BTU #45 – John Fenwick: Launching a Satellite Startup and Selling to Google for $500M

“I do feel like we had 6 or 7 ‘bet the company decisions’ all strung together. It felt like I was in Vegas, going to the roulette wheel and just betting on red – over and over again – and depending on each one of those to be right. Startups are a lot about timing. If we had tried to start [Skybox Imaging] two years earlier, the technologies wouldn’t have existed for us to be able to build and point a spacecraft to take a pretty enough picture. If we had come along two or three years later, someone else would have already done this. It’s just to be in that sweet spot, to thread the needle, I just realize that we just happened to be the right people, telling the right story at the right time.”
 – John Fenwick

John Fenwick is Head of Spacecraft Operations at Google. He started out at the Air Force Academy, after which he served for 8 years in the Air Force as a Physicist & Space Acquisitions Officer. He holds a Masters in Electrical Engineering & Computer Science from MIT and an MBA from Stanford Business School. After business school, John co-founded Skybox Imaging and served as their Vice President of Flight Programs. Skybox provides commercial, high-resolution satellite imagery and high-definition video and analytics services. Skybox raised over $91M in funding prior to being acquired by Google for $500M, as reported by the WSJ. Skybox is now known as Terra Bella within Google.

In this conversation, we cover a lot of topics, including:

  • Starting a company and thinking it was only a class project
  • How to find co-founders who will complement and challenge your own approach to work
  • Advice on raising venture capital from top investors
  • Advice on going through an acquisition process
  • The ways in which a military background is both advantageous and challenging for entrepreneurship
  • And much, much more…

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QUESTION OF THE DAY: How can I make these episodes more valuable to active duty military personnel considering transitioning to the civilian world? Please let me know in the comments.

Scroll below for links and show notes…

Links

Show Notes

  • 2:23 – John’s background
  • 4:10 – Johns journey in the Air Force and his decision to leave
  • 7:35 – How to consider an MBA if you’re a veteran pursuing entrepreneurship
  • 8:53 – John’s advice to those considering applying to business school
  • 10:03 – How John went about finding his co-founders
  • 11:32 – An overview of Skybox Imaging
  • 13:45 – Advice to veterans in seeking a co-founder for your startup
  • 17:52 – Out of a classroom, how John started his first company, Skybox Imaging
  • 19:17 – Advice for those seeking to raise venture capital
  • 21:12 – What the fundraising process was like… and what it felt like to raise his first $3M
  • 22:57 – Day-to-day life in an early stage startup
  • 24:03 – How a military background can help in starting a company, and how it might hold you back
  • 28:29 – After raising funding, the next milestone in John’s startup journey
  • 31:03 – Launching their first satellite
  • 35:40 – The acquisition process with Google
  • 38:43 – Advice on managing an acquisition process and how to be successful
  • 40:58 – Habits to break as you depart from the military
  • 42:23 – Indications that a veteran may be well suited for entrepreneurship, and indications that it may not be right for you
  • 44:37 – John’s final words of wisdom