5 Takeaways from our Fireside Chat with Matt O'Connell

15th January 2019

Back in November, we were lucky enough to have Matt O’Connell in to speak with our Mission 2 startups to share war stories and his tips on how to build a billion-dollar company in the space industry. 

Matt’s career is varied to say the least. He admits he always wanted to be a musician but “failed horribly at that” and after stints as an M&A lawyer, Legal Counsel and Venture Capitalist, he “discovered a broken satellite company that did maps”, GeoEye, where he became CEO. 

When Matt took over in 2003, the company had 60 employees and $9m in revenue, yet it was failing and facing bankruptcy. Nevertheless, within 9 years he had guided the company through tough times and built it into a leading provider of satellite and aerial imagery with 760 employees and $360m in revenue. In 2013, he sold the company to DigitalGlobe for $1.3bn. Matt is now a partner at Seraphim Capital where he scours the globe for the best entrepreneurs working in SpaceTech. 

How did he do this?

Matt has been a 2-time CEO, lawyer and VC but has never taken a course in management, leadership or business. Instead, he is a firm believer in self-taught education, illustrated by the 4 instruments he plays and the 4 languages he speaks. 

A tough part of his journey involved living in a Holiday Inn at Dulles Airport for three years. There was not much to do in the evenings, so Matt read as much as he could. He didn’t see much value in modern business literature and instead read plenty of history books. He also studied the FT & Wall Street Journal to keep up to date with business vocabulary.

Matt has taken notes from the best pieces he has read and has put them together to make “Matt’s Management Mottos”. Fortunately, our companies all have access to this business bible through the Space Camp ecosystem. 

Our Takeaways:

1) “Listen First and Speak Last” - Matt came back to the theme of listening throughout his talk. He acknowledged that it is especially hard to abide by this when you’re an entrepreneur as you’re often doing things others don’t believe in, but it really is the only way to understand exactly what your customers want.

2) "Treat Others as You Would Wish to be Treated" - The Golden Rule really is golden. Whether dealing with investors, employees, customers or your life partner, living by this rule separates you from the rest of the competition. Ethics always come first when running a company.

3) "Stop Selling What You Have, Sell What They Need" - Less than a year out of bankruptcy, GeoEye won a major Government contract and in the process beat competitors with combined revenues of more than $100bn. How? Matt listened to what the customer wanted, while his competitors went in and told the customer what they wanted. 

However, he did also mention that often customers think they want something (e.g. a Ferrari) but that is really a proxy for what they really want (a faster and more attractive car). Your job is to figure out what they really want.

4) “A dream is just a dream. A goal is a dream with a plan and a deadline” - Having a sense of order is important and companies that can’t prioritise will struggle. Having said that, you can have two completely different plans at the same time. Matt realised the importance of being able to entertain different thoughts in parallel when he considered either buying DigitalGlobe or selling to them. Similar to Intelligence Quotient (IQ) and Emotional Quotient (EQ), Matt says you need a high ‘Ambiguity Quotient’ when you’re running an early stage company.  

5) “There’s no such thing as a wrong note in jazz, it is what you play next that counts” – Although there are stupid questions, and stupid answers, you might find that they’re not as stupid as you think; it is what you do next that matters. In one meeting, Matt declared “I know how you could make more money, you’re only using the satellites half way around the world!”. There was an eerie silence until eventually someone said “Matt, half the world is day, the other half is night - we can’t take pictures in the dark!”. Before long, GeoEye was selling photos taken at night - they realised if you took pictures of seemingly vacant places, but they were lit up at night, they weren’t vacant. This ‘stupid’ question led to a brand-new revenue stream. 

If you are interested in learning more about Seraphim Space Camp as a founder, investor or corporate partner then please email us at space-camp@seraphimcapital.com 


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