This story is part of CNBC Make It’s The Moment series, where highly successful people reveal the critical moment that changed the trajectory of their lives and careers, discussing what drove them to make the leap into the unknown.
In early 2006, Peter Beck took a “rocket pilgrimage” to the U.S.
The native New Zealander always dreamed of sending a rocket into space. He even skipped college because of it, taking an apprenticeship at a tools manufacturer so he could learn to work with his hands, tinkering with model rockets and propellants in his free time.
By the time of his pilgrimage, he’d built a steam-powered rocket bicycle that traveled nearly 90 mph. He hoped his experiments were enough to convince NASA or companies like Boeing to hire him as an intern. Instead, he was escorted off the premises of multiple rocket labs.
“On the face of it, here’s a foreign national turning up to an Air Force base asking a whole bunch of questions about rockets — that doesn’t look good,” Beck, now 45, tells CNBC Make It.
Still, he learned that few companies were actually building what he wanted to build: lightweight, suborbital rockets to transport small satellites. On the flight back to New Zealand, he plotted his future startup, even drawing a logo on a napkin.
Convincing investors to back someone without a college degree in an industry where he couldn’t even land an internship wouldn’t be easy. Failure would push him even further away from his lifelong dream.
Beck launched the company, Rocket Lab, later that same year. In 2009, it became the Southern Hemisphere’s first private company to reach space. Today, it’s a Long Beach, California-based public company with a market cap of $1.8 billion. It has completed more than 35 space launches, including a moon-bound NASA satellite last year.
Here, Beck discusses how he turned his disappointment into opportunity, the biggest challenges he faced, and whether he ever regrets his decision to create Rocket Lab.
CNBC Make It: When you didn’t land an aerospace job in the U.S., you immediately started thinking about launching your own company. Why?
Beck: One of the things I’m always frustrated with is how long everything takes. Ask anybody who works around me: There’s a great urgency in everything. I don’t walk upstairs, I run upstairs. As we’ve grown as a company, it’s always a sprint.
I wish things would get faster. I’m always battling time.
How do you recognize a window of opportunity opening, and when is it worth the risk to jump through it?
Back your intuition and go for it.
I would classify my job as taking an enormous risk and then mitigating that risk to the nth degree. Given that, you have to see windows of opportunity and run into them.
The challenge is that, especially within this industry, you have to poke your head into the corner but not commit too deeply. Otherwise, you’ll get your head cut off. I start by being very analytical: “OK, we’re here. What happened for us to get here? And how do we get out of here?”
Sometimes, you can take big risks. Sometimes, you need to be very safe and methodical about how to back out of situations. Control the things you can control and acknowledge the things you can’t control.
Running a rocket company is kind of like that scene in “Indiana Jones,” where he’s getting chased by that giant ball. You have to flawlessly execute, because the moment that you don’t, the consequences can be terminal for the company pretty quickly.
What do you wish you’d known when you decided to start your own rocket company?
At the end of the day, I probably wouldn’t change anything. There were plenty of errors and failures along the way, but ultimately, those things create the DNA of a company.
Getting your first rocket to orbit is the easiest part. On rocket No. 1, you’ve got all your engineers and technicians poring over one rocket for a large period of time. Now, there’s one rocket that rolls out of that production line every 18 days. That’s just immensely more difficult.
Sometimes, it’s really good to have a bit of a bad day. Not during a flight, obviously, but during testing. Just when you think things are going good, you’re reminded of how hard this business really is. Every time that you take too much of a breath, you’ll be humbled very quickly.
What’s the biggest challenge you faced getting started?
Nothing happens without funding in this business. When I first started Rocket Lab, I ran around Silicon Valley trying to raise $5 million.
At that time, that was an absurd amount of money for a rocket startup. A rocket startup was absurd [in general], it was only SpaceX then. A rocket startup from someone living in New Zealand was even more absurd.
We grew up and tried to raise really small amounts of funding. That really shaped us about being ruthlessly efficient and absolutely laser-focused on execution. The hardest thing [we did] is actually the thing that shaped the company into the most successful form it could be.
When do you feel the most pressure?
The most terrifying thing I’ve ever done is the staff Christmas party. That’s the moment you realize that your decisions are responsible for these people’s livelihoods. As a public company, I take that even more seriously. It’s a tremendous amount of pressure.
On top of that, you have a customer. That can be a national security customer, where lives are depending on you delivering that asset to orbit. It can be a startup, and there can be hundreds of people at a company that you can destroy just by putting the payload into the ocean.
So I absolutely hate launch days. Now that we’ve done 35 launches, I’m not puking in the toilet like I used to. But man, I still really don’t enjoy it, because there’s just so much invested in each launch. So much responsibility.