When people think of a “typical tech entrepreneur,” an image often comes to mind of a young person – fresh out of college – sitting in a coffee house, writing a business plan in hopes of raising a couple hundred thousand dollars to build an app. And while there are plenty of entrepreneurs who actually fit that description, I’d like to offer up another kind.
Imagine a different type of entrepreneur – one perhaps a little older, who arrives at business ownership via a more circuitous path. This entrepreneur hits the ground running with hands-on knowledge, discipline, and a mission driven focus that only a military career can bring. Michael Durant is his name, and, while he’s sidestepped the coffee house, he’s every bit a tech entrepreneur.
From Military Pilot to Civilian Entrepreneur
Chances are, you know of Mike. He led a distinguished career in the Army as a pilot and Master Aviator for Black Hawk helicopters, retiring a decorated officer after 22 years of service. In 1993 he was briefly held prisoner after his helicopter was shot down during a raid in what’s now known as the Battle of Mogadishu in Somalia. This was depicted in the 2001 Hollywood blockbuster, Black Hawk Down.
“[My military career] was a fantastic experience, though some painful events occurred in the middle of it all, but when I think about it, it was just an amazing opportunity for me to gain a lot of experience and to be exposed to opportunities that I would not have been exposed to otherwise.”
Mike credits his training and experiences in the military for giving him the deep knowledge and courage he needed to launch his “second career” – that of an innovative entrepreneur. In 2008 he founded Pinnacle Solutions out of Huntsville, Alabama – often called “Rocket City” because of its highest-in-the-nation per capita presence of engineers (think “rocket scientists”) and its well known association with the defense and space industry. Pinnacle began with the vehicle that Mike is famous for piloting: the Black Hawk helicopter.
From Services to Products
Pinnacle got its start as a service based company – maintaining Black Hawk helicopters and other aircraft for the U.S. military. Mike’s extensive aviation experience put him into the perfect position to know the aircraft inside and out, and build trust with his primary client. Pinnacle grew steadily, and Mike added engineering, light manufacture, and other services to Pinnacle’s line-up. But with a move towards a new service, Mike has guided Pinnacle into an innovative product-based model that is transforming his business into something that’s even more scalable and could pilot Pinnacle into the civilian sector.
With about 4000 Black Hawk helicopters currently in active use – and some of those sold to U.S. allied nations – Mike spotted a need to train both U.S and foreign maintenance crews. Pinnacle Solutions pivoted to absorb this new service, but it came with some big challenges:
- The machinery was very sophisticated and not in heavy active use – not an ideal training tool.
- Many of the foreign maintenance crews didn’t understand English well. Since most training materials were in English, this presented a big language barrier to learning.
- An increasingly global client base could mean problems with training availability, leading to delays and inefficiencies.
Mike needed a way to train people that crossed time zones, language barriers, didn’t put sensitive equipment at risk, and brought comprehensive training when and where it was needed. His solution? Virtual and augmented reality.
The Transformation Within
There’s a trend I’ve seen in my research on fast growth businesses: companies who successfully navigate the transition between small business and large company. I call it “financial model transformation.” Mike’s choice to put resources and attention behind a product based model that was very different from the services based model his company began with is a great example of this transformation.
“We developed a very high fidelity virtual maintenance trainer for the Black Hawks specifically. And virtual maintenance training has been used for a while, but no one’s ever done one as comprehensive as the one we did. It’s essentially a complete, virtual simulation of the entire aircraft and everything in it.”
Mike’s virtual reality trainer was an elegant solution that solved all of the challenges with training maintenance crews around the globe. It allowed for training down to the nuts and bolts without compromising expensive assets, sidestepped the language barriers with visual learning, and removed time zone conflicts. His team also developed augmented reality modules (Mike says, “Think Jarvis from Iron Man.”) that step in to offer targeted assistance during real time repair and maintenance.
The real potential is in the use cases, which go way beyond this first iteration for Black Hawks.
“And then if you look at the market itself – this has implications well beyond Black Hawks, well beyond aviation. The virtual reality and augmented reality market in the future is programmed to grow by orders of magnitude over the next five years.”
Right now Pinnacle’s contracts are about 75% service based and 25% product based. In five years Mike plans to see that even out to 50% product based. Since margins are higher on the product side, that small shift could catapult Pinnacle Solutions into its next level of growth.
Mike Durant represents a different way of growing a business than the one we typically think of when we think of tech companies. His way was more “block and tackle,” as he describes it: learn from the military, move to a town that’s working with technology and an incredible client (US govt), build growth steadily, and then look for the ways that technology can be applied outside of service based contracts and into something that looks more like a traditional business. In the end this $62 million, 7 time Inc. 5000 honoree company has arrived at the same place as a Silicon Valley tech company: cutting edge, scalable, and global.
I’ll be following along with Mike’s continuing journey to develop his VR and augmented reality division.
To listen to my full interview with Mike Durant click here.