“It’s not like astronauts are braver than other people; we’re just meticulously prepared.”
– Astronaut Chris Hadfield, Canadian astronaut and commander of the International space station
Surprisingly, entrepreneurs may learn profound lessons from astronauts. Astronauts are trained to be expert pilots, but it is their tremendous courage, ability to perform while living on the edge, and knack for succeeding in doing what others say is impossible which truly sets them apart. Successful entrepreneurs possess many of these same character traits. They devote themselves to their business goals and work tirelessly to achieve the necessary momentum to launch their new business. Launching rocket ships and new businesses require great skill to guide the projects into an unknown realm. Close examination of human space exploration may provide strategies to help make a new business “take off and stay in orbit”.
Plan for a failure and work backwards
Chris explains that in the early days of shuttle launches, the risk of having a catastrophic event — that is, death — was 1 in 9. He said, ”So it’s a really interesting day when you wake up at the Kennedy Space Center,” about to head to space, “because you realize that at the end of the day you’re either going to be floating effortlessly, gloriously in space, or you’ll be dead.”
In some ways launching a new business parallels launching a space mission. There’s so much that can go wrong and there’s always the chance that the start-up could fail. According to Bloomberg, 80% of new businesses do fail. Taking on a new venture and flying a space shuttle requires the astronaut and the C.E.O. to be accountable for every detail. The shuttle is one of the most complicated things ever built, and according to the standard astronaut saying, “There is no problem so bad that you can’t make it worse.” If each person on the team wasn’t fanatic about every detail someone could die. Hadfield stresses that competence is a key factor in becoming successful.
Entrepreneurs could avoid making costly mistakes if they treated launching their businesses like a space mission. Guy Kawasaki, founding partner at Garage and co-founder of Alltop, previously Apple Evangelist and author of 9 books including The Art of the Start: Time Tested, Battle-Hardened Guide for Anyone Starting Anything gives this advice to entrepreneurs on how to avoid failure: He suggests conducting a ‘pre-mortem.’ Guy quips, “Don’t wait till your business fails to assess what went wrong. That’s often too late as most people have left or have been fired. Before you ship, ask your team to imagine your company failed and look at everything that could have gone wrong.” This strategy enables each department to examine their work and make necessary changes to prevent a failure before it happens.
Imagine the worst case scenario: it’s probably not as bad as you think
Hadfield, like all astronauts, had trained extensively, not just for the mission going right, but also for all the ways the mission could go wrong. He wasn’t out there alone, and he and his spacewalk partner had practiced incapacitated crew rescue, so he knew whatever happened, they could deal with it. Going blind on his spacewalk could have led any normal person into a panic but Hadfield was able to maintain composure. He had planned for so many years for things that could potentially go awry in space that he didn’t allow this to throw him. After a while, as it turned out, he cried enough to clear whatever had been blocking his vision — which turned out to be the anti-fog used to keep the helmet visors clear.
Chris suggests that you should care what others think and you should sweat the small stuff. In space this could be the difference between life and death. In business it means seeking feedback, learning from mistakes, focusing on important details and being meticulous in how you execute your plan. Short cuts aren’t acceptable when it comes to providing high quality service to customers and caring for your employees and suppliers.
Scale your business slowly: the real thrill doesn’t come from speed
Hadfield described the experience of flying back from the moon like riding a meteor. He re-entered the atmosphere at what he called breakneck speed. Some might think that the sheer speed of flight would be exhilarating for an astronaut. But Hadfield expressed that his thrill came from watching the beauty outside along the way and the delight in reaching a new space and a different perspective of the world.
Successful entrepreneurs aren’t focused on the speed at which they launch their business. They recognize that success comes with patience and hard work. Enjoy the process of building something great and delivering on a promise. Don’t rush your business’s growth so that you risk compromising the quality of your products and/or your services. In time your business could be something magnificent and could provide something new that improves the world. Guy Kawasaki reiterates this point in urging entrepreneurs to scale their businesses slowly. He quips, “I’ve never seen a business owner complain that they’re business failed because they grew it too slowly.”
Critical traits for success: persistence and tenacity
Hadfield’s story of sheer persistence, tenacity and of taking pleasure in the journey speaks to anyone who goes into a business for the sake of purpose. Chris’s description of the preparation for the launch, the excitement around the possibility of being in space and then his awe in being weightless is a great metaphor for building a business and actualizing a dream.
The second half of his journey, returning to earth, was equally exhilarating for him, as now he had experienced things that could inspire others to dare to dream. He could now teach others about confronting their fears, taking risks that culminate in the joy of doing things that are new and challenging.
Hadfield’s tenacity and persistence is reminiscent of many iconic entrepreneurs. Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Elon Musk are well-known for zeroing in on what’s important. Their combination of vision, conviction, and stubborn tenacity make them unstoppable visionaries. One piece of advice Warren Buffet’s gives to get rich, “Be Persistent: With tenacity and ingenuity, you can win against a more established competitor.
Think like an astronaut, look to the future
Larry Page the CEO of Google and Chris Hadfield have some surprising things in common. Hadfield’s career is centered on findings in space that could help scientific research to improve the future. In a recent interview Page said that his focus is also on the future. Page’s goal is to help two-thirds of the world gain access to information for the sake of improving their quality of life. Page showed examples of young people who started business in agriculture and solved major problems that impeded their success by learning on the Internet.
Hadfield and Page had a similar state of mind. They both think about what the future is going to be and how they can help create it. They’re both work on things no one else is working on and are willing to take risks to make discoveries.
Page went on to say that Google likes to work on things that no one else is working on. If run well, Page sees corporations as being an agent of change. Page pointed to Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk, who has a “worthy goal” of going to Mars. That’s why Page would rather give life savings to Musk instead of a charity when he dies.
Both Hadfield and Page believe in doing something that wouldn’t happen unless they were doing it. They try things that people wouldn’t think are possible and try to get around fears that are irrational; Chris did this by learning everything he could about space from grueling training and being an aviator pilot to becoming an astronaut. Only after intensive training was he then able to overcome his going into outer space and photographing everything he saw there.
Hadfield attracted attention by making it cool again to imagine leaving planet earth through his whimsical, goofy videos and Facebook updates. Shows how to brush your teeth in space. How to cook in outer space. And how being in space affects your body. Hadfield shared his research on how being in space could worsen your vision. He achieved his goal in generating excitement around scientific research from astronauts in orbit. He took a novel approach to giving people what they wanted to see in outer space; “They don’t want another lecture; they want to see cool stuff.”
Page uses the example of balloons in space that could help allow Internet access in places that currently don’t have access to Internet. He shows impressive success stories of young business owners in Nigeria who used Internet for research that helped them launch their businesses. He’d like to allow more people in undeveloped countries to prosper by using the Internet as an educational tool.
In Hadfield’s book, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth: What Going to Space Taught Me About Ingenuity, Determination, and Being Prepared for Anything, he says, “most people, including me, tend to applaud the wrong things: the showy, dramatic record-setting sprint rather than the years of dogged preparation or the unwavering grace displayed during a string of losses.” Astronauts must be diligent, willing to take risks, have grit, be accountable and fanatic about detail and look to the future. It’s clear that high soaring astronauts like Hadfield embody many of the traits that epitomize high soaring entrepreneurs. One thing for sure, neither is a journey for the meek and timid.