I recently participated in my first Startup Weekend event: the unfortunately-named: Techstars Startup Weekend Seattle: Space Edition.

As someone interested in the commercial space industry, I was so excited for this event, which required us to think like entrepreneurs in the #NewSpace industry.

My personal goal for the event: How can I create a business that increases awareness of space technology and generates revenue for the space industry? And because satellite technology is one of the fastest-growing sectors of the space industry, I focused my attention on a satellite-based business.

If you’re interested in trying out the lean startup philosophy, a Startup Weekend is a great experience, regardless of what industry you want to work in. Here’s some advice from me on how to make it great.

What’s Startup Weekend like?

Our eight-person team invented, tested, and iterated a product for the space industry in less than 72 hours. It was an exciting and educational experience!

And I realized that there are a number of tasks you can do ahead of time as a group leader to prepare for the event. If you’ve never done Startup Weekend before, let me assure you it’s harder than you think to do everything in one weekend.

  • Identify the product assumptions
  • Conduct online research and meet with mentors
  • Create a prototype
  • Promote and sell the product
  • Make product decisions
  • Keep your team and organizers informed — our organizer required teams to report for standups every 90 minutes
  • Keep everyone on the same page — and productive
  • Satisfy the judging requirements and create a winning presentation

That’s a lot, right? Startup Weekend organizers gave us two tips ahead of time: A) Research your project idea. B) Gather a list of prospective customers so you can pitch your idea.

Both of these tips would be extremely useful and will save you at least 8 hours of work — IF you had a project idea. But I went to Startup Weekend thinking I wouldn’t pitch. I thought I would tag on to someone else’s project. (I was wrong, but that’s a separate story.)

The fact is, there’s a lot you can do to prepare for Startup Weekend even if you’re thinking “I don’t have a startup idea.” Get some of the project management and promotional stuff out of the way so the team can do the real work.

Create these 10 things to prepare for Startup Weekend even if you have no idea what to do.

  1. A working name for the project (like a code name — you can change it)
  2. Trello board for task tracking
  3. List of contact emails — your friends, co-workers, or family members who agree ahead of time that they’ll take your customer development surveys to give you feedback. Load your contact emails into an email service like Mailchimp. After you join a team, ask your teammates for even more (opted-in) contact emails where you can blast your surveys.
  4. Google Forms survey set up with some basic customer development questions (fill in the details when you’ve picked a project)
  5. Link to a Google Doc for immediate idea sharing, with sections for “Product Assumptions” and “Questions” and “Ideas”
  6. Link to a Google Slides document with a pre-built template including the ~15 points you’ll be judged on
  7. Profiles/pages on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn with your project’s working name (again, you can change it easily)
  8. Generic square logo for your accounts (later, when you have a project name, make a $20 logo with BrandCrowd)
  9. Ads accounts for Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram, and Google Ads that are:
    • Pre-verified (if you wait until the start of Startup Weekend, Google won’t finish verifying your account in time for you to run ads). Keep in mind you usually can run ads on your personal social accounts.
    • Pre-loaded with free advertising credits, if the platform offers starter credits
  10. Account on a page builder like Launchrock or one of many alternatives so you can start creating your project website right away

Bonus: create a way to share all the passwords with your team!

You’ll save hours of time if you can do all or most of the above. Which means, unfortunately, you now have hours of work to do before Startup Weekend begins. Get going!

AWS Ground Station, which launched early in 2019, aims to help large organizations start working with satellite data quickly without making enormous capital expenditure investments.

Some number of the roughly 2,000 currently active satellites make their time available for third parties to rent for Earth observation. AWS Ground Station provides the hardware and backhaul so you can collect, transport, and even start processing the data without buying a dish or a server. Amazon’s goal, in my opinion, is to continue to build the value of Amazon Web Services among large organizations by abstracting away some of the IT headaches of obtaining and processing data from satellites.

