Home >> April 2020 Edition >> New Space Startups — Don’t Lose Sight of the Horizon
New Space Startups — Don’t Lose Sight of the Horizon
By Mike Carey, Co-Founder and Chief Strategy Officer, ATLAS Space Operations


Several years ago, a cadre of aerospace start-ups launched into a sector long dominated by massive, aging corporations — organizations with traditional business practices and resistance to change.

ATLAS networking operations center.

Many of these new companies have established themselves as legitimate players in the new space industry, but they must take heed not to abandon the innovative energy, technological creativity, and new ways of doing business that brought them to the cutting edge of the space economy in the first place.

Burgeoning satellite, rocketry, and even space travel startups can easily fall into the black hole of complacency, relying on the methods that got the incumbents where there are now. Too many startups are replicating these same methods to the point that they risk being pushed aside by even newer upstarts.

These companies must keep sight of the innovation and willingness to take chances that got them to where they are, and resist the urge to fall into industry norms. That is the only way to stay light-years ahead of the competition.

Reaping Success Without Complacence
The young companies that found early success in the new space industry should cherish the values that got them there – values like innovation, risk-taking, hard work and creative budgeting. Getting ahead of the competition is one thing, but staying ahead means never stopping pushing the boundaries.

The new space industry’s spirit of innovation means pushing new technologies in rocketry and satellite manufacturing that have translated to reduced costs and easier scalability. The cost per kilogram of going into orbit has been reduced by up to 70 percent, and spacecraft the size of a shoebox have real viability.

Management of data derived from and transmitted to spacecraft is more efficient and less expensive than ever before realized. These breakthroughs were achievable because companies such as SpaceX and Blue Origin took risks.

However, success exposes start-ups to new influences and greater responsibilities, such as:

• More funding; and potentially a broader array of experienced investors with their own insights and opinions to share.
• New leadership; some start-ups look to established industry veterans to guide their operations toward greater opportunity and growth.
• New ownership; legacy space firms look to transfor themselves and capture a little start-up energy by acquiring new space firms.

Staying True to an Avant-Garde Nature
The milestones that mark early success and access to bigger future opportunities come with new concerns. New space companies that once had nothing to lose must come to grips with the knowledge that they now have much more at stake.

You might have more investors or new owners with new metrics for performance, or more employees, partners or customers whose own livelihoods are dependent upon sustainable success.

The sudden appearance of these new stakeholders can give these startups pause. Should we default to traditional, proven ideologies on their behalf? Would it serve them to fall back from the values that drew them to us in the first place? Without a doubt in my mind, the answer to these questions is no.

It can be intimidating when investors call for conservative, market-follower decision-making rather than more opportunistic market-innovator behavior, or by adding layers of bureaucratic policy language and demand into procurement proposals, and it takes true courage to stay true to your identity.

Resist the impulses. Trying to create safety nets can make you less competitive, keep you from working with best-of-breed suppliers and partners, and ultimately make your projects unnecessarily costly. The last thing any company needs right now is to start acting like the old industry that you’ve been disrupting.

Don’t Lose Your Edge
Our new space ecosystem must not regress to the old approaches to opportunities and business practices. Here is my humble advice on how we can avoid acting like legacy firms:

• Take advantage of training and mentorship that helps professionalize your organization without diluting your secret sauce, whatever that may be.
• Make a routine of having open internal discussions within your company about current and future goals to ensure a balanced pursuit of both.
• Talk to your customers — not just about what you’re trying to sell — but with the intent to learn from them.
• Be inclusive. There is great energy to be leveraged from organizations in which not everyone is the same age or background.
• Pursue intriguing partnerships. Be open to working with other companies to develop and pursue opportunities, even when there is no immediate goal to deliver on.

Above all else, I offer one final sage piece of advice. Never lose the courage that brought you to raise a new business in this industry.

As any entrepreneur knows, failure is not to be feared. It is something to stay ahead of at best, and learn from at worst. Never stop looking for those creative solutions, and never be afraid of risk.

Never forget why you started down the new space start-up path in the first place. It wasn’t to mimic the behavior of the old space giants. You only have the power to say yes to innovation until you say no.

Mike Carey, a former USAF Major General with 34 years of experience in satellite and space-related operations is now shaping ATLAS’s future through strategy development, and business planning. Experienced with Air Force Satellite Control Network, Eastern/Western test ranges, the Space Test & Training Range, General Carey has the technical and political prowess to maneuver in the ever-expanding space markets. Mike holds a BA in History from the University of Central Florida, an MPA from the University of Oklahoma, and an MA in National Security & Strategic Studies from the Naval War College.perations, which provides satellite communications as a service.

Mike can be reached at mcarey@ATLASground.com.