Thursday, July 07, 2011

Life business and rockets.

Life business and rockets.
I'm really proud of what Unreasonable rocket accomplished in pursuit of the LLC contest. I think we effectively showed the world that unreasonable people can accomplish. more than expected. At the same time the LLC and its end has been personally really hard. I've never worked that hard on a project in my life, I gave it everything I had, and got really close. Over and over my wife asked me if I was going to be ok if we failed. I always said yes I'd shown the world what could be done and I'd be ok. Keeping that promise has been a lot harder than I expected. Failing took a lot out of me.

The bright hard goal of a hard task to accomplish is very seductive.

So I failed at the LLC and this removes a nice bright hard goal, and replaces it with my business as CTO of NetBurner. 13 years ago my business partner Tom and I started Netburner. If I look back on the my career the times I've been most happy have been when I'm learning something new and accomplishing something really hard. Starting NetBurner and writing a robust embedded network ecosystem from scratch was all of these things, lots to learn, hard, a task worth putting 100% into. From a personal financial and business sense NetBurner has been a success, but at the same time from a personal technical challenge the code base is now mature and I spend at least 80% of my time messing with hardware and code that I created 5 or more years ago. From a personal sanity standpoint I need to do something different.

As I've stated here and elsewhere helping humanity reduce the cost of accessing all of the solar systems resources is probably the most important task that a human can attempt. I'd like to contribute to that effort. Clearly any effort in this direction has to be commercial, if it can't create value and a profitable business, it won't be self sustaining. How best to contribute to that?

I could go work for an existing organization, but I'm not sure how well the transition from leader/owner to employee would go.

I could liquidate all my assets and bet the farm on starting a NanoSat launcher business in an unreasonable fashion. Based on projections this would be grossly under capitalized and even if I acomplish this its not clear that having an organization where the value lives in the head of the one old wizard really creates value. ( At some level I've already a got a business that looks a lot like this )

I could write a business plan to create a larger organization where the value is in the organization and systems created and and go out on the begging for investors road trip. I've personally seen some very smart people fail at this. I've also seen some really creative people be consumed by the continuous process of finding the next funding round. Business schmooze is not my thing and unless the process can be setup with enough resources to succeed upfront I'm hesitant. Business have natural size scaling issues. Some where between 5M and 20M there is a discontinuity where things like HR and overall business management come into being and
trying to learn the 20M business organization game at the same time as trying to do a really hard technical problem seem personally daunting.

I could do some hybrid like working 1/2 time at NetBurner and liquidate some assets to build an all volunteer space business in San Diego (The Armadillo model) Unreasonable rocket has generated a lot of interest but the number of people that would show up once or twice a week on a regular basis for years seems to be vanishingly small.

I could say I'm done playing the rat race game, buy a Chris White Atlantic 48 and sail off into the sunset. (At one time this was a personal goal, my wife thinks I would be bored out of my mind.)

There are a million complicating issues:

The vast majority of the current U.S. space revenue comes from the government in one form or another. The U.S. government is broke and the recent NASA budget proposal is only the beginning. If the politicians get serious about getting the budget under control then all discretionary spending has to go to zero. NASA and non-military space is the poster child for discretionary. If the politicians don't get the the budget under control we are headed to a fiat monitary collapse or hyperinflation. In either case the current discretionary space funding goes to zero. One might even see this as an opportunity if could become the lowest cost launch provider by an order of mangnitude.

My son, who was a key part of the Unreasonable Rocket effort, is rightfully starting his own business and his own life. I doubt I will ever find someone that is as personally easy to work with. As my wife says don't play pictionary against thoose two they have some sort of personal telepathy.

I turn 49 in September, I have a lot of experience wisdom and gray hair, I can see that the brute force problem solving CPU is not what it was when I was 25. Can I find a way to harness the experience and hard earned wisdom without being the one primary CPU?

What is my personal responsibility to existing stakeholders in my life? Is it fair to sell the house and live with in an industrial space with my wife?. (She says she's fine with that, I'm not sure I am) What do I owe to the existing NetBurner stakeholders? A lot of independant consultants
base their lively hood on our eco system. I need to leave enough assets there to make sure NetBurner continues as a strong viable business while at the same time its my primary asset .

Lots to think about.


Anonymous said...