Amazon thinks AWS Ground Station is a perfect fit for enterprise businesses, academic institutions (who use satellite information for research), as well as government entities. Target use cases for AWS Ground Station include:

  1. Agriculture: Monitoring crop health and water levels
  2. Supply chain: Monitoring shipping and watching out for deviations that may be due to piracy
  3. Public safety: Analyzing wildfires to identify the safest points of entry for firefighters
  4. Retail: counting cars in parking lots to forecast demand (though I note that retailers already have many options for estimating traffic at their own stores)

However, Amazon’s launch customer for the AWS Ground Station public availability announcement fit none of the use cases above. Instead, it was a New Space company, Spire Global, that announced plans to use AWS Ground Station — to supplement their own satellite data-gathering operations. The choice makes sense. Spire is positioned to understand the value of AWS Ground Station long before any single enterprise might sign on.

Top benefits of contracting a ground station service instead of building your own ground station:

  • No capital expenditure
  • No long-term commitments
  • Scale as needed
  • Easily use other Amazon services, like Rekognition and SageMaker, with satellite data

Customers pay by the minute and receive a discounted rate when they reserve in bulk ahead of time. (Scheduled usage of AWS Ground Station enables Amazon to predict demand and merits a hefty discount.)

How long ago did you use a GPS-powered app to find your way somewhere? Google Maps, Citymapper, Lyft, Uber, Zipcar, Lime, Jump, Skip…if you live in a city and get around on your own, chances are you used one of these apps in the last week. So you need satellites to get around town. We need satellites for other purposes, too, like predicting earthquakes and tracking wildfires. But there’s something simple and seemingly innocuous that’s actually threatening your way of life.

It’s orbital debris — space garbage — pieces of metal, paint, and electronics that have sloughed off of satellites and spacecraft over the last 50 years or so. It’s spinning around Earth, alongside mission-critical and business-critical systems that almost everyone in the world depends on. And if we don’t clean it up, orbital debris will cause trillions of dollars of damage to our hard-won space infrastructure.

For humans to continue to innovate on and off-world, we need to commit to maintaining our satellite environment. It’s important that we increase public awareness of the dangers of orbital debris and enable people to take action.

Most people think of hackathons as almost exclusively the domain of coders, programmers, hardware developments, engineers of all stripes, and other types of technologists. Stretching a bit, people can imagine a need for 3D designers, video game artists, quality professionals, and similar. But the fact is that professionals who might be considered working on the business side of technology should attend hackathons too: marketers, account executives, business development professionals, customer success managers, product managers, and more should all consider participating.

And me? I’m a marketing manager at a company unrelated to the space industry, and I don’t code much.

Recently, I participated in the NASA SpaceApps Challenge, a global hackathon and competition where over 29,000 people from 80 countries came together to solve some of humanity’s biggest problems. I joined the NASA SpaceApps Challenge because I love the space industry and believe it is key to unlocking a long-term future for humanity. And I not only joined a great team that did very well at the competition, but I learned a lot and had a fantastic time too. (If you want to learn about that experience, read this post.)

So I believe any business-minded person has something to offer and get out of a hackathon, if you’ve got a bit of passion for the topic. 

Read on for my tips — and don’t miss the important tip at the end.

Before the hackathon: Understand your motivation

At the hackathon, is it more important for you to: 

A) Learn about the topic and have fun 

B) Win a prize and get noticed

Your answer changes how you prepare and how you choose a team.

  1. If you want to learn and have fun, keep an open mind. All participants have something to teach you. When it’s time to create teams, first look for people who are different than you — try to stretch a bit. Don’t go with people who seem similar to colleagues from other contexts. If you are over 35, I especially encourage you to try to join a team forming around younger team members. 
  2. If you really want to win a prize and get noticed, you should invest time in preparation. Read the complete introductory materials and all the topical challenge areas (if the hackathon has pre-scoped challenges for you). Choose your favorite two or three challenge areas and consider your contribution to that. When it comes time to form a team, look for technologists who have a bit of prior background in those challenge areas. 

