How big are you thinking? Will Marshall is thinking so big, he’s thinking out of this world. Literally. He’s just bought all of Google’s satellites with his 6-year old start-up, Planet Labs.
Paradoxically, Will can now think bigger because he began by thinking smaller.
In 2010 he asked himself “Why are most satellite images years old, and satellites so expensive?” (The NASA satellites launched at the time cost $850 million to build and launch).
The lightbulb moment came when NASA Director of Engineering gave a talk and pulled out his smartphone, saying it had a faster processor and better sensors than many satellites, at a fraction of the price.
That’s when Will, who was at the talk, said “Pete, don’t put that back in your pocket. We’re going to make that into a satellite”.
Will then launched Planet Labs with two NASA scientists with the mission “To use space to help life” and the goal “To image the entire planet, every day.” Their first goal? To launch a “phonesat” into orbit,and send back photos of earth in real time.
Three years later, the first three were launched for just $7,000 each. Will called them “Alexander, Graham and Bell”.
The team came up with the phrase “Agile Aerospace” where they improved their “flock”, which became known as “Doves”. In 2014, 28 Doves were released from the International Space Station. Each even sent a “Tweet” via Twitter once they turned on.
By 2016, Will said “We have launched 133 satellites to date, which is the largest constellation in human history… We can track deforestation, we can track the ice caps melting. We can help people respond to natural disasters like earthquakes and floods.”
And that’s Will’s big dream – to save the environment by being able to prevent the damage before it happens. For example, with the Amazon: “If you wait until the end of the year to take a picture – which is the typical rate – at the end of the year you have a big hole in the Amazon. If you take it every day, you can catch people in the act who are logging in the wrong place and send the co-ordinates to the response team who go and stop them.”
So how did Will end up buying Google’s satellites? Google realized Planet’s small team were doing a better job than they were at managing satellites. So they sold their $300 million satellite company, Terra Bella together with their seven high-res SkySat satellites in orbit to Planet in return for shares and a long-term licensing deal for all Planet’s images.
So while many startups dream one day of being bought by Google, Will has done the opposite and bought from Google.
Are you thinking big enough?
What would you do different if you were thinking 100x bigger?
When asked what advice he would give startup entrepreneurs, Will said “Check that the idea can be 100x better (/lower cost etc) than anything out there – there will be all sorts of practical reasons you’ve not thought of and if it’s only a 10x that will be eaten up.”
In the meantime, Will isn’t resting after his big buy. He has another 88 satellites being launched this Valentine’s Day. When your business is in space, the sky’s no longer the limit.
“If people aren’t calling you crazy, you aren’t thinking big enough.” ~ Richard Branson