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CNBC Make It Your Own
The Moment Series, in which highly successful people reveal that critical moment, which changed their career and life trajectory, by discussing what motivated them to take the leap into unknown.
Peter Beck made a "rocket-pilgrimage" to the U.S. in early 2006.
New Zealander had always wanted to send a rocket into the space. He skipped college to do it. He took an apprenticeship with a tool manufacturer, so he could work with his hands. In his spare time, he tinkered with model rockets, propellants, and other things.
By the time he made his pilgrimage, he had built a
Steam-powered Rocket Bicycle
That traveled at nearly 90 mph. He hoped that his experiments would be enough to convince NASA and companies such as Boeing to hire him to work as an intern. He was instead escorted out of the rocket labs.
Beck, 45, told CNBC Make It that "on the surface, it doesn't seem good" to have a foreigner show up at an Air Force base and ask a bunch of questions regarding rockets.
He learned, however, that very few companies actually built what he was looking to build: lightweight suborbital missiles for transporting small satellites. He sketched out his startup on the plane back to New Zealand.
It would be difficult to convince investors to invest in someone who didn't have a degree and couldn't get an internship. He would be further from his dream if he failed.
Rocket Lab was launched by Beck later in the same year. In 2009, the company became the first private space-faring company in the Southern Hemisphere. It's now a public company based in Long Beach, California with a market capitalization of
It has successfully completed over 35 space launches including a
moon-bound NASA satellite
Beck explains how he transformed his disappointment into an opportunity. He also discusses the biggest challenges that he faced and if he regrets creating Rocket Lab.
CNBC Make it: After you failed to land an aerospace position in the U.S. you started thinking about starting your own business. Why?
Beck: I am always frustrated by how long things take. Everyone around me is in a hurry. I don't go up the stairs, I run. We've always been sprinting as we've grown.
I wish that things could move faster. I'm always battling time.
What do you mean by
When is it worthwhile to take the risk of jumping through a window?
Don't be afraid to follow your instincts.
My job is to take a huge risk, and then mitigate that risk in the most extreme way possible. You have to be able to spot windows of opportunity, and then seize them.
In this business, it is important to be able to look around but not get too involved. You'll lose your head if you don't. I begin by being very logical: "OK, now that we're here. How did we get here? How do we get out?
You can sometimes take big risks. You need to be methodical and safe when you are reversing a situation. You should control what you can and accept the things that you cannot.
It's a bit like the scene from "Indiana Jones" where he is being chased by a giant ball. It's important to execute flawlessly, as the consequences of a mistake can be devastating for your company.
What would you have liked to know before you started your own rocket company
In the end, I wouldn't probably change anything. The company's DNA is shaped by the mistakes and failures that were made along the way.
The easiest part is getting your first rocket into orbit. Rocket No. All your engineers and technicians are devoted to one rocket. One rocket is now produced every 18 days. This is just a lot more difficult.
It's sometimes good to have an unlucky day. Not on a flight but in testing. You're reminded how difficult this business is just when things seem to be going well. You'll quickly be humbled every time you take a big breath.
What was the biggest obstacle you faced when starting out?
In this business, funding is essential. When I started Rocket Lab, when I was trying to raise $5,000,000 for the business, I ran all over Silicon Valley.
The amount was absurd at the time for a rocket start-up. The idea of a rocket startup [in general] was absurd, but SpaceX was the only one at that time. Even more absurd was a rocket startup by someone from New Zealand.
We tried to raise our children.
Small amounts of funding
This really taught us to be ruthlessly effective and laser-focused in our execution. It was the hardest thing we did that helped shape the company to its most successful form.
When do you feel most under pressure?
The staff Christmas party is the most terrifying thing I have ever done. You realize then that you are responsible for the livelihoods of these people. This is something I take even more seriously as a public company. This is a lot of pressure.
You also have a client. It could be a customer in national security, where the lives of people depend on your ability to deliver that asset into orbit. You can kill hundreds of employees at a startup by simply dumping the payload in the ocean.
Launch days are my least favorite. After 35 launches I no longer vomit in the toilet. Although I don't like it much, there is so much work involved in each launch. There's so much responsibility.
This interview was edited for clarity.
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