November 11, 2013

3 Business Lessons Learned from Paper Airplanes

3 Business Lessons Learned from Paper Airplanes

Making a paper airplane isn’t something that most of us feel must be done by committee; our experience of paper airplanes is basically folding a piece of paper into a projectile shape, launching it, and watching it plummet to the floor faster than if we had simply crumbled it into a ball and flung it to the ground. Well, what do you expect? We are not aeronautical engineers.

However, in order to get a paper airplane to fly a reasonable distance (and by “reasonable,” we mean farther than the length of the thrower’s own arm), it does take a fair amount of technical proficiency, gumption, creativity and, yes, team work. The same goes for practically any business — even graphic design.

We were inspired by the achievement of John Collins, who, in addition to being a lovely whiskey cocktail, designed a world record-breaking paper airplane after only 40 years of trying. There is definitely a feel-good, small-town underdog movie in there somewhere.


We’re not a huge fan of meetings, particularly weekly, unfocussed meetings that have no specific aim other than to remind everyone that a conference room exists.

Collaboration doesn’t have to be this way. When you work on a project for weeks or even months, you need someone else to inject a little new vigor into the process. We’ve all been there; slaving away on some assignment and failing to figure out exactly why something or another isn’t working until a colleague walks into the room and looks at the progress. “What’s this supposed to be?” He says. Eureka! Suddenly a the room is gushing full of energy that could only be matched by a room full of toddlers — or monkeys and barrels.

When we’ve immersed ourselves in our work, we sometimes lose perspective and fail to notice the little things that are completely obvious to others. However, when everyone in the room uses everything they know to help the project along, great things can happen. That is, until the team starts to fall apart into people trying to take credit for ideas, as it inevitably will.

Learning from Failure

The difference between successful people and lower management is that successful people may have failed at some point, but they kept trying, and they dedicated themselves to identifying and fixing the problems they encountered.

As we pointed out earlier, the world record-holding paper airplane designer had been working to achieve that goal for 40 years. Regardless of whatever else he was doing in his life during that time, he worked like a man-on-a-mission on this goal, and he wound up in the record books as a result. Failure is only failure when you quit.

Thinking Outside the Box

As long as we’re on the subject of paper airplanes, we’d like to point out that paper airplanes can be engineered to become airborne in a variety of different ways. They can fly in horizontal and vertical circles; they can flap their wings; they don’t even have to be airplane/dart-shaped. The next time you and your friends decide to have a paper-airplane contest (and that happens every weekend, admit it), let them design and throw their planes first. Then, scrunch your paper into a ball and throw it — most likely, you’ve just won.

There may be rules governing your industry, but that doesn’t mean you should deliberately handicap yourself. Think of how you would operate if you didn’t have an established set of guidelines in place. Of course, you’ll have to prepare yourself for rejection from industry brain trusts, since the unfamiliar is very scary to investors.

So, what have we learned today? We learned that just because we never succeeded in designing a paper airplane worth the paper it was folded with, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a legitimate business metaphor there somewhere. We learned that we need the input of others if we really want our projects to sing. We learned that failure can be a teaching moment if we don’t let our egos stand in the way of progress. Most importantly, we learned that our childhood preoccupations can lead to success and invitations to be guests on “Conan.” Perhaps our love of Super Mario Brothers will finally yield some well-deserved glory.


by Kevin Smith
SmashBrand helps brands create, optimize, and launch successful products, services, and customer experiences. Our data-driven process is the key to accelerating sales and minimizing risks.

We use a strategic combination of market research, design, and consumer testing to solve complex brand problems more effectively, create differentiation, and forge more meaningful connections with customers.

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