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How to Launch a Business: Lessons from NASA

Written by Ollie Burt 

On 18th February 2021, NASA's latest, state of the art rover landed on Mars. The landing was live-streamed, giving me, along with millions of others, the chance to geek out and enjoy the show as Perserverence descended into the Jezero Crater on the red planet.

If you're not familiar with the technical specs of Perseverance, take it from me, this thing is seriously impressive. As well as the usual bells and whistles (mechanical limbs, cameras, radar, onboard lab etc) it's also a helicopter ... let that sink in, a helicopter, on Mars.

As you can see, the whole thing has left an impression. But for me, it's more than the end result that impresses me, but everything that went into the project, and that will continue to in order to make the mission a success. This left me thinking about NASA's approach to a project like this, what can we learn and apply to digital marketing, startups and business growth.

What if NASA was a digital marketing agency?

Disclaimer #1: As far as I'm aware, NASA don't provide digital marketing services - but if they did, they'd be out of this world (sorry, not sorry).

Disclaimer #2: While it's true, I wear many hats, rocket scientist isn't one of them, yet - so some of the parallels in this analogy may be way off.

NASA have a stellar record when it comes to their Mars programme. You could put all that down to budget, and sure, it helps - but I'd argue it's their processes that bring them such success. After all, I've seen startups with huge budgets fail, and businesses that are hacked together on a shoestring reach the stars.

The point I'm making is, whether you're launching a business or sending a $2.9 billion go-kart into space, how you approach that project is more important than how much money you put behind it.

Viability

There are a lot of smart people at NASA - that's a given. Which also means there are lots of ideas. From a startup point of view, we could think of it as an incubator. Different groups come up with different proposals and ideas for missions all the time, but they don't do them all.

The same should apply to business. Not all ideas are winners. I work in a lot of startups and if I get in early enough, one of the first things I try to establish is the viability of the project.

It doesn't matter if it's an existing business or a startup, I'm generally brought in to deliver growth. I'm good, but if the market isn't there and the product doesn't fit, there's not much I can do. So, often the first thing I ask about is the mission objectives - what are the personal, financial and business goals?

And yes, this is where the budget comes in. But it's not about having a huge budget - it's about whether the budget fits the objectives. If you want to be the number one personal trainer in your area with a budget of £500/month - totally doable. If you want to use that same budget to launch a chain of gyms, it's not going to cut it.

So a big part of any successful project is establishing whether it will succeed. If you're a business owner you probably already know the scary numbers indicating how many fail in the first year.

The thing that all successful projects have in common is that, in the beginning, their budget is aligned with their objectives.

Specialists

Once NASA signs off a project as viable, they bring in the specialists. The initial group who proposed the mission don't go on to work on every aspect of the project, they expand their team or bring in contractors who are experts in their field.

This should also be applied to business. As a business owner, you know your product or service better than anyone else. But, much as an astrophysicist won't go on to do the job of an engineer, you should be wary about how far you stray into other specialist areas.

Many businesses fail because they don't bring in the right specialists at the right time. Sometimes that entrepreneurial spirit can get the better of a business owner and they try to do everything themselves.

This is partly true for many of the businesses I work with too, they've tried to do it all alone and it hasn't worked out. Usually, this is down to some fundamental flaws in the overall strategy early on. And this isn't a criticism of anyone, just recognition of a pattern.

There are so many tools out there that tell you you can do it all yourself for next to nothing it can be tempting to neglect growth strategy and marketing in your budget. But, if more business owners and startups brought in a specialist early on in their projects they'd definitely be less underlying defects and less failed businesses.

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Trajectory

And this is why specialists should be brought in early on, trajectory. When NASA plan a mission launch there is a huge emphasis on the trajectory. The stars literally have to align, you're talking about the rotation of the earth, the relative orbits of Earth and Mars and the positioning of other random space objects all being in sync. The maths would make anyone's head spin - but the point is, it doesn't matter how good an idea the mission is, how good the rocket is - how much money is pumped behind it if the trajectory is off. Miss your launch window or point it in the wrong direction and you're destined for failure.

In business, this is why it's so important to bring in branding and marketing specialists early on. You may have a great product or service, but if your trajectory is wrong it'll never take-off.

