Space startup companies have to overcome a daunting array of obstacles. There are the technical challenges inherent in any space project. Startups also have to raise many millions of dollars from investors. They have to convince customers to pay for their product or service, sometimes before they even exist. And there are the regulatory issues unique to space efforts, particularly for those companies going where no venture has gone before.
Now add another thing these companies need to do: tell a compelling story for the public. At least, that was the message of one panel at the recent NewSpace 2016 conference in Seattle, which tried to convince an audience of engineers and entrepreneurs they need to do a better job explaining what they do, and why, to broader audiences.
“On this point I have a personal beef with this room,” said Rafferty Jackson, a former executive with Beats Electronics, the headphones developer acquired by Apple in 2014. A resident of Santa Monica, California, she lamented the fact that her neighbors knew little about nearby SpaceX. “I live where we can see SpaceX launches and contrails and all sorts of exciting things. Nobody knows anything about it.”
The fact that Santa Monica isn’t the best place to see the contrails from infrequent Falcon 9 launches from Vandenberg Air Force Base didn’t deter Jackson from making her point about connecting with the public, including potential employees. “If you’re not storytelling the future of this industry to the young people coming into your business, you’re not going to get top talent,” she warned.
There is an understandable desire to make a company interesting to prospective employees. That’s something that many space startups have succeeded at, given the high demand for jobs at them. But panelists appeared to want startups to connect to wider audiences as well.
“I wanted to be an astronaut, and it was not just because of NASA but because of the Apollo astronauts, the people,” said Stockton Rush, chief executive of Ocean- Gate, a company developing submersibles. “Technology alone doesn’t sell.”
“The reality is, people aren’t watching NASA launches like they were when I was growing up,” Jackson said. “Now they’re watching You- Tube and watching other stuff and they’re just not as inspired.”
But is it really necessary for startups to do the broad public outreach that Jackson and Rush desire? In an ideal world, it would be great for every company to devote resources for telling their story to the broadest possible audiences. In reality, startups have little time and money to devote to efforts not part of their core business, where the audiences are primarily investors and customers.
Doing storytelling, and doing it well, can take a lot of work. NASA, for example, announced a partnership with Apple on June 30 to do outreach for the Juno mission, including an original short film and music from recording artists ranging from Brad Paisley to Trent Reznor. It’s hard to imagine any but the biggest space companies being able to pull off something similar.
Perhaps the best way startups can tell their story is to execute on their business plans with their spacecraft and launch vehicles and share their progress, such as through the launch webcasts that SpaceX and now Blue Origin provide. And maybe the generation that exchanged television for YouTube will tune in, get excited and even imagine themselves on the other side of the screen.