There are many different approaches to growth. Most modern startups develop a product and then pivot to find product-market fit, often landing in a quite different place from where they started. But some companies use a different methodology. They know their space so well, they set a BHAG (Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal) that looks to many to be unreachable. Especially in the era of COVID and a recession, the real art is doing this while charting out a realistic and profitable roadmap to achieving it.
This is the approach Kepler Communications took. As its CEO, Mina Mitry, set a target that is literally out of this world: bringing the Internet to space. But more than merely setting a wildly ambitious vision, he and his team also mapped out a credible and pragmatic path to reaching it, by building a durable business along the way.
So how can such an approach work? At Kepler, the process consists of three steps:
- Look for market white space when crafting a vision
- Set bold and incremental milestones
- Rethink old assumptions
Look for market white space when crafting a vision
Kepler was launched in 2015 at a time when the cost of producing and launching satellites was falling dramatically. The biggest reason was the CubeSat nanosatellite standard, which was developed in 1999 and envisioned satellites built in 10cm2 x 10cm2 increments. While the standard had a slow start, over time it eventually unleashed a torrent of innovation that gave space-focused companies access to a wide range of off-the-shelf components, satellites, and launch vehicles.
Kepler was not alone in its ambition to reach space. Already, companies like Planet and Spire had launched satellite “constellations” to transform things like the Earth observation market. But Kepler knew there was an opportunity for telecommunications.
The reason is knowledge. Kepler’s cofounders spent a lot of time at the University of Toronto researching and learning to better understand the problem and existing solutions. Because if you deeply understand an emerging technology, you know what’s possible and can find outsized opportunities in a new market. Kepler’s founding team knew their mission was to provide reliable and affordable access to connectivity in space–something that was achievable and could be profitable too.
Set bold and incremental milestones
That said, companies are also businesses. They need to have clear, incremental steps in order to sustain their march. For this reason, Mitry consciously tried to emulate Tesla. Its North Star was to “help expedite the move from a mine-and-burn hydrocarbon economy towards a solar electric economy.”
Envisioned in 2016, Kepler’s plan was bold and had clear stages and long time horizons–similar to Tesla. This is unconventional for startups – most figure it out as they go along – but for companies that require an enormous amount of infrastructure to be in place for their success, it’s necessary. Kepler’s roadmap:
Step one: Build a satellite that is 100 times cheaper than current communication satellites.
Step two: Sell a service to early adopters and iterate with service specs.
Step three: Use that money to fund mass production of satellites.
Step four: Bring the Internet to space.
Kepler has already launched five satellites that are providing a global data service that maritime companies are using to quickly upload and transfer data from remote locations, such as the Arctic.
To reach an ambitious target, companies need milestones along the way in order to ensure their long-term viability. Articulating and reaching the interim milestones also shows investors’ progress for the business, not just the idea, which makes the continued necessary funding easier for investors to envision since it’s not just against an idea, it’s for an evolving, thoughtful business.
Rethink old assumptions
To do something dramatic, you often need not merely to improve existing technology but to rethink old assumptions. In a traditional model for going into space, a government or billion-dollar corporation spends 3-5 years to develop a satellite and then uses it for 15 years. With advances in modern technology coming so quickly, this has become a risky and limiting model for development. Kepler asked, “How can we do this better?”
The company looked at other infrastructure types and soon found a plausible solution in cellular networks. In particular, Kepler wanted to emulate the aggressive upgrading that these networks were able to achieve in short periods of time.
To do this, the company made its satellites rely on Software Defined Radio (SDR). This allows Kepler to upgrade communications protocols and configure bandwidth using software updates. As a result, the satellite constellations the company launches last two to five years, but they can be updated and improved through regular software upgrades while they are in orbit.
Vision + Execution = Outsized success
Finally, it’s important not to get distracted. Kepler today is continuing to move forward towards its goal of providing reliable and affordable access to connectivity in space. It has a daunting road ahead and a lot of work to do, but the company knows exactly where it’s going.
Should every startup swing for the fences like this? The answer is probably yes, and if you’re not, are you thinking big enough about either your idea or the opportunity your technology can enable? The BHAGs you set may not be as otherworldly as Kepler’s, but having an extremely ambitious vision for the future is a great way to ground yourself and your decisions.