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Movie poster from The Martian. Photo: Wikipedia
Movie poster from The Martian. Photo: Wikipedia

It’s rare that a story about survival set on another planet can provide guidance on how to build an enduring company on this one.

But as it turns out, that’s just what The Martian does.

It’s a book and a movie that take you literally into another world — with a gripping plot and breathtaking panoramas. Watching this film did what only the best can do — transport you into another reality and make you forget yours for a couple of hours.

But, ultimately, as I reflected on the movie afterwards, I realized that it was one of the final scenes that affected me the most.

In the closing frames of the film, Matt Damon’s character, Mark Watney, is addressing a room of hopeful, would-be astronauts and he answers one of the questions that many wonder:

“Did I wonder if I would die?”

And his answer is yes, he did. And that it was always there. That it was a part of accepting to be an astronaut.

But, he said, the point is that it’s about solving the problem in front of you and then solving the next one. And, if you’re able to solve all of them: you get to come home.

And it struck me, how that was the most apt analogy for startups. It’s ultimately not about risk or about glory or about changing the world in the grand sense.

It’s about facing death every single day and just solving the most immediate problem in front you and then the next and the next — until someday you get to go home.

As I thought about it more, I realized many startup lessons were hidden within the folds of this tale.

Here are my top five:

1) Resources = Runway

Matt Damon in The Martian. Photos via 20th Century Fox
Matt Damon in The Martian. Photos via 20th Century Fox

Survival is about rationing resources, not about some artificial notion of time period. When Mark Watney is calculating how long he has, he’s not saying: ‘Oh, 31 days, that’s it, I’m done.’

He looks at all of his resources (namely food) and calculates based on that. When he grows more, his lease on life grows. When it disappears, so does his “runway.” The time you have to do what you’re doing is directly related to the resources available to you.

It’s why most startup burn rates are done by weeks or months. Annual budgets are completely irrelevant. If you last a year, all of those calculations will have been revised at least a dozen times. And saying “this is our 5 year plan” is completely meaningless if you don’t have five years worth of runway in the bank.

2) Live to fight the next fight

Each day is about rallying to solve the problem at hand so you can live to solve the next one. Literally clawing your way to survival, one precious, hard-earned inch at a time. The rest is all irrelevant distraction.

Towards the end of the film, when all of the efforts have still resulted in a calculation gap, the crew decides to solve a distance problem, only to create a speed one.

But the captain says to go ahead because that gives them 39 minutes to solve the new problem. And that’s exactly it — it is completely irrelevant what next week’s problem is.

If today’s problem kills us, there is no future problem to solve. So, do whatever it takes to solve this problem so that you have the luxury of solving the next.

3) Survival is a choice

Screen Shot 2015-11-01 at 7.52.20 AMUltimately whether you live or die is a matter of faith and sheer will. Mark Watney character refused to give in. He wasn’t delusional about the odds and he prepared for the worst. But he chose to live. He chose to fight. And he chose to approach every set back and an opportunity to regroup and figure out a new path.

He chose to live.

Successful entrepreneurs often say that those that win were often just the most persistent. Not smarter or lucky or richer. Just simply more persistent.

4) Your team is your safety net

When you’re lost and flailing about in the abyss and you’re certain you’re going to die, the only people that can save you are your team. Not investors, not advisors, not your family. Just your team.

And when you feel like all is lost, when you don’t think you can go on or you wonder why you should, it’s your team that will remind you why you’re doing this anyway.

They’re the ones that will breathe live back into this very hard journey you decided to devote your life to.

5) The loneliness in the pursuit of greatness

In one of the monologues, Mark Watney talks about how it’s incredible stuff — knowing he’s the first to do many things, that he’s the only person on a whole planet. But underpinning this commentary you can’t miss the loneliness.

watney-greenhouseHow, even with his crew and the whole world behind him, how very alone he is in this endeavor.

He knows that he’s doing what few can. That he’s changing the world. That he loves what he does and that he’s really good at it.

But he also knows that that kind of world will always be isolating. It will always be lonely. That’s the trade-off. The haunting loneliness for the chance of greatness.

There were so many facets to this tale and it was engaging on so many levels that the science geek in me watched, wide-eyed with wonder and a touch of envy. But I was surprised how in the end, it was the entrepreneur that walked away the most impacted.

Because it showed me, to do something great, there are so many things you must endure. Ultimately, though, it just comes down to this simple thing: solve this problem and then the next.

Until one day, you find yourself home.

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