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ONELAST THING...

From Wingman to Wingtips

Why a Top Gun aviator took a chance on entrepreneurship

By Eric Voskuil ’89


* Eric Voskuil ’89

Eric Voskuil ’89

The guy next to me is the ordinance officer (Petty Officer First Class Walker) who was supervising the weapons load of my jet on my last flight from the ship.

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On the surface, it probably sounds like one of those fish-out-of-water movies. Take the swashbuckling fighter pilot out of his F/A-18, put him into the daily grind with a bunch of techno-geeks, and watch the high jinks that ensue. After all, no one would ever believe that in the real world, a graduate of the U.S. Navy’s prestigious Fighter Weapons School would want to leave to start a high-tech business with little more than an idea.

For me, though, the entrepreneurial drive was ever-present. Growing up in New Hampshire I always had a “business.” I peddled berries on the roadside, made and sold root beer, and at the age of 13, hand-built a boat so I could start a lobstering business. The skiff floated, but the business didn’t. Who knew you needed a license to catch lobsters!

For high school I attended Berwick Academy, the oldest school in Maine, which fortunately sported some of the latest computer hardware. Not only did I earn nine varsity letters at Berwick, but also I became the class computer geek — a trait that came in handy during my college years at RPI.

College has a way of exposing a person’s true nature. For me, a computer-science major and free spirit who happened to land a coveted internship at IBM, I came away from RPI with three lessons: one, that I liked writing software; two, that I didn’t want to do it as someone else’s employee; and three, that I preferred the thrill of riding a motorcycle to either of the previous two.

About this time I also happened to read The Hunt for Red October and got it into my head that joining the Navy would be a challenging way to spend the next few years. I talked to a Navy recruiter about a career in subs, but he instead redirected me to the pilot recruiter. It proved to be a fateful — and singularly beneficial — choice.

Following graduation I did flight training in Florida, California, and Mississippi, where I met my future wife. I chose specifically to avoid computers during this period, knowing they would suck up my free time. One night at the officer’s club, however, I let slip that I had a computer science degree. Quickly I was encouraged to participate in an effort to automate the flight-scheduling process. Later, at my fleet F/A-18 squadron commander’s urging, I expanded upon my ideas by creating a computerized scheduling system. Spending hours on the project during my off-duty time, I developed a system that was quickly put into use by most of the F/A-18 squadrons in the fleet.

In the meantime, though, flying took precedence. I was deployed twice to the Mediterranean, where I flew 20 combat missions over Bosnia from the USS Saratoga and USS Enterprise. My warfare experience helped me reach the pinnacle of my aviation career: admission to the world’s best fighter training program, the Navy Fighter Weapons School, also known as Top Gun.

The first thing most people ask about Top Gun is if it’s like the movie. While many things were prettied up for the film, much is on the mark. The most obvious difference is that Top Gun isn’t a competition. It’s a grueling pass-fail course where everyone works closely together — as it turns out, much like a start-up.

I became both a Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor at Top Gun and adviser on a classified network of military training systems. It was during this period that I came to realize that computer desktop manageability was a serious and universal problem. From my perspective, the business opportunity was both evident and compelling. I hit upon several ideas and in 1997, founded my company, a firm that would later become known as AutoProf.

And so my life as a business owner truly began. In 1998, I resigned my commission and joined forces with an RPI friend, John Moyer ’88. We relocated to Portsmouth, N.H., for the business-friendly climate and proximity to Boston’s high-tech workforce. We were completely self-funded. My partner, my wife, and I were the company — a precarious situation to say the least.

Six years later, do I regret leaving behind fighter jets? Not really. I have a wonderful family and a thriving business with tremendous opportunity. We’ve had a strong ride so far, selling over three million seats of enterprise desktop-management software to more than 3,000 corporate customers. We’ve also created a culture that not only leads to innovation but attracts great people.

Back in the days when I rode my motorcycle too fast through the back roads of upstate New York, I realized that I needed to do something life-threatening with my future. It wasn’t that I had no respect for risk, but rather that I needed risk to feel truly alive. No doubt that’s why I became an aviator. And later, why I became an entrepreneur.


Eric Voskuil ’89 is co-founder and chief technical officer of AutoProf, a developer of desktop management software.

Article reprinted with permission from BusinessWeek Online.

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