plus, I get to be a decent dad. I come home in time to play with my son and take him to the beach, have dinner with the family, and help put my son down. I get to do a family outing every Saturday (we like hiking in the Malibu hills or visiting libraries/museums, and we usually swing by a farmer’s market.) I also give my wife a night off once a week so she can do something (anything) that she wants. Often it’s just a chance for her to go to the grocery story without a munchkin picking up everything he sees–but at least it’s “free” time.

Sundays are great. I set the tone that I don’t do any work at all on Sunday. My business partners, employees, and even vendors know that I won’t respond to an email on Sunday. Instead, I go to church and visit family. I do service (I translate church services for a 76-year-old Russian man, etc.), and otherwise decompress. By setting that tone, I think it helps my team to push through long days, because they know–at the very least–I’ll leave them alone on Sundays.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

Jet Set Events. There’s an entire cottage industry of upscale “experience and growth” events targeted at specific niche groups (think of Summit Series or Meeting of the Big Minds). Imagine an event on a private jet. Ten days, seven continents, and some of the coolest things you could ever see or do. In flight, you’d do the classroom portion of the events, and on the ground you’d build shared experiences and serendipitous conversations by whitewater rafting through the mouth of the Nile one day and scuba diving the Great Barrier Reef the next. It’s probably not a billion-dollar idea, but someone could make a few bucks putting together a series of rockin’ events for the super wealthy.

If you could change one thing in the world, what would it be and how would you go about it?

This isn’t an “if.” This question should be, “What are you doing to change one thing in the world, and how are you doing it?”

I want to lift up the people around me. Right now, people need jobs. So I’m building a business that employs a lot of people. Airlines don’t scale with technology. More server boxes don’t make us more money. More planes, more pilots, and more sales do. We hire 30 people for every two planes we fly. That’s a lot of jobs–good jobs that we’re proud to be creating. (It’s even better that we get to employ former military pilots, real American heroes.) My proudest moment as a startup CEO was the day we first made payroll.

Tell us a secret.

My right bicep is paralyzed. I had a bad reaction to the anthrax vaccine I got in Iraq. The reaction was delayed, but a little while after I got home, the bicep just stopped working. I’ve been to a bunch of doctors, and one says it might return to normal someday. Others say it’s permanently affected. We’ll see. Either way, the body is an amazing thing. The other muscles compensate. It’s not a secret because I’m too shy to tell anyone; it’s a secret because unless I wear short sleeves, you probably would never notice. I still play as the quarterback for my flag football team. (Yes, our early 30s are the athletic glory years for some of us.)

What are your three favorite online tools or resources and what do you love about them?

  1. I recommend the Google News Reader. I can go through several hundred articles a day and have it filter content that is beneficial to me.
  2. ESPN.com. I know, I know–it’s not much of an online tool, but it’s a great resource for a sports junkie. As I’ve moved around the country during my life, I’ve picked up different teams. Growing up in Kansas City, we used to sneak in to Royals Stadium after the 7th inning stretch, when they open the gates to let everyone out to watch the games. We were that poor family that would come in and sit in the empty seats with the players’ wives behind the first base dugout. I am the oldest of eight kids, and I remember my dad saying that two-and-a-half innings of baseball are really all that kids our age can handle, anyway. They won the World Series when I was six, and I’ve never forgotten it. We’re definitely a sports family. (I have a nephew named Kobe (named after a certain LA-based superstar). I’m a huge Chiefs fan, and probably read the Chiefs news once a day. Living in Utah for graduate school, I picked up the Real Salt Lake soccer team and the Utah Jazz. Out in Washington D.C., I took my wife on a tour of sports teams and discovered that she loves hockey, so we became Caps fans. I went to BYU, so I’m a die-hard Cougar. But, I’m also a legacy Jayhawk (my grandpa went to Kansas), so I root for their basketball team. As you can see, keeping track of all of that can be difficult and ESPN makes it easy.
  3. I really like Rapportive. When I open emails, I can see, right in Gmail, who they’re from and learn a little about the senders. It’s crazy convenient.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

The Middle-Class Millionaire. It’s a fascinating study on how different people apply the same value set in vastly different (and sometimes completely opposite) ways. The study is interesting not just for the information it lays out, but also for the great takeaway that societal disagreements often stem from a shared desire. One example is parents for whom education is a top priority. For some, that means working with their kids every day to get them the most out of their education. For others, it means sending their kids away to the best boarding school. Both actions can be taken lovingly by parents concerned for their kids’ educations, but the actions are completely at odds with each other (and both groups struggle to understand each other). It’s fascinating. I love insights turned into cognitive riddles.

Three people we should follow on Twitter and why?

I know it’s a heresy as a startup CEO, but I don’t use Twitter. I mean, I have a Twitter account (@wadeeyerly), but I just don’t spend my days updating it. I find Twitter to be a great vehicle for information spreading, but a poor vehicle for information consumption. I have too many demands on my time to filter through bazillions of tweets for some nugget of value. I let the Kansas City Star, Washington Post, and my social media lead do that for me, and that way I can go straight to extracting value.

When was the last time you laughed out loud? What caused it?

Undoubtedly it was something my son said. He’s hilarious. Just the other day, he was dipping strawberries into whipped cream, while sitting on my mother-in-law’s lap. He leaned back, with a cream-covered strawberry in his hand, exhaled and said in his two-year-old voice, “I’m so lucky right now.” I love that kid.

Who is your hero?

There are lots of heroes to choose from, but I admire folks who do the right thing, the right way–people who are successful without sacrificing who they are, people who don’t cut corners. Integrity means a lot to me.

George Romney stands out. A passionate leader, he came from nothing and worked his way to lead a giant, job-producing company. Then he became a three-term governor and spent his time applying those leadership skills in the public sphere, giving back. He raised a good family, and didn’t let that suffer while he accomplished great things. He was incredibly well-respected. He also fought for civil rights, and as a Republican governor, in the late 60s. You have to admire someone who’s willing to take on anyone to do what’s right.

What are the traits you look for in people you hire?

We need lots of specialized skill sets, from pilots, engineers, designers, etc. But all of those roles involve skill sets that are learned. I hire for what can’t be taught–character, tenacity, and just plain “get-it-done-ness.” I can teach you to sell, but not to pick up the phone. So I look for people who just accomplish things. I don’t care what it is that they do, as long as they do it. I particularly like people who have overcome a challenge to get where they are.


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