5 Truths on Building a Startup, Courtesy of The Martian

Image c/o 20th Century Fox

Image c/o 20th Century Fox

So, people spent 55 million dollars to see The Martian over last weekend, proving a few things to be incontrovertibly true:

  1. Matt Damon has enough charm to warm up even the coldest reaches of space.  Unless it’s in Team America.
  2. There’s never been a better time to be a sci-fi fan at the movies.  See The Martian, Gravity, and this little thing called Star Wars: The Force Awakens.  Interstellar?  Debatable.
  3. If I was abandoned on a remote planet by myself, there better be an Arby’s, because I KNOW I couldn’t grow potatoes out of red dirt and my personal...um....leftovers.

I finished reading The Martian by Andy Weir a few weeks ago and thoroughly enjoyed it.  The technologist in me loved the science, as Mark Watney was able to manufacture a path to escape by reinventing the things he had around him in ingenious ways.  Mark was basically an interplanetary MacGyver, without the mullet.  The book reader in me was engaged the entire time, as Weir was able to take the over 500 sols (Mars days) that Mark is stranded and turn them into puzzles that continually upped the excitement ante.

I was surprised to realize the startup founder in me experienced a lot of the same feelings Mark was going through day to day.  Now, nothing could be as stressful as being abandoned on a planet by yourself with little to no drinking water, food, breathable oxygen, and only disco music to pass the time.  But the highs and lows of building and creating something from nothing definitely resonated with me.

The Martian led me to reflect over the 1 year Fittery has been a living, breathing company, so I thought I’d share some of the things I’ve learned over those 355 sols, in the words of Mark Watney himself.

“Duct tape is magic.  Duct tape is magic and should be worshipped.”

Startup translation:  Be resourceful.  There’s always a solution.

Mark’s time on Mars was a never-ending display of inventiveness.  No food?  No worries, just plant these potatoes, terraform Martian soil using human s***, and grow crops.  No water?  No problem, just burn some hydrazine (what??) and create some extra H20.  Too cold in the Martian rover?  Hollow it out and fill it with a radioactive generator.  NBD.

I’d have been a goner on day 2, just after I realized there was no WiFi.

Coming from the corporate world, resourcefulness was rarely something you have to display.  If something was hard, you just would shake the money tree and a solution would fall out.  Money for new software, money to hire a new resource, money to buy lunch for the team every day.  Shake the tree!

As a startup, there’s no money tree.  It’s more like a Bonsai tree: small, nurtured and protected, carefully choosing where to prune and trim.  Instead, you have to rely on passion, determination, and resourcefulness (there’s that word again) to make progress.  Ultimately, you find the metaphorical duct tape to keep building, stay alive, and move forward.

“Everything went great right up to the explosion.” 

Startup translation:  Bad things will happen.  Keep your sense of humor.

Mark had his fair share of unexpected calamities.  Getting stranded on Mars in the first place counts as pretty big one.  But through dust storms, oxygen explosions, and Mars trying to kill him at every turn, he kept his sense of humor and powered through to find answers.

Startups have their versions of dust storms: challenges raising money, struggles with growth, product problems….throughout it all, know two things:  it will all be fine, it really will.  And it’s better to laugh than cry.  Easier to say than do sometimes, but it’s true.  Paul Judge of Pindrop tweeted that start-up life alternates between “I’m killing it!” to “It’s killing me!”, and it’s 100% true.  Trying to keep that balance is critical.

Our team is great at keeping us laughing.  Megan, one of our engineers, in her supreme genius plugged Giphy into our Slack channel.  So now we can insert random gifs at will into conversation, like:

It’s the little things.

“They say no plan survives first contact with implementation. I’d have to agree.”

Startup translation:  Don’t be afraid to fail, as long as you’re constantly learning and adapting.

Mark’s potatoes weren’t an overnight success.  Although growing potatoes on another planet is pretty damned impressive, even on attempt 2, 3, or 37.  He had to test, plan, and learn from his mistakes in order to get his crop to grow.  And became the GREATEST MARTIAN BOTANIST EVER.

You’re going to find the first things you try at your company are probably not going to work, whether it’s product, marketing, or what t-shirt swag to buy.  But that’s a GOOD thing.  Because it means that you can adapt and learn from what you did before.  As long as you’re continually learning, you’re making progress.

“I think about the sheer number of people who pulled together...and I can barely comprehend it.” 

Startup translation:  It’s about Team.

Image c/o 20th Century Fox

Image c/o 20th Century Fox

Mark is a genius improviser, fighting the elements.  But it takes genius at all levels - from scientists and mission control at NASA, the crew of the Ares mission, and cooperation from space agencies worldwide - to attempt to (as the movie poster says):  bring him home.

Fittery works the same way.  We’re building a great team here, one that’s proven to embody all the points I mentioned above.  We have our challenges and opportunities, but we’re pulling together to build some great things.

And the team isn’t just confined to the folks who work with you.  Friends, family, significant others, family pets...that’s the team that will help keep you sane, safe, and able to continue to make crazy things happen.  


One final Watney-ism that I thought captured start-up life perfectly…

“If you want to play it safe all the time, go join an insurance company.” 

Instead, be an astronaut.  Or build a startup.  Either way.