Have you talked to Jon Goff at all? Perhaps there is room for another founder at Altius given that they are still so young as a company.

Max said...

These are indeed hard questions, and ones only you can answer. But for what's worth, my 0.02$ is you really would be bored out of your mind on a yacht. Then again, what do I know... :)

Anonymous said...

Maybe you should reconsider Carmack's offer he made in the forum a year or so ago. He said something like "If I could get the Breed's to work for me...."

I personally think you should take a sabbatical from Netburner for 18 months and dedicate full time to rockets while the CPU is still in it's 40's. I turn 49 in 2 weeks and I feel the same way re: 25 vs. 45. But you run on a quad core multi-threaded CPU whereas I run a single core.

heroineworshipper said...

The most rewarding option would be a peon at some large aerospace corporation, which would allow enough free time to build rockets.

Starting a rocket business would require being a lot more reasonable. SpaceX works because they don't do any experimentation. Except for the cork insulation, it's been tried & true Aluminum construction, tried & true LOX/RP-1 engines, tried & true hydrazine thrusters.

Other than that, the jobs are all similar to Netburner. It isn't as much the age of the Netburner code as much as the lack of new problems. Embedded network eco systems are pretty much what every gadget has been for the last 10 years.

Thom Vincent said...

Another option?

Chop out one subsystem needed for cheap space access and dominate the market in that one area.

Anonymous said...

I have seen a similar scenario in a business. Since you asked, my opinions:

"What is my personal responsibility to existing stakeholders in my life?"

How would you answer that to someone else asking the same question? In general, should a person live up to their own morals and standards? These people are a part of your life that enabled you to do two big tasks (company and rockets). You don't "owe" them a debt in the form of doing something you don't want to do, but don't do damage to them either. They are usually a big part of a persons sense of self worth and achievements are relative to them, not independent of them.

"Is it fair to sell the house and live with in an industrial space with my wife?. (She says she's fine with that, I'm not sure I am)"

Won't touch this one ;)

"What do I owe to the existing NetBurner stakeholders? A lot of independant consultants
base their lively hood on our eco system. I need to leave enough assets there to make sure NetBurner continues as a strong viable business while at the same time its my primary asset."

You owe them your best, or finding an alternative or replacement if you can't do your best. Thats really the contract for people in any business. Can you continue as CTO and do as good a job as a CTO you would hire? In the case I am referring to the partner essentially retired in place and the company slowly died because of the financial drain. A company must have good return on assets to grow. By "replacing" I don't mean find an exact copy, which will probably be impossible, but there may be alternatives so the business can still grow.

You seem to have a lot of business knowledge, so apply it here as well. Can you give half your equity to a younger person(s) who are in a position to do some of the work you don't want to do (and are highly motivated to do it), while you still have a revenue stream and work on something else 1/2 the time as you indicated?

Is there a partnership you can form with another company?

Is there really nothing at all in the business core competency that is challenging, or is it just that you want something different than the current business?

This is definitely a tough issue and will have a major impact on your life. But at least you are in a position to make such choices instead of having them forced upon you.

Andy said...

"So I failed at the LLC "

Not sure I would use the above to describe your achievement, much like the guy who gets to the final of the olympics it's really a failure, just not 1st.

Says a lots about your personality and drive, so yes you would be bored on a yacht unless you were racing...

Anonymous said...

I spend at least 80% of my time messing with hardware and code that I created 5 or more years ago.

How about new technology for new products? Get other people to handle the older stuff. Is there anything out there in your market space that is a challenging problem? Seems like there would have to be something.

Anonymous said...

Found a little R&D company without permanent workforce.
Try to work for other new-space on crash project with $ at each step.
Little at first (see altius)
For example system for booster recovery.

Orville said...

So the wetware slows down a little. I'm 54 and I know what you mean, but look at Edison. The key is not raw horsepower, but passion. Another thing about Edison is that he didn't lock himself into any one area though many of his projects had components of previous ones.

Speaking of Jon, look at the competitive advantage you have over him. He's learning the business end, and you've already been there.

Chuck Grimm said...

Paul: This week's New Scientist talks about intelligence, specifically fluid intelligence (gF) and crystallized intelligence gC). Both go up together at an early age, then gF (including quick problem solving) levels off and declines, while gC (including knowledge base) levels off or increases. If your gF dropped by 10% or so by the time you reached 60, you'd still be a couple of standard deviations ahead of most people.