At the event: Add value and help your team succeed

Regardless of your intention for a hackathon, here’s what anyone with a business background can contribute to a successful team: Read the rest of this entry »

Screenshot 2019-10-20 17.32.59.png

Avi Schiffman & team mates demonstrate Debris Hunters at NASA SpaceApps Challenge 2019

The Seattle chapter of the 2019 NASA SpaceApps Challenge was an enormously fun and educational event.

My team, The Debris Hunters, created an educational 3D arcade shooter where players destroy space debris with a variety of tools including laser, harpoons and more. The goal of the project was to increase public awareness of orbital debris and enable them to take action.

The problem of orbital debris explained

The primary problem of orbital debris: bits of metal and paint break off of satellites and spacecraft in orbit and have nowhere to go: they keep spinning around Earth at high velocity and eventually damage our orbital infrastructure and injure astronauts working in orbit. The worst-case scenario of orbital debris is Kessler Syndrome: an unstoppable cascade of orbital collisions that destroy all infrastructure in space — trillions of dollars of investment.

The secondary problem of orbital debris: not enough people know about it, and there’s no international momentum behind controlling it.

That’s why it’s important to find ways to raise awareness of orbital debris and identify paths to remediating the problem. Enter: The Debris Hunters.

Debris Hunters: The Game

The Debris Hunters - Game interface - 2019Components of the MVP

  1. Player is positioned on a space station in orbit around Earth Read the rest of this entry »

Here are the events I’ll be attending this fall:

9/26/2019: “Space Entrepreneurship: Founder Challenges” in Bellevue, WA – Looking forward to understanding some of the strategic challenges in creating a commercial space company.

10/18/2019: “NASA Space Apps Challenge Seattle” – I will provide marketing support to a group building apps at the hackathon.

11/15/2019: “Techstars Startup Weekend Seattle: Space Edition” — I will participate as chief marketer for one of the concepts at the event.

Hope to meet you there.


share-imageThe Soviet Union built the first spaceport, Baikonur Cosmodrome, in 1957. In October of that year, Sputnik 1 launched and stayed in orbit for a few months. Since then, about 30 more launch sites were built around the world, and over 1,000 satellites are currently orbiting Earth.

Click through to learn:

  • When (and where) humans started building spaceports [interactive map]
  • Why Italy and France built spaceports in Africa instead of Europe
  • How to choose a site for a spaceport
  • Commercial applications of satellites

paeegaf30dg-steven-coffeyToday’s space industry is dominated by:

  • Rockets
  • Research
  • Satellites

But are you familiar with newer segments of the industry? Here are five awesome business models that will get more people thinking off-world — and these ideas have nothing to do with Mars colonies.

1. Tourism

What makes space tourism so interesting is not that it’s tourism but that it’s gonna be big business. Rocketry and satellite communications companies are huge. Tourism will be huge too. Space tourism is also the first consumer space enterprise, which means a few things.

First, a wide variety of people will try it. They’ll all be wealthy, initially, but they’ll have different occupations and backgrounds. Versus other space enterprises, which largely serve highly specialized customers.

Second, a large number of people will try it. It’s affordable enough for a millionaire. Virgin Galactic has 700 people ready to pay $250k for a suborbital flight on SpaceShipTwo. And their XB-1 supersonic aircraft will debut $5k pond hops for elite business travelers at the end of 2017. With few competitors, Virgin Galactic may see the 10 million millionaires on Earth as a big enough market to start with.

2. Global business intelligence

Earth-facing satellites aren’t just for three-letter agencies anymore. The earth observation market is expanding from defense surveillance applications into commercial applications in two cool ways: Read the rest of this entry »

Kurzgesagt is making the greatest science and history explainer videos around. Here, they explain what a space elevator is. Great concept that, if we could execute it, would save billions of dollars for space entrepreneurs.