01 Jun 2004
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The Sky’s the Limit

Another in a series of occasional articles on HBS graduates who have embarked on second careers

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Flying has it all — science, freedom, beauty, and adventure,” says Robert A. Hamilton (MBA ’85), by way of quoting Charles Lindbergh. “I wholeheartedly agree.” These days, Hamilton is getting huge doses of those four elements at Seattle Avionics, the start-up aviation software company he helped launch last fall with “two ex-Microsoft guys.” All three are pilots, and fittingly, their first product is a flight-planning software program called Voyager.

“It’s for general aviation pilots — private pilots and commercial charter operations,” says Hamilton, who manages operations, sales, and marketing for the budding business. “It provides all the charting information on your computer, but it also connects to Internet databases and brings in all the latest weather and other flight condition information.”

Hamilton discovered Seattle Avionics just weeks after leaving a company he had been with for eighteen years. Indeed, he had no idea what he would be doing after he left the Seattle-based Fluke Corporation, an electronics-testing equipment manufacturer, last summer. All he knew was that he wanted to make a living out of something he has always loved: flying.

Hamilton first earned his pilot’s license when he was just 17 years old, after training in his dad’s antique 1946 Piper J-3 Cub. “It was just a beautiful plane,” he recalls. “I fell in love with flying.”

Alhough he considered a career in aviation, he lacked perfect vision, then a requirement to fly commercially. “So I gave it up and went to school for engineering,” he says. “Then I got a job, got married, and had kids. There was no time for flying.”

With his aviator dreams grounded, Hamilton pursued another passion: designing and building things. A Seattle native, he earned his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the University of Washington and worked for Boeing, testing the 747 autopilot.

His penchant for design led Hamilton to quit Boeing and launch the People Products Company, a consumer products outfit that had success with an invention called the CupCake — a little electronic trivet that kept a cup of coffee warm at one’s desk.

Running the company inspired Hamilton to pursue his MBA at Harvard. “I realized I liked the business aspect of things; I liked selling,” he says. “I’m probably not the best design engineer in the world, so I decided to get more into the business side.”

After HBS, Hamilton signed on with Fluke, first as a project manager and most recently as the head of corporate marketing communications. In all those years with Fluke, Hamilton gave very little thought to flying. “I never had time,” he says.

But five years ago, Fluke was acquired by the Danaher Corporation, a diversified technology company. For Hamilton, this marked the electronics-testing industry’s transition to mature market status — an unwelcome development. “I was bored,” he says. “It was time for a change.”

“I said to myself, ‘I’m done with half of my career. What do I want to do for the second half?’” he recalls. “What I kept thinking about was that I absolutely love flying.”

So Hamilton set about figuring out a way to get into the aviation industry and make a living. He renewed his pilot’s license, bought a Diamond Star four-seater plane, and volunteered at the Washington Pilots Association. He also did some consulting work on the side, helping a local aviation museum with marketing.

“I’d spent a year before I left Fluke just making contacts and decided I was ready to leave last summer,” he says. The networking paid off when two members of the Washington Pilots Association gave a talk about their intentions to start Seattle Avionics. Hamilton approached them on the spot and talked his way into becoming a partner.

“It’s worked out beautifully,” says Hamilton. “It’s fun to work with other entrepreneurs to build something. I spend a lot of time on the phone with customers — all pilots — talking about flying and airplanes. It’s wonderful. I get to do my hobby all day long.”

Hamilton, who now shares his love of flying with his two children, is clearly elated to have a second chance at his dream. Barely a year into his new career, he’s not looking back.

“I suppose it’s like flying,” he says. “You make your plan, but you never quite know what you’re going to run across. That’s part of the fun and the challenge — following the plan, but discovering new things as you go along.”

— Margie Kelley

To learn more, visit www.seattleavionics.com.

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Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 1985, Section H

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