I'd suggest you take a week off, if you can stand it, and see if you can find your bliss to follow it. Age makes it harder to enjoy the 20 hour days unless your heart's really into it, but you can find a spot where your abilities will be crucial to your task at the level you want to contribute. Pick a course and enjoy, and good luck!
Chuck Grimm

ザイツェヴ said...

Jon Goff had more tricks up his sleeve than just the launcher where the capitalization requirements are bloody murder. That is impossible to imitate without having such.

ken anthony said...

Nobody can do things your way. But they can do things. Delegate.

Time is your most valuable asset.

Pete said...

I might suggest picking an interesting little technology enabler that no one else is pursuing and exploring it (without completely giving up your day job).

With regard to NanoSat launchers some possibilities that might come to my mind would be:

1) Reentry shielding for Nano RLVs.
2) Inflatable tanks (wall thickness really matters at this small a scale).
3) Electric quadrotor air launch platform for NanoSat launch vehicles and general testing.
4) Miniature electric turbopumps.
5) Self pumping rotary injector heads(integral expander cycle).
6) NanoLauncher flyback boosters
7) Electric quadrotor landing system (replace parachutes and/or rocket burn for landing).

I suppose I just like the idea of developing full RLV architectures at NanoLauncher scale and doing it one technology at a time. Pick some small but significant and rewarding way to advance the state of the art.

Gabriel said...

You didn't fail at the LLC... The LLC effort was incredible and very inspiring (your son rocks).

Anonymous said...

I'm in the arts so not much of my experience is directly applicable to your field. However I find the whole space thing interesting.
Doing rockets needs capital. Unless you're a Musk or a Carmack it's probably too difficult to really succeed. Besides there enough companies actually building rockets.
However there are niches.
Build a tug. Long lived, refuelable.
Build a space gadget that's going to find heaps of use like Altius' grappler.
Essentially that means finding something different.
Space is new. Commercial is coming up fast. Not all space systems are invented yet or are going to cost $Bs.
So stop for a week or two and think.
A few hints speaking as a sci fi writer.
We go to space. What are the exploitable assets in space?
Nothing. That is vaccuum.
Low gravity.
Both exist in quantities that are impossible to achieve here on the ground. Someone sometime is going to find a use for all that nothing.
For example, I've often wondered what you could do in the way of electonic valves if you didn't have to put them in those silly little glass bottles like we did back in the '50s.
Space could see the return of the vaccuum tube. No?
Anyway the key is to put your feet up for a few days/weeks and let your mind get to work.

Anonymous said...

Rethink what the technical problem actually is. If you define it as "building a vehicle that reaches orbit", you are unlikely to succeed with the resources available to you.

The kind of organization you have in mind - small team, limited capital - seems better to suited to subsystems than to integrated whole vehicles.

One more suggestion to add to Pete's above: really low-cost, lightweight, valves of the kind you talked about a while back, but never got to develop for the LLC.

gravityloss said...

I have no idea if it's a viable business but indeed, some space business components might be good.

I thought of valves too. I remember Elon saying in an interview that each costs as much as a Mercedes Benz, but is worth it...

But in reality it probably doesn't make sense for you to develop them, they're a heavy industry thing and cryogenic engineering might require quite a lot of capital and has synergies with existing industrial practices.

Or who knows?

I was reading some NTRS monogram on turbopumps written when SSME was fresh, quite interesting reading there how there actually there was quite a lot of technical progress which still didn't seem to result in lower cost. Which isn't a new point per se, but still demonstrates that there's quite a lot of less explored potential there. I guess NASA's nineties efforts with things like Fastrac weren't in vain as SpaceX could use a lot of that know-how then. (Like how Suntan helped with RL-10 and how XLR129 and STME helped with SSME).

Maybe sometime in the future there is an ecosystem of agile small space companies that are competing with partial overlapping capabilities but still helping each other at the same time too by keeping the scene alive.

Maybe you could do well with the IMU business?
Couple reasonable laser gyros to a sensible navigation package? That's wrought with huge ITAR troubles though.

gravityloss said...

Correction: STME helped with RS-68!

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