Thursday, March 15, 2007

Those who can, launch; those who can't, PowerPoint.

In my regular gig as a systems/software analyst, I have to wade through a lot of material each day just to keep up with current trends. While my RSS reader has helped me gather it an order of magnitude faster, the reading of the material itself often remains tedious. (The speed reading class helped, but now I have to clean my monitor more often.)

Every now and then, however, I pick up a tidbit like this one, which I found was also very useful in another context, like, say,

It's a rant about the signal-to-noise ratio in the software industry. The author, a real, honest-to-God programmer, discusses his frustrations in trying to convince customers to buy his product on its actual merits. His product solves a customer's specific problem. He has actual code that actually ships. Custom onsite configuration is also available as part of the service.

However, more often than not, he finds himself competing with firms who have only vaporware to sell - but their "software architects" come a-calling with a slick PowerPoint show replete with color, animation, and impressive buzzwords. So the poor guy gets caught up in the trap of trying to explain meaningless "architecture" questions asked by the potential client's pointy-haired boss, rather than allowing him to explain how his very real, shipping product would actually solve specific problems and make end users more productive.

I find there is a strong parallel here between the rantings of buzzword-spouting "software architects" selling vaporware, and the unquestioning, romantic worship of future-boy rocketry by the crowd. They can create or join one startup after another; they raise funding from naive angels by selling the Dream, fall flat, reinvent themselves in another enterprise, raise money from still more naive angels, fall flat again, and keep doing it over and over.

Like "software architects", they are teflon when it comes to failure - they'll never admit to it, except, when pushed, in terms of blaming others or unique circumstances beyond their control - like the regulatory environment, failure to raise sufficient capital, or the blunders of key partners. They never mention, however, how their now-failed product or service was laced with 6 degrees of unobtainium, or violated the laws of economics (sometimes even physics).

The only thing they've ever launched is a PowerPoint show, filled with thrilling 3-D animated effects of their new/improved launcher/spaceship/what-have-you, declaring they'll be taking passenger reservations/client orders in only two years. And every two years that self-imposed deadline keeps getting pushed back. But undaunted by reality, they press on.

They go to all the "right" conferences, make sure they are photographed with luminaries such as Aldrin, wave their arms on panel discussions, and quote liberally from all the books on space and aviation history that festoon their offices.

From now on, whenever I'm confronted by these people, I going to chant to myself the following mantra:

"Rockets launch, payloads fly;
Rockets help customers
Do their work in the sky."

Then I might be able to sit through another annoying PowerPoint show without my breakfast threatening revolt.

I've said this on more than one occasion, and I'll say it again: Entrepreneurial enterprises - of whatever kind - are created to solve problems, offering unique or innovative solutions that inspire customers to buy. This is their primary value proposition, and it's what makes such enterprises potentially worthy of 3rd-party investment. This is the biggest contrast I see between presenting firms at a conference like SmallSat, for example, and those that attend many space advocacy conferences. The SmallSat firms understand the concept of solving problems for customers and adding value - as a result they prosper. The others sell mostly dreams, promises, and vaporware.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Up for a challenge? PROVE US WRONG.

(originally posted by Old Space Cynic as a comment on the last post thread, but raised to level of separate post by me to make sure you all had a chance to see it... and see if you will respond...)

AmberJane, you have nailed it again, but the blindly faithful will trash you for doing so.

If a younger, high income, interested professional isn't the target market for suborbital flight, who is? The old rich farts with hypertension and questionable AV conduction? When the vast majority of the public is not interested in space, the market numbers for suborbital flights make no sense. A number of prepaid deposits held in escrow are meaningless.

An Australian academic recently did credible market research directly supporting your opinion about preferring orbital to suborbital flight. But, like all dissenters to the party line, he is defined as wrong. Just like Dr. Hertzfeld is wrong on economics according to the true believers.

Trying to refute Dr. Bell's argument with logic based on examples of RATOs (low performance, low energy density) and failure to understand that some severely damaged X-15s were rebuilt using the same tail numbers is both ignorant and silly.

From a business standpoint, are we to accept a hypothetical PowerPoint spaceplane over a tangible data history spanning more than 1/2 century? Which is the more valid approach to guessing reliability numbers? The challenge to the alt.spacers is to prove us wrong: Get the investment capital, build and test and prove the sceptics wrong. Quit arguing about how many angels are dancing on the head of a pin and PROVE US WRONG. If Dr. Bell had used the column headings “major event” instead of “loss” some of the criticism could have been avoided.

We have recently been treated to the spectacle of a BS level engineering space cadet taking on a PhD aeronautical engineer with extensive personal flight test experience and a faculty slot in the UC system over pros and cons of different flight configurations with "opinions" on one side and a wealth of peer-reviewed literature on the other.

I have put my money where my mouth is and have invested in several companies. Their business plans and structures were clearly flawed, but I hoped that over time they would grow into acting like real businesses. My hopes have not been realized after 4 years. Reading their 5 year projections today is amusing.

You are correct that investment opportunities are very few and very far between. In my opinion, sure to be trashed as ignorant and ill-informed, the commercial case will not be closed until cheap orbital access is achieved. Suborbital joy-riding will probably not do it. If the space-geeks want capital they have to convince people who think like the Cynics to part with theirs or raise it in other ways. Arguments with ad hominem attacks and distorting logic, omitting inconvenient observations, and the like is best left to the politicians and news media, not to Kool-Aiders frustrated by those who have the wherewithall to fund ventures but can't see the business case closing.

Finally, it was amusing to see Rand Simberg’s final dig at you (“Have you changed professions from plastic surgeon to aerospace market researcher?”). This is especially silly – insult a person who brings interest, enthusiasm, and potential investment capital to the table because he or she asks a perfectly reasonable question (“What am I missing?”). Great way to encourage investment in the field, Rand. I suspect Rand has no concept of the analytical resources surgeons and other high income/high net worth people can bring to bear for market research, analysis, etc. as they consider investments – including fliers.

For your further illumination, get Dr. Livingston’s recent lecture at USC on the subject or better yet take him up on his long-standing offer to discuss your approach to investment analysis on his show. Given the way the community seems to operate, it is unlikely that anybody will call up and challenge you face to face. That will all occur behind your back.

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Tuesday, March 06, 2007

It Was Safer Flying Against the Nazis...

Jeff Bell's scorching editorial on Space Daily skewers the suborbital tourism market six ways from sunday, through a thorough disection of the risks and safety record of rocket-powered suborbital flight to date.

It doesn't matter if your favourite beast is a rocketplane, DC-X lookalike, or spaceship one - he does an admirable job of ripping them apart.

I'll be interested to see the reaction from the kool-aid crowd to this one.

Kudos, Jeff.

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