Many of the businesses I have worked with suffered from this, and of course, there's a degree of 'course correction' we can put in place. But, if the basics had been done right in the beginning, not only would the businesses be more successful faster, but for a smaller investment overall.

Sometimes this is down to brand positioning, something that's tricky to change after launch. Other times it's undoing years of bad do-it-yourself SEO activity, which takes time. The number of businesses I speak to who have produced their core branding without any form of market research is staggering. But then much like launching a rocket and shouting "FIRE!" - getting a logo done is the 'fun bit' of a project, so there's a tendency to rush into it.

Instead, make sure you bring in a brand strategist early on in your business ventures. Even if it's just for a brief chat and some sense-checking, you'll benefit from that objective, data-based opinion on where to position your new brand giving you the best chance of success.

Launch

Once NASA establish a launch window, they don't simply wait for the big day and hit the 'go' button. There are a lot of moving parts, in the days and weeks leading up to a launch everything has to be right. Get something wrong and it can derail the entire plan.

The same can be said for launching a business. Before launching a business, there are things you need in place or you'll be setting yourself up for issues down the road. Issues of scalability can be spotted and fixed early on, if you know where to look. It can be tempting to rush into launching a business before it's ready but there are certain things that should be done in order.

Much like using market research as a basis for your brand strategy, you should ensure you have the processes and systems in place before you start inviting customers in. It's difficult to work 'on' your business whilst also working 'in' your business. In other words, once you start delivering a product or service you'll find it difficult to change the way you do it, not only because you might not have the time - but depending on your product this may also have an impact on your existing client base.

So, getting your launch right means getting the right systems and processes in place from a general business point of view. But also applies to your marketing strategy. We tend to think of this as a leaky bucket. If there are holes in your bucket (your sales funnel) it doesn't matter how much water (leads) you pour into it, it'll never be full. For most businesses, getting leads through marketing costs - so in this analogy, you will be over-spending to get more leads to make up for the shortcomings further down the road.

When I start working with a business on their marketing, the first thing we look for is the leaks. We identify the holes in the strategy that are losing them business. Plug these leaks, by which I mean fix the problems with the product, service or process and it'll take a much lower investment in marketing to deliver the same revenue. This then delivers growth to existing businesses or if you're a startup, a successful launch.

Roadmap

Coming back to Perseverance, the mission, ultimately, is to seek signs of ancient life and if possible, return samples to earth. That's quite an undertaking. They plan to spend two years at the landing site, but if past rovers are anything to go by it'll keep ticking a lot longer than that.

The point is this, the mission wasn't to build a martian helicopter, it wasn't to launch a rocket or even a successful landing. But, they were important milestones. The team behind Perseverance at NASA know they're in it for the long haul, when they plan a mission they understand the importance of achievable milestones along the way and that the mission will require constant monitoring and support.

The same goes for your business launch. You might hope that you can 'build it and they will come' - they won't. To launch a successful business is a misleading objective ... the launch is only part of it, the success comes after and is only apparent when we look back.

What success means in year one and in year five are two completely different things. And this is the point, a business needs constant work just to stay still. It's important to have a plan, a roadmap, complete with milestones along the way and a clear strategy for how you're going to get there.

Successful businesses are always looking for new opportunities. It's important that, once you have launched your business that you continue to push forward and find new ways to leverage existing channels to grow your business.

Findings

It might be a bit of a loose analogy, but there are some important takeaways here. Nobody is expecting you to have the bottomless pit of funds or access to the resources that NASA has. But it doesn't cost anything to adopt their mindset.

Know your limits. You don't need to have all the answers, or do everything yourself - but you do need to know where to find the answers and get things done. No project can thrive in isolation. And knowing who to bring in and when can be the difference between success and failure, whether you're going to space or launching a startup.

If you're looking to start a new business, or just need some more growth - we can help. From initial brand strategy to ongoing marketing support, we've got you covered.

Originally published 22nd February 2021
Last edited 23rd February 2021

Written by Ollie Burt

Ollie Burt is a Director at Nova. A specialist in helping small businesses and startups succeed online, he enjoys running (and beer) - he does not enjoy discussing himself in the third person. You can find him on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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