Take a giant leap for your startup

On July 20, 1969, the world slowed down to watch a key moment in human history. Dinners went cold, families stayed up late, staring at their television sets. After a journey of eight days, three hours, eighteen minutes, thirty-five seconds Neil Armstrong walked a few steps down a ladder and placed his boot in the fine light-gray moon dust, followed by Buzz Aldrin. We were all standing there with them.

President Kennedy’s vision for putting a man on the moon stretched the best minds in aerospace to their limits and necessitating new ways of thinking and working – everything a startup needs to do.

It was incredible innovation, but it was also intimate. The Lunar Module was small – the two astronauts had 4.7m3 of pressurised volume between them, roughly twice the volume of a red telephone box. A tiny world, but a fully functioning spacecraft like none before it. Everything else on Apollo had been tried out at a smaller scale, but there had never been anything like the Lunar Module, designed to come down to land by its commander’s hand and eye in a place where nothing had landed before.

Humans going into space, the prospect of an unprecedented experience. Their hearts are beating fast. They see the moon surface in contours, pocked surface, hard-to-judge distances and near horizons, which gives them the ‘Earthrise’ view of Earth.

At the critical moment, Aldrin got a klaxon ringing in his earpiece. The console responded with error code 1202. Despite months of simulations, Aldrin didn’t know what this one meant; Armstrong, equally baffled, radioed Mission Control for clarification. The stress in his voice was audible. In that critical moment, hurtling like a paper plane toward the surface of the moon, the guidance computer had crashed.

The two men had trained for a computer error scenario, but it was up to Houston to make the call. When Mission Control heard Armstrong’s tense request for information, a well-rehearsed sequence of events played out. The scenario was a go – because below a 100 feet altitude an abort was no longer possible. Armstrong would be forced to attempt a landing even if his computer was malfunctioning.

He had little margin for error. On a hard crash landing, the astronauts might be killed; on a not-so-hard crash landing, the astronauts might survive, only to be stranded on the moon. In this nightmare scenario, Mission Control would bid Armstrong and Aldrin farewell, then cut communication as the two prepared to asphyxiate. Michael Collins, in the command module, would make the long journey back to Earth alone.

Imagine pulling the plug on the moon landing. Imagine not pulling the plug, then explaining to a nation and their families why two astronauts had been killed. By the time Houston relayed the message to Armstrong, almost 30 seconds had passed.

Armstrong resumed assessing the course to the landing area, from spending hours studying surface photographs, committing landmarks to memory. He’d noticed earlier that his trajectory was a little long, but before he could fully react, Aldrin queried the computer for altitude data. As before, he was answered by an alarm. The computer crashed again.

Back at Mission Control, was Don Eyles, 26 years old, who had programmed the software for the final descent. The first restart had alarmed Eyles. The second terrified him. This was not just a glitch but a crash. Eyles was out of the command loop, but he knew how the computer worked better than anyone. What Eyles deduced in that terrifying moment he would not reveal publicly for years to come: this scenario was not a go. It was an abort.

The console displayed nothing, just blank. Armstrong’s heart began to race, rising to 150 bpm, the same as a man at the end of a 100m sprint. With the moonscape zipping by outside his window, he was the closest any human had ever been to another world.

There were five computer crashes in four minutes. Mission Control went quiet, there was nothing useful left for them to say. Armstrong, following protocol, assumed manual control. He was going to have to eyeball it, piloting a malfunctioning spacecraft on an alien world.

He slowed the forward momentum, then rotated the legs toward the surface. Aldrin read aloud a steady stream of figures. With almost no fuel to spare, the Lunar Module dropped in slow motion to kiss the surface upright, and the particles of moondust hung suspended in the sunlight until the gentle lunar gravity pulled them back to rest.

Shortly afterwards, Armstrong planted the first human foot on another world. With more than half a billion people watching on television, he climbed down the ladder and proclaimed That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind. Only a few have shared this vantage point.

Armstrong and Aldrin spent 21 hours, 36 minutes on the moon’s surface, including a rest period of seven hours sleep. They blasted off back home, knocking over the American flag they had planted. They reunited with Collins, then three days later, splashed down in the Pacific.

Now, half a century after Armstrong planted his foot on the surface of the Moon, a new era of space exploration is beginning. Falling costs, new technologies, Chinese and Indian ambitions and a new generation of entrepreneurs promise a bold era of space development. It will range from the big business of launching and maintaining swarms of communication satellites in low orbit to the niche one of tourism for the wealthy.

Back in 1969, I was there. I saw Armstrong take his giant leap for mankind in grainy black and white images on the television screen. I’ve always had a keen interest in space adventure. At university, when looking through the Careers Guide for Graduates 1984 I stopped at the letter ‘A’ and send off applications for ‘Accountancy’ roles. I never got to ‘Astronaut’. Anyway, there probably wouldn’t have been the legroom in my allocated Apollo seat.

Landing on the Moon is, for me, mankind’s greatest entrepreneurial act. Think about it. Go outside tonight and look up. Imagine yourself up there, looking down. Imagine! How would you feel, blasting out of the atmosphere, orbiting the Earth, and standing on the moon! WOW.

Courage, ingenuity and one heck of a big adventure, leaping off into the unknown, driven by your vision, just like launching your own startup business. So what lessons can we take from the anniversary of this extraordinary achievement for startup entrepreneurs?

1. It starts with a vision

President John Kennedy went before Congress on May 25, 1961 and said we were going to the Moon. To say Kennedy’s vision was bold and set an ambitious timeline is an understatement. As a startup founder, he set down the purpose and the vision, expectations that you don’t think are realistic.

2. Have a sense of purpose

We knew what had to be done. How to do it in 10 years was never addressed before the announcement was made. But quite simply, we considered the program a number of phases – Dr. Maxime Faget, Chief Engineer & Designer of the Apollo command and lunar modules

When launching your startup, it’s a case of not knowing the unknowns, so don’t bother in trying to craft a detailed plan based on guesses, instead, break it down from the big vision into small steps and focus on attaining each one, one at a time.

3. Iterate – and don’t be afraid to modify the plan

On descent to the moon, the Lunar Module’s computer died, threatening the landing sequence. Likely crash at an alarming velocity, Armstrong took manual control, while Aldrin fed him altitude and velocity data. They successfully landed on the moon’s surface with just seconds of fuel left. If they hadn’t acted, Armstrong’s iconic moonwalk would never have happened.

No business plan survives the first contact with a customer, so remember that even the most well thought out startup plans may need to be altered if circumstances change or a new opportunity arises.

4. A startup is an experiment

We said to ourselves that we have now done everything we know how to do. We don’t know what else to do to make this thing risk-free, so it’s time to go – Dr. Christopher Kraft, Director of Flight Operations

Without taking that risk, the achievement would never have been made. NASA handled risk by actively looking for it and constantly asking themselves, ‘What if?’ It’s about calculated risk, don’t let an acceptable amount of risk keep you from pushing ahead.

5. It’s all about the team & communication

The Apollo team scaled rapidly, from a small founding team to thousands of people. Coordinating such an effort required aligning the entire team with set priorities. At no point was any team in the dark about what another group was doing, or what support needed.

As your startup team grows, don’t just trust communication will fall into place on its own, or that everyone assumes the same priorities. Create a communications plan, and check in frequently to ensure processes are running smoothly.

6. Recruit for attitude and fill your skills gaps

Responsibilities were delegated to people who didn’t know how to do things, and were expected to go find out how to do it – Howard Tindall, Mission Technique Coordinator

Delegating to people who don’t have experience may seem counterintuitive, but NASA actively encouraged this – the average age of the Operations team was 26, most fresh out of college. NASA gave someone a problem and the freedom to run with it, and the results speak for themselves. Do the same in your startup, give people the opportunity to grow.

7. Keep asking questions

The Apollo program was home to some of the most brilliant minds, and yet no one was shy about their mistakes. They made learning from their errors a central part of their process. Failure was simply an opportunity to learn and improve.

For a startup, get out of the building, talk to prospective customers and fail fast – validated learning and making retrospectives an ongoing part of your model, not one-time events, it is crucial to startup success.

8. Celebrate success as a team

We would like to give special thanks to all those Americans who built the spacecraft – the construction, design, the tests, and put their hearts and all their abilities into this. To those people tonight, we give a special thank you – Neil Armstrong, July 26 television broadcast from orbit.

At every opportunity the astronauts called the world’s attention to the efforts of their teammates back on the ground. So when you win that first customer as a startup, share that applause with the team.

Armstrong dared to dream. Life has its its twists and turns – he was nearly killed twice in his NASA training, but he never quit. Success is failure turned inside out, and you never can tell how close you are. He lived his life for a decade dedicated to training and preparation, absorbing the set backs as well as keeping his dream alive. Now whether you’ve launched a brick-and-mortar startup or mobile app, taking an idea into a product is a miraculous one. Fifty years on we’re reminded of the legacy left behind.

Armstrong had the true spirit of a pioneering entrepreneur, and Steve Blank has rewritten Kennedy’s Apollo vision, capturing Armstrong’s spirit: We choose to invest in ideas, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organise and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.

Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go, said poet T.S. Eliot, capturing everything about Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins that makes them true entrepreneurs. What a giant leap for mankind they made. Now go and make a giant leap for your startup.

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