X man: Advice for entrepreneurs from the “Captain of Moonshots” Google X’s Astro Teller

Moonshots are about solving real-world issues on Earth, not trying to get to Mars, Google X lead Astro Teller says.


Moonshots have come into the spotlight recently with the advent of the slightly secretive Google X, an organisation that in Teller’s words is a group that takes a “huge problem” and finds some kind of “radical solution by using a science-fiction sounding service”.


Although many Google X projects are kept under wraps, the organisation is currently working on driverless cars, stratospheric balloons and connected contact lenses.


During a visit to Fishburners in Sydney recently, the “Captain of Moonshots” gave a wide-ranging talk (video below) covering everything from Google Glass’s supposed failure, how startups should deal with regulators, and stopping self-driving cars from hitting the elderly. You can watch the full video below, but here are some highlights from the speech


You have to embrace failure

When you’re trying to solve an immense problem, like those Google X is trying to tackle, there’s always going to be a lot of failure.


Teller spoke about recently shutting down a 25-person project, and instead of reprimanding the group for “failing”, he gave them all a bonus.


He says this readiness to fail and learn from experience can be applied to all startups and entrepreneurs, not just moonshots.


“Whatever you’re working on, it’s probably wrong. If you want to lose, just keep your head down, stay in a conference room that has a whiteboard, order a lot of pizza and believe that you can simulate the real world well enough that if you just naval gaze for long enough, your design will eventually reach perfect,” Teller says.


“If you want to win, make it bad. Make it quickly and get out into the world. It won’t work, but you will learn something interesting when it doesn’t work.


“That’s the secret: go have experiences. You can’t simulate the world in your brain.”


Strive for 10 times better, not an extra 10%

According to Teller, the biggest part of being a successful entrepreneur is being audacious.


“Work on things that are 10 times better than existing solutions, rather than things that are 10% better,” he says.


“To do that, you’re going to have to take some part of the playbook and tear it up. Instead of having to be smarter, work harder or have more money than everyone that’s tried this before, you’re going to have to bring bravery, creativity and perspective shifting to solve the problem.


“Most really gorgeous new ideas come from perspective shifting, not from people just staying up later.”


You don’t have to do it alone

Despite the secretive Google X being appearing as a “do it alone” place, Teller says it’s crucial to know when to partner up with another organisation in order to achieve success.


He says that if there are 100 assumptions about what a startup is trying to do, the entrepreneurs may look to “tear up” three of these, then partner with people that know how to do the other 97.


“When you can go faster by doing it yourself, when you’re working on those three things of the hundred that are weird, those are the things you should do by yourself,” Teller says.


“When you go to the other 97, go find partners, go find people who are already the best in the world at those things and work with them.


“We have made our own cars in the self-driving part of Google X, but we didn’t go make our own brake systems, we didn’t reinvent batteries for cars. That would’ve been crazy. On top of making cars be able to understand how to drive we didn’t also have to go figure out how to drive cars in the first place.


“The weird bits, the parts you want to be the best in the world at, go hide in the corner and solve those problems yourself.


“Don’t reinvent every single wheel – you’ll drown trying to do that.”


You have to learn how to properly accept feedback

Taking in constructive feedback, both internally and externally, is crucial to gaining experience and developing a product, according to Teller.


“You have to be hungry for honest feedback, and we don’t get honest feedback in our lives unless we make it easy for people to give honest feedback,” he says.


“The way we ask matters – if we’re really listening to what they’re saying, we’ll hear something different than if we don’t really want to hear what they have to say.


“If you do anything other than shower them with praise and positive reinforcement when they tell you the hard things, then that’s the last time they will ever tell you the truth.”


Look for the weaknesses as early as possible

Teller says there is a difference between motion and progress.


“If you’re not breaking stuff you’re not really discovering the thing that’s most important to discover,” he says.


“If someone was to tell you to get to the moon and you build a ladder and climb up it, you’d be closer to the moon but you’re not really closer to the moon. You’re not going to make it to the moon by making the ladder.


“That’s what a lot of people do when they develop products though. They work on the easy stuff first, because they’re looking for investors and want to show progress.


“But that’s motion. Motion and progress are not the same thing.


“Real progress is finding the list of things that might be Achilles’ heels for your thing, and starting to take them off the list. If you find one you can’t take off the list – good, you found it out now. The alternative was that you were going to discover it three years down the road.


“You want to discover it right now – time is the thing you can’t get back. You can get more people to work with you, you can get more investors, but you can never get that time back.”


Don’t take yourself too seriously

Despite the important and real-world implications of some of the things Google X is working, Teller says you can’t take it all seriously.


“We take our work seriously but we don’t take ourselves seriously,” he says.


“There’s something about humour that I believe unlocks creativity. If you make your people believe that staying up until three in the morning every night is their job, that they need to salute and say they’re soaring and that every bit of work for them feels militaristic, you won’t get the best parts of them to come to work.


“I would encourage you to think about humour and creativity, and how they’re linked.


“If you can teach them to be responsibly irresponsible, to ask forgiveness rather than permission, magical things happen.”



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Denham Sadler is the editor of StartupSmart. He was previously a journalist at the publication and has worked as a freelancer for the Guardian, the Saturday Paper and the ABC. In his spare time he likes puns and jaffles.