This an epic story of a journey to get home (SPOILER ALERT). The audiobook is incredible and I’d highly recommend it.
Necessity is the mother of all invention. Constraints breed creativity. In the book, Mark is repeatedly saddled with different and more challenging situations (the Hab, the Rover, communicating, etc.). With each challenge, Mark Watney is forced to come up with inventions in order to survive. It is often the constraints of a situation that create amazing products. Let’s take Dropbox for example, Drew Houston famously wrote the program because he had forgetting his thumb drive on a Chinatown bus from Boston to New York. This also carries to music - each instrument offers a set of possible actions, governed by the overall rules of music. Remember the Marty McFly guitar solo in Back to the Future, nobody was ready for the crazy 80’s solo in the 60’s. Mark Watney, Drew Houston and Jimi Hendrix leveraged available tools in innovative ways out of the necessity of their circumstances.
Resource management. Cash is King and so are potatoes. Throughout the story, Mark refers to his current food circumstances and quickly calculates his estimated number of days remaining. Like Mark, founders of startups should always know when they will be out of money or how much runway they have available. In practice, startups may lose sight of this date for a number of reasons: they lack product-market fit, they scale too fast, or they raise too much money and don’t pay attention to cash contingencies.
Space is hard. After Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon in July 1969, everyone thought commercial space travel would soon arrive. While several billionaires have attempted to get to space: Jeff Bezos with Blue Origin, Richard Branson with Virgin Galactic, and Elon Musk with SpaceX, there hasn’t been a huge boom of space startups many predicted after 1969. The reason space has become a billionaire game is the lack of expected ROI and large amount of capital necessary to build a space business. Beyond that, as exhibited by Rich Purnell/Donald Glover in the Martian, the math needs to be exact and there are so many variables at play with space tech. While VCs have to return money to their investors at the end of a fund, billionaires do not: “Most investors, institutional investors, venture capital investors, or angels are looking for business opportunities that have a demonstrable probability of success.” This was the mindset for many years but recently, with the success of SpaceX and overall great market times for VCs, it has been changing. Investors are realizing these moonshot (pun intended) technologies represent massive opportunity. To that end, space funding has grown significantly in the past couple of years.
Internal politics. Throughout the book, there are several internal tensions between different involved parties including the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) and NASA. This comes to a head when Teddy Sanders (Head of NASA) makes the call over Mitch Henderson to not tell the Hermes crew that Mark Watney is still alive. While Teddy argues this is necessary to keep them focused on their mission, Mitch feels like he is lying to his crew. This gets to an interesting business questions which is, how much shared information is best within an organization? On one end of the system you have Netflix, who publishes manager salary information for anyone to view. On the other hand you have Apple, who as discussed previously had four separate teams trying to come up with an iPhone independently. Jason Lemkin argues 90% of information should be shared as a baseline, but it is probably different for different managers and companies.
Positive spin PR. Especially in tech, there is a drive to spin everything as positive PR. From internal company announcements to external marketing, everything is spun to show company XYZ as the best company in the world. Throughout the book, Annie Montrose (NASA’s PR director) is forced to spin each subsequent announcement with a positive twist. She knows the veracity of the situation: “This was going to be rough and Annie knew it. Not only did she have to deliver the biggest mea culpa in NASA’s history, every second of it would be remembered forever. Every movement of her arms, intonation of her voice, and expression of her face would be seen by millions of people over and over again. Not just in the immediate press cycle, but for decades to come.” While this actually is the biggest press release of all time in the book, Tech companies like to think every announcement is like this, opting to consistently give positive remarks despite whatever challenges. As noted here, Elizabeth Holmes has had to do this positive spinning since Theranos has come under fire on some of its practices - obviously in hindsight we know how misleading these announcements were. Another example of this positive spin mentality is this 2014 Memo from Microsoft where 12,500 employees were told they were losing their jobs. The first 10 paragraphs of the letter spell out the new and innovative competitive strategy that Microsoft is undertaking to be competitive in certain domains. It isn’t until you are at paragraph 11, that you realize you may be getting fired. Be wary of PR from tech companies, a lot of it is masking bad news.
Partnerships / working together. After a failed launch on an incredibly short timeline, the US is out of options to save Watney until the Chinese National Space Agency (CSNA) volunteers the Taiyang Shen, the most technologically sophisticated space probe ever designed in China, to fly on the next mission. While this action shows the value of a human life, it also represents how valuable partnerships can be. China yields a consolation prize of having an astronaut join on the mission, but loses out on its planned launch years in the making, however being swept into this global effort could bring even more funding to China’s space program for years to come. If you look at great partnerships in the history of technology you see repeating patterns: increased distribution (Zynga games/Spotify music shareable on the facebook platform), better quality (Yahoo’s search got significantly better when powered by Google), and higher market share (Intel’s partnerships with Apple and Microsoft). While some of these partnerships end up hurting one side more than another (Google/Yahoo), they yield near term success and can help build massive businesses.