Earlier this month (Oct 2021), we were truly enlightened by a conversation with one of the world’s premier space entrepreneurs, Daniel Faber and our CEO, Sally-Ann Williams. We were thrilled to chat with such a visionary founder at the first event of the National Industry Space Hub, an initiative of NSW Investment, delivered by Cicada Innovations.
Daniel Faber, a homegrown Australian engineer who today is a serial Silicon Valley entrepreneur, is the founder of OrbitFab - a startup with a vision to build a thriving in-space market and has recently put the world’s first petrol station in space. With Daniel’s 25 years in the space industry founding 15 space companies, this conversation was rich in insights and advice.
"We're trying to build a bustling space economy...We need the 'bustle'...you can't bustle unless you've got fuel and start to build up bigger structures from smaller parts"
- Daniel Faber
Really hone in on the "why."
Many entrepreneurs fall into the trap of solving a problem through a linear path. Daniel shared an alternative innovative mindset...
- Think upstream, not downstream The ‘Five Whys’ were made famous by Toyota, where you ask why 5 times to dig down and solve the nitty gritty of a problem. Daniel reverses this, instead he asks 5 times going up - questioning what you’re trying to achieve and what really matters. With this mentality, he has founded startups not just to solve problems but to do something good for humanity.
- Be realistic about the answer to why Growing up on a farm, Daniel adapted to “listen to reality” and “always take in feedback”. Honing in on the why’s takes a realistic mindset to pinpoint the problems that are worth solving. He has explored innovative ideas in commodity exchange, space manufacturing of semiconductor crystals, and selling entertainment events in space. But without the appropriate supplier, demand, or team expertise, Daniel has learnt to be realistic and forgo these ideas for ones with a greater chance of success.
You won't succeed without a viable business model.
It’s not enough to be technically great as a space founder, you also need solid business skills. There’s nothing special about space, it’s as much about the business and being able to make money as it is the innovative tech.
- Space entrepreneurs need to be more than technical. Though engineering and business are seen as opposing fields, budding tech entrepreneurs need a “hardcore business lens” to excel in the entrepreneur world. Without the business mindset, entrepreneurs have a limit to what they can do, and are limited to “working out of their garage”.
- Even the most innovative idea is nothing without a profitable business model. Investors are “not just going to give money for the sake of it to burn things, they want to figure out how to do things better”, says Daniel. Though space tech is unforgiving (as you can’t press a reset button when your technology is in space), it’s not as hard developing a solid business model.
- If you don’t have the skills find someone who does. There’s a critical mass of company building skills an innovator to make their idea a reality. In Silicon Valley, there are people who can take “a company from size 20 to size 200 and entrepreneurs who can build from size 200 to 2000”, said Daniel. And though it might not be completely unique at Silicon Valley, it’s a crucial skillset that any entrepreneur needs in their team.
A willingness to take risks is a competitive advantage
A startups willingness to take risks is a key advantage. Why? “Because bigger companies can’t afford to pursue new markets and put their brand at stake”, said Daniel.
- Primes focus on optimizing existing business models and scaling their brand. On the other hand, startups have the ability to take big risks, to chase down big goals and potentially one day become a multi-billion dollar company.
- Taking risks involves lots of trial and error. With a big ambition to build a bustling space economy, Daniel has leapt from one business idea to another to find the right technology and market to focus on. After founding 15 companies, only four succeeded as startups, and that's something entrepreneurs need to learn to become comfortable with.
- Trial and error teaches you how to spot opportunity. You will fail and learn along the way and eventually be better at recognising opportunities. OrbitFab was born out of one of Daniel's earlier ideas. After a lifetime of learning, he was able to spot a gap in the market and turn that idea into a business.
"Now is the time" for Australian space innovators
As we wrapped up the conversation, Daniel's closing remarks on Australia’s opportunities in the space industry really stuck with us.
It's easy for me to sit here looking back 25 years... and give logical reasons and the strategy. It's a much messier process than that. Just go out and do it.
Over his career, Daniel has seen the space industry evolve. He left us with 3 key takeaways for the Australian space community.
- Investors are becoming more and more interested in space. There has never been a better time to attract investors; as Daniel indicated, investors' understanding and appetite in the sector just wasn’t there 10 years ago.
- Australia has a unique advantage. Daniel believes that Australia's burgeoning space sector has an advantage because it’s being built on the foundations of "incredibly deep technical skill” with the support of the government. For budding space tech entrepreneurs, Daniel says to leverage the fact that we have an excellent skill base and engage with the global industry to find your market.
- If you fail, “try again, there’s nothing wrong with that”. The ecosystem, founders, customers, investors all must learn to expect and accept failure. Founders can expect to try “half a dozen times. And then you will learn enough to realise how to thread the needle on starting up a business, and you'll have people who also fall flat on their face with you."
If you’re a budding space entrepreneur trying to get off the ground, we have newly launched a program for early space ventures. Fast Start is a 6-month program that provides you with personalised mentoring, facilities, and access to our vast community of experts, space innovators, and investors. We’re serving a new vision to develop Australia’s space ecosystem by connecting entrepreneurs with the right resources and network they need to grow.
If you missed the conversation with Daniel, watch the event here.