Startup Lessons from ‘The Martian’

Mark Watney (Matt Damon) space farming (Fox)

Watching The Martian, my mind was partially tethered to work as usual; serious detachment issues. The entire time, I couldn’t help but draw parallels to startups, except in startups, you’re voluntarily marooning yourself (you fool) — granted there may be some to extensive disillusionment.

Without further ado, here are some key points.


Startups require a metric shit ton (crediting Chris Sacca, although it’s been around) of resilience. It’s one hell of a roller coaster — and even then, sugar coated in my opinion — as adeptly illustrated by Paul Graham.

There were no shortage of mishaps including when Watney was shafted, the HAB exploded, the MAV was just short of interception, comms were down, and so on.

I often joke that our teams should have to survive a shipwrecking — a la All Is Lost — for initiation.

Accept your situation as quickly as possible and gain clarity on the extent of the problem, and move forward.

Great co-founders and other entrepreneurs can be incredibly supportive as they understand your pain and struggles, but that doesn’t mean you should dismiss those nearest and dearest. Here are some tips about dealing with the trough of sorrow.

Creativity + Problem Solving/RTFM

Work and figure shit out like your survival depends on it or you won’t get very far. Presumably, if you’re doing a startup, you already had to figure a lot out. Teams, co-founders, product road maps, pivots, user acquisition, hypothesis testing (validation), retention, product market fit, incorporation, cap tables, hiring, firing, options pools, compliance, advisory shares, etc.

If life is about the journey, startups are largely about learning. There is a metric shit ton to learn. Quickly gain clarity on what you do and don’t know, and regarding what you don’t know, learn it as quickly as possible (read the damn manual) or find someone who is knowledgeable.

“ Did I think I was going to die?
Yes, absolutely.
And that’s when you need to know going in,
because it’s going to happen to you.
This is [startups].
It does not cooperate.
At some point, everything’s
going to go south on you.
Everything’s going to go south
and you’re going to say “This is it.”
That is how I end.
Now you can either accept that,
or you can get to work.
That’s all it is.
You just begin.
You do the math.
You solve one problem
and you solve the next one,
and then the next.
And If you solve enough problems,
you get to come home.”
- Mark Watney


I’ve been advising a lot more first-time startups lately and it’s somewhat entertaining watching discussions about features and iterations in the somewhat distant future.

A sol, or solar day, is a martian day, approximately 1.03 Earth days. Let’s dub a startup day a shiteration and make it the equivalent of 10 Earth days.

That means something in the distant future is light years away. There is a ‘now’ bucket and a ‘later’ bucket. Unless for some strange reason your ‘now’ bucket isn’t brimming with more tasks than capacity, the ‘later’ bucket is a luxury.

If you’re uncertain about whether you’ll survive another day on Mars, why the hell would you think about all the things you’ll do when you get back to Earth?

You can be certain about one thing. You can bet your sorry derriere that NASA or anyone else will NOT be sending a $200B mission to save it. Bring yourself home.

Think survival. Remember, all the odds are against you. And yes, Mark Watney is one hell of a fictional entrepreneur.