Monthly Archives: July 2017

Interested, dedicated, fascinated by the job

Today marks the 48th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing and the first steps by humanity on another world.  In honor of the man who took those first steps, we’d like to reprint the 8/28/12 piece we wrote on the occasion of his passing. 

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Astronaut Neil Armstrong passed away Saturday, and The Wall Street Journal reported something the pioneer once said about the success of the 1969 Apollo 11 mission – the odds of which he had placed at 50/50.

Mr. Armstrong described the required reliability of each component used in an Apollo mission – statistically speaking 0.99996, a mere 4 failures per 100,000 operations – and pointed out that such reliability would still yield roughly 1000 separate identifiable failures per flight.   In reality, though, they experienced only 150 per flight.  What explained the dramatic difference?

I can only attribute that to the fact that every guy in the project, every guy at the bench building something, every assembler, every inspector, every guy that’s setting up the tests, cranking the torque wrench, and so on, is saying, man or woman, “If anything goes wrong here, it’s not going to be my fault, because my part is going to be better than I have to make it.” And when you have hundreds of thousands of people all doing their job a little better than they have to, you get an improvement in performance. And that’s the only reason we could have pulled this whole thing off. . . .

When I was working here at the Johnson Space Center, then the Manned Spacecraft Center, you could stand across the street and you could not tell when quitting time was, because people didn’t leave at quitting time in those days. People just worked, and they worked until whatever their job was done, and if they had to be there until five o’clock or seven o’clock or nine-thirty or whatever it was, they were just there. They did it, and then they went home. So four o’clock or four-thirty, whenever the bell rings, you didn’t see anybody leaving. Everybody was still working.

The way that happens and the way that made it different from other sectors of the government to which some people are sometimes properly critical is that this was a project in which everybody involved was, one, interested, two, dedicated, and, three, fascinated by the job they were doing. And whenever you have those ingredients, whether it be government or private industry or a retail store, you’re going to win.

Related image

Exhausted unshaven and lovin’ it

Interested, dedicated, fascinated by the job – Armstrong’s explanation could serve as an excellent description of the esprit de corps we find in good private growth companies.  Not too long ago we quoted Ben Dyer, president of Techdrawl, about how entrepreneurs need to inspire all the members of their team to share the founder’s drive in the early stages of a company:

All those textbook methods of performance reviews, pay incentives, etc. will come in handy when you get to the 50th or 100th employee, but right now you’ve got to be the one out front – with inexhaustible energy, enthusiasm, creativity, and a clearly articulated vision.

In a bit of serendipity we stumbled on this related post, from Richard Martin, which makes an interesting distinction between esprit de corps and teamwork:

Cohesion and esprit de corps are even more intangible. Where teamwork is built on the willingness of individual team members to subsume their own interests in favor of group interests, esprit de corps is built upon the willingness to sacrifice oneself, if needed, for the interests of the group. This is a level of commitment that few organizations in business achieve.

Mr. Armstrong described himself (with characteristic humility) as:  “I am, and ever will be, a white-socks, pocket-protector, nerdy engineer.”  Perhaps that, and a bit more, Sir.  Godspeed.

89 years worth of “the greatest thing since sliced bread”

On this day in 1928, the Chillicothe Baking Company of Chillicothe, MO, sold mechanically sliced bread for the first time in the history of the universe.  This gives us a great opportunity, on a Friday, to re-post a Greatest Hit from our Vintage Future Series – originally published on November 13, 2014:

Our Vintage Future series takes a tongue-in-cheek look back at the failed predictions of past generations of investors and futurists, and the sometimes tortuous routes to success of unlikely ideas.

In our line of work it’s good to guard against the hubris inherent in projecting conventional wisdom too far out into the future, and to remind ourselves that today’s trend can be tomorrow’s punchline – and vice versa.

Our VIIth installment takes a look at “the greatest thing” ever invented and a simple innovation that dramatically altered how we see the world.

Grok this:  Betty White is older than sliced bread!

Grok this:  Betty White is older than sliced bread!

Even sliced bread took 18 years to succeed.  Otto Frederick Rohwedder, a jeweler from Missouri, built his prototype “Machine for slicing an entire loaf of bread at a single location” in 1912 but saw it destroyed in a fire.  15 years later he filed his patent, but the end product languished due to its untidy appearance and concerns about freshness.  One year later a St. Louis baker named Gustav Papendick put it in cardboard trays and wrapped it in wax paper, yet even then it didn’t take off until it helped a little company called Wonder Bread go national in 1930.

Except for a brief ban during WWII (the steel used to build the slicers had more pressing uses), sliced bread grew quickly and became a platform on which others could dream and build – in this case new types of spreads and jams.

Sometimes a simple idea – like digging ditches – can change the world.  Before most cables ran underground, all electrical, telephone and telegraph wires were suspended from high poles, creating strange and crowded streetscapes.

A tower with 5000 phone lines in Stockholm, cused 1887-1913

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