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What I Learned From a Group of NASA Astronauts and Why Entrepreneurs Need to Hear It

NASA puts people into some of the most dangerous, trying, difficult situations humans have ever faced. There’s a very simple secret they have for choosing the right people. You should know it.

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BY John Bates - 26 Apr 2017

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

NASA puts human beings like Captain Winston Scott and Mike Massimiano into incredibly dangerous, difficult, trying situations. In other words, they know something about high pressure situations like running a startup. Recently I learned a surprising lesson about how NASA thinks and it's pure gold for startups.

As I finished up my training at the Astronaut Beach House (a hallowed ground for geeks, for sure) a few months ago a few NASA astronauts, including Mike Goode who in 2009 logged 15 hours and 58 minutes of EVA during two of the five spacewalks conducted to refurbish the Hubble Space Telescope, and Mike Finke who formerly held the world record for time in space at 381.6 days, came up to talk with me. After some kind words Mike said: "John, would you like to know what the final test to become an astronaut is like?"

 

The final test to become an astronaut

"Of course!" I said. (I mean, who wouldn't, right?)

"Well," he said, "there are a lot of things you have to go through, first."

Things like passing a Space Physical, having at least 1,000 hours pilot-in-command time in a jet aircraft with flight test experience being highly desirable, and more...

"And, once you pass everything... Once you've proven yourself and you're totally qualified to be an astronaut, there's one final test..." he said, looking around at the other astronauts who were all nodding in assent.

"You show up to that test with this big folder that has all of your accomplishments and test scores and everything you've done in it and you knock on the door. As it swings open you see all of your heroes, the Astronauts you want to join, sitting around a big table. They invite you inside and someone takes that big folder of accomplishments and casually tosses in on a table in the corner. They ask you to sit down and then you all just talk."

He paused for emphasis. "You just hang out with all of the astronauts and talk. You talk about family and fun and hobbies and everything under the sun and then, after a while, it winds down and they give you your folder back and walk you to the door. And, after you leave they all talk about one thing: Did they like you."

My face must have shown my surprise and then the dawning realization I was having. "That's right. The final test to become an Astronaut is whether you're likeable." After all, if you become an astronaut they might have to hang out with you on the Space Station, in tight quarters, and through potentially high stress situations for a long time.

So, what does that have to do with you, an entrepreneur? At least two things.

 

1. Jerks are terrible to have around

Well, If you've been there, you know. If you haven't, I'll tell you. It can get supremely stressful. Back in the day I likened my startup BIGWORDS.com to a submarine that had been damaged by depth charges and was going too deep. You could almost hear the creaking and groaning, could almost see the rivets popping streams of water, as we fought our way through our first big selling season. People fought hard not to freak out and lots of my time was spent talking people down. Under high pressure jerks become vastly more toxic. So, don't be one and don't hire one. Period.

 

2. VCs don't need to fund jerks

It might surprise you to know that this is a very common theme among Venture Capital investors, too! Think of it this way, they have the money and it's not like they have to invest it. They have a reputation and friends and acquaintances and a high profile in their community and a million other reasons to avoid being entangled with a jerk to whom they just gave money. It's pretty obvious, isn't it? Bottom line for VC is that they have a lot more to lose then they do to gain from investing in someone who is going to go around being a jerk and make them look bad in their community. Neil Weintraut and Peter Ziebelman told me a long time ago: "Remember this, John, you have a company, we have a portfolio." That's just one of the many implications of that important statement.

There are lots of good ideas, lots of talented people and tons of great opportunities out there all the time. And, the marketplace extracts a very high price for being a jerk, despite a few currently successful ones. Believe me, NASA knows.