Hitting escape velocity

About 4 months back, 6000 SpaceX engineers launched a rocket that could lift a 64 tonne payload – twice as heavy as anything we’ve sent into space so far. In its maiden flight, the Falcon Heavy rocket put a Tesla roadster in a solar orbit between Earth and Mars.

File:Elon Musk's Tesla Roadster (40110304192).jpg

Image credits: SpaceX

Their feat was a headline that the world merely acknowledged and moved on without grasping its true magnitude. To us, this was just another successful SpaceX launch. In reality, it was humanity having pushed past a fundamental limitation that keeps us tied to the Earth’s gravitational pull.

For a rocket to get to a low-earth orbit (300 -2000 km above the earth’s surface) it must attain a velocity of 8 km/s, at 23 times the speed of sound, after which it can orbit without the earth’s atmospheric drag. And to be completely free from the earth’s gravity, it must attain an escape velocity of 11 km/s, after which it freely floats into the realms of outer-space.

The Falcon Heavy, weighing 1400 tonnes, attained a velocity of mach 23 – 8 kilometers per second. It is staggering to think of how this was achieved by a company that is barely a teenager, at 16 years of age.

Elon Musk was not the first one to envision building a private space agency. Neither was he the first to build an electric car. I can bet that Steve Jobs was not the first one to think of a phone with a touch-screen. Nor was Joe Gebbia of AirBnb, the first one to help people rent their homes online. A world of interconnected billions is a hot-spot for great ideas. All of these ideas must’ve occurred to somebody else, somewhere.  A good idea today is like a $100 bill on the intersection of every internet highway out there. To think that one can have a unique, brilliant idea in the face of this reality is delusion fueled by arrogance.

But what sets pioneers apart is their execution. What really counts is the ability to transform an idea into something that works, set it in orbit or have it reach escape velocity.

This is the problem that most start-ups face. The ones we see and hear about have already attained escape velocity, from where it is smooth sailing. Subsequently, there is a lot of focus on their idea. But what we largely ignore, are the struggles involved in transforming those ideas into what they are today. This propagates an illusion that the best startups are successful because of their great ideas. But what is also true is that thousands of people have had the same ideas. We never hear about them because they failed to execute well enough.

And to execute well is the skill that is most valuable in a world that is brimming with ideas. It is tough to build a successful start-up because its founders are competing against several competitors who have already launched and attained some velocity. The market starts noticing a startup only when it is  comparable to its competitors, and this can be really difficult.

But wherever there is difficulty, there is usually great opportunity. Of the billions on the planet, the number of people who doggedly execute ideas is only a small percentage. In our crowded markets, it is great execution that leads to exemplary solutions.

The bottom line? Ideas are overrated. Great execution creates great businesses. Besides, anybody can steal your idea, but nobody can steal your execution.

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