Organizational transformation

Three Startup Lessons from Curiosity

Sam Frentzel-Beyme Follow Managing Partner & Strategy Director

The Short of It

  • Make sure you stick the landing.
  • Complexity is your friend.
  • Curiosity can be a competitive tool.

Aside from all that Curiosity will be able to teach us about the Red Planet during its two-year mission (and the fact that this gets us one step closer to a future of space travel!), I think there are also three non-space lessons for startups.

1. Stick the landing. The most critical event in the entire $2.5 billion project was the seven minutes it took between the top of the atmosphere and the surface of Mars. During this time the rover had to go from 13,000 miles per hour to zero and orchestrate a complex sequence of maneuvers. While I am sure there are some redundancies built into the system, there was little room for error in terms of the mechanical ballet that had to happen to make sure that Curiosity landed intact.

Most startups looking to enter new markets spend too much time wondering about what kind of organization they want to be and how they will deal with future growth and all that incoming revenue. While these are important questions, the fact is that if you don’t nail the landing, meaning actually getting your product successfully launched and connected to a paying market, everything else doesn’t really matter.

2. Complexity is your friend. If you look at how the NASA JPL engineers approached the Curiosity project, you can see that they had to think of every little detail (and do a lot of math). With a distance to Mars ranging from 54.6 million kilometers to 401 million kilometers depending on where we are in orbit, you can’t just pop over to fix something. Everything has to be planned to the extent that human knowledge will allow.

While dealing with people will always be different than dealing with the laws of physics, the fact is that many startups are too much about feel and intuition when it comes to how they position themselves in the market and how they communicate their value proposition. Taking a more engineering-oriented approach that delves into the deeper assumptions and complexities around people will result in not only a better ability to understand, and therefore solve, problems, but provide you with new potential insights that will be applicable elsewhere.

3. Curiosity as competitive tool. It’s difficult to know what data we’ll end up with when Curiosity has finished its two-year stint and this makes it a ripe target for people focused on the now and all of the present tense problems that go along with that.

But sometimes we need to break away from what is and be reminded of what is possible. While we all can't have our own $2.5 billion dollar 1-ton jetpacked rover, we can empower our own sense of curiosity. Startups that are looking for unique insights that will put them ahead will be less likely to find them where everyone else is looking. Often it is only by connecting the once unconnected do real innovations reveal themselves. And the first step is all about curiosity.

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