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space (spās) n. 1. space beyond the atmosphere of the earth.

prag·ma·tism (prgm-tzm) n. A way of approaching situations or solving problems that emphasizes practical applications and consequences.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Why Space Enthusiasts Make Bad Businessmen

I have finally figured it out. First some background. In 1995, the CEO of a company in Texas that had developed some AutoCad program that make a fortune came and spoke at Auburn’s ACM meeting. He said when he started out he hired a bunch of Harvard MBA’s to manage his engineering teams. However, he found that he MBA’s had a hard time grasping the specific nature of the software industry. He later found that sending his engineers to multi-week business training programs created much better managers.

About a year ago, I asked Michael Mealling why it seems in the private space industry, engineers make lousy businessmen. Michael blames it on the sci-fi tradition that existed many years before the industry. People had been dreaming of interstellar travel and were happy with LEO.

I think he is partially right. After reading space-cynic and the article in The Space Review today about the Segway, I think I have come to the real conclusion.

Space enthusiasts want to go to space.

“Duh!” you may be saying to yourself after that profound statement I just made, but bare with me a few moments more.

Entrepreneurs, at least successful ones, tend to look into the world and see what problems there are. Once they find a problem they believe they can fix, they set out to fix it. Products that don’t solve a problem, don’t sell. A truly successful entrepreneur sells a solution not a gadget.

Professor Theodore Levitt of the Harvard Business School changed the world of marketing when he said: “Customers do not want a quarter-inch drill; they need a quarter-inch hole.” (taken from Bob Clarebrough’s article According to Plan)

What does all this have to do with space? Most private space engineers I have met really want to go to space. They are working on the “killer-app” to create a market that will allow them to go. Now I understand their point-of-view, since I have the same one. But, they are not interested in solving a problem other than their own.

Engineers at the Texas software company were only interested in making their product better, so business training was just one more part of their job. They didn’t have as much emotional capital in the project.

I think many space advocates get so caught up in the coolness of space, they forget that people spend their money to make their life easier and more enjoyable. A lot of people don’t care about space.

The question that will spark the kind of industry we all want is “What can we do with space to really help someone who doesn’t care about space?” If you answer that question affordably, you have your industry.


Brian Dunbar said...

I find myself in a curious position. I work for what Shubber no doubt thinks is an company. I myself don't have a burning desire to go to space. Six years ago I was content working for Sprint.

In terms of your post I'm the perfect guy for the job. I don't want to sell people a drill, but a cheap way to get to space.

But it is late, I am tired, and we all will see ourselves in the best light.

Space Cynic said...


congratulations on a very well written and insightful post. I think you hit the nail on